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Your personal/professional identity in a small town

I can’t remember the last time I went out shopping or to eat or to the park without recognizing someone from my beat or having someone recognize me. When you get large crowds together, it’s even more likely to occur.

How do TV reporters and celebrities do it? I never want to go out in anything that doesn’t look nice or sans make-up or with my hair looking a little rough. It’s not that I’m vain, it’s that, even when I’m not working, I’m perceived by those people I run into as a reporter at the newspaper. You can’t really separate your personal and professional identity in a small town.

A long-time resident once summed up Lafayette to me as, “The largest small town you’ll ever live in.” He was right, which is why I can’t run to the gas station without running into someone I know — and I’ve only been here a year and a half; imagine how those reporters and editors who’ve lived here 20+ years must feel. I also don’t know how people in truly small towns handle it. In Tippecanoe County, where Lafayette is the largest city and county seat, there are about 150,000 people. That’s a pretty good number and still I run into people who know me everywhere I go.

I worked on Saturday a few weeks ago, and one of my assignments was to cover the Taste of Tippecanoe event downtown. My editor wanted me to work with the photographer so our stories matched up, which is fine. I’m pretty sure the photo intern who was on that evening was annoyed that every 10 minutes — quite literally from us walking in the gate and even on our walk back to the office — someone stopped to say hello to me.

Earlier that same day, I was sent to cover the Soap Box Derby here. As I was standing on the sideline waiting out a rain delay, one of the parents came up to me to chat. He was a school board member in one of our neighboring county, which I also cover. (Incidentally, I ran into one of the parents I interviewed at the derby later that day at the Taste, where she of course recognized me and said hello!)

One of my assignments as the reporter yesterday on July 4 was to go cover the big celebration in our county. There’s a concert and then the open intramural fields where families scope out spots hours in advance. Well, during the half-hour I was walking through the crowd there, I was recognized as the J&C education reporter by two different people. One of them, I recognized as a teacher I’d interviewed. The other one was someone I’ve never met; he not only recognized me, but he also complimented me on a story I wrote a few weeks back. So that was nice.

Earlier that afternoon, I’d been sent to a town about 40 minutes away in another county to cover a community softball tournament. When I got there, they weren’t playing so I went up to the guy dressed as an umpire. With his sunglasses and uniform on, and the fact that I was 40 minutes from “home,” I didn’t immediately place him. But as soon as I said, “Excuse me,” he said, “You look like Meranda.” And then I said, yes, and recognized who he was. He’s an administrator in one of my school districts in this county.

On Monday, my mom was in town and we went to breakfast at a little restaurant downtown that I’d only been to once before. As we’re sitting there, in walks the principal of one of my elementary schools.

Last week, I was at Borders, where I ran into a middle school teacher I’ve interviewed a few times and a couple recent high school graduates I’ve also talked to on occasion.

The week before, some friends met up at BW3s after work on Friday to celebrate some birthdays. As I was walking from my car, someone shouted my name. It was a school board member dropping off his kid at a shop nearby.

I guess it goes back to the adage about being a reporter that just living in a community is an inherent conflict of interest. I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all — and in fact, I actually believe a good local reporter should live in her community so she has a vested interest in holding its leaders accountable — but it’s the reality.

Part of me finds it pretty annoying when I am having a bad hair day, or just a bad day, and I don’t feel like smiling and being cordial or talking about work. I know the teachers and administrators probably feel the same way, so that gives me some solace.

But to be honest, part of me loves that so many people know me and recognize me for my work. And plus, who doesn’t like to be remembered? And I’m always proud when it’s a complete stranger, because it means I’ve never made the effort to connect with this person but my work has. That’s pretty awesome.

I don’t mind being seen as the “face” of the newspaper to the community, which is part of the job as reporter. And really for all those hyperlocal buzzwords people throw around, that’s what it boils down to. Connecting with your community means being recognized as a member of that community, not just when you need information but all the time. Those chance encounters often give me tips and ideas, and even when they don’t, they give me credibility and memorability for the next time I do need information.

4 Responses to “Your personal/professional identity in a small town”

  1. Kate Martin Says:

    I used to live in the town where I reported. Sometimes it’s incredibly awkward. Like this one time I was going to the store to get cleaning supplies. I had paint in my hair and dirt under my nails. Who did I see? Oh only the local millionaire who was trying to build an amphitheater in the valley. I saw her first and ducked my head, but she saw me anyway, in my sweatpansed and sweaty glory.

    I was the political reporter at my former paper. My husband and I went in to vote at the church near our house and who should I see but one of my sources. It was really strange, because as a political reporter you do your best to be as objective as possible. The last thing I wanted was for someone to call me a liberal journalist or a conservative hack. As I approached her, she smiled and I introduced her to my husband. She then said probably the biggest compliment to him: “Kate is a really fair reporter. We don’t know what she thinks about the issues, and that’s how it should be.”

    Fortunately now, I work about an hour away from where I live. But distance has not prevented me from seeing people I know. I saw a senior I interviewed at the farmer’s market on Thursday. Then when my husband and I were celebrating our 10th anniversary one of my vice principals saw me (I can say that right? “My” vice principal?) but I didn’t see him. Later he mentioned it and said I looked really nice.

  2. Meranda Says:

    @Kate — I say “my superintendents” or “my schools” to indicate those I cover. I don’t really know why I need to qualify it, since um, pretty much everything you can reach within an hour or two’s drive is part of “my” coverage area. But not being from here originally and having lived on both sides of the river since I moved here, I have no allegiances, real or perceived. I just cover the news.

    When I went to the retirement reception for one of my superintendents, he introduced me to his wife. She thanked me for being nice to him, and he corrected the “nice” by saying that I “was always fair in my reporting.” I’ll take that over nice any day.

  3. Echo Says:

    I completely understand where you are coming from! Everyone’s a celebrity in a small town, and that status is elevated for certain people.

    My county has 51,000+ residents; it’s hard to go ANYWHERE without seeing several someones I know and, like you, I have been with my paper for a little more than a year. I am one of two reporters at ours, but still. It’s nice on one hand, but on the other hand it’s not.

    We have a daily based in a neighboring county that also covers my county; the reporter who covers us for them recently moved to the county, but she is so elusive. For our area, it’s nice to have a reporter who lives here covering the area as this is a tight-knit community that doesn’t trust outsiders too well at first. lol.

    It’s both a blessing and a curse, but I enjoy it. On a Saturday night, I might see “my cops” or the DA at a local community concert, and I am acting like a child doing the chicken dance with my kids. But Monday-Friday, it’s business.

  4. melissa Says:

    When I lived in Binghamton, I didn’t realize how often I would see my kids, teachers, and parents outside of school, because it is like a long stretch of 88 away from my school, but I forgot that the main “business” area for that town was binghmaton, like closest grocery store, the closest hallmart, the closest drug store, so it happened often. Of course when I get home from work I want to pass out and put on something that is almost PJS and be a zombie, which is not a good way to present ones self, so I got in the habit of going straight out to whereever I needed to be after school, so I was still in that mode. Of course everytime I went to the grocery store to buy something silly I’d see people I knew, like the day I was buying all sugary cereals, I saw a fellow teacher saying she was buying the same for her 4 year old, and I had to say “yeah…this is for me…” haha or like the two times I actually bought wine coolers from the store I had kids find me.

    At my new school I will not only be actually living in the district, I am in the main town, on main street, so I better learn kids names really really fast, I will be seeing them often, and I have two schools worth of people to get to know.