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The Highs And Lows Of Covering News In Small Towns

Sally Mauk and Gwen Florio, hosts of Parsing The Press

Many of Montana's small towns have local newspapers that have often been operating for decades. This "community journalism" plays a vital role and presents unique challenges for the journalists who staff these small papers. Philipsburg Mail editor Emily Petrovski joins Gwen and Sally for this episode of Parsing the Press.

Sally Mauk Montana has many more small weekly newspapers than large dailies, and our guest today is the editor of one of those weeklies, Emily Petrovski of the Philipsburg Mail. And Emily is here to talk about community journalism.

And I guess let's start, Emily and Gwen, talking about what we mean by that phrase, "community journalism."

Emily Petrovski I think journalists in general are embedded in their communities, but community journalism to me is the the smaller papers, the smaller towns, even Missoula is community journalism because you tend to know everyone that you're covering.

Mauk Still, I think it would be different in Philipsburg than in Missoula. I think in a small town like Philipsburg, you probably know pretty much everyone, right?

Emily Petrovski It's a county of about 3,000 people, so I know most of those people or at least I know their families. It's nice that I know everyone, but that can cause some problems with boundaries when I also happen to be friends with people that I have to cover.

Gwen Florio Emily, how do you explain those boundaries to people? I know even in Missoula that can be an issue and I can imagine it's a much more pertinent one in a place like Philipsburg.

Petrovski I think just being very clear about, you know, "I've put on my journalist hat now," and so I try not to do too much talking about work when I'm out and about or if I'm at the brewery or the bar. I try to be very clear with people that I have a job and I take it seriously, and I think most people respect that and they respect those boundaries.

They don't understand, always, the role of journalists and of reporters. It's kind of an opportunity for me to educate them about what that means to me, at least.

Florio I'd like you to talk about the flip side of that, the effect of covering people you know so well — and I'm asking because you wrote a very poignant column recently about back-to-back tragedies in your town where you knew the people that you were writing about.

Petrovski There has definitely been times before where I've had to cover tragedies. It takes a personal impact on me, and back-to-back really tragic accidents happened, and then I lost a friend on the same day due to COVID, and empathetically, I want to be able to remove myself from those feelings so that I can cover those things in an unbiased manner.

But I find it hard to not think about, this child's friends are going to see this newspaper, or this young man's mother is going to pick up the newspaper and see the story about her son. And I have a hard time sometimes separating those two, because I want to paint my community in as much of a flattering light as I can. But I feel like I still need to cover things like a big city journalist would.

Mauk I think for sure there's a personal connection to sources and newsmakers in Montana, because we're a small state and we often know the people that we're covering.

And doing obituaries, like Emily was just speaking about, I found to be the hardest part of being a journalist because we would know the people that we were writing the obituary about and interviewing the survivors and people who loved them and so on. It's an honor and it's also takes a personal toll.

Florio I think that's something a lot of people don't realize about journalists. I think there is a view of us as sort of hard charging, you know, always putting our feelings aside. And you're right, especially in a place like Montana, that's tough to do.

But I also think recognizing that is an important part of the job. It brings more depth to our stories when that empathy is there.

Mauk Emily, the attacks on the media on a national scale, all the fake news epithets, etc. — I think those attacks filter down and create a distrust of local news as well, but are you finding that in Philipsburg? Are residents there suddenly suspicious, more suspicious of you and the newspaper than they were, say before, all those attacks began?

Petrovski I think people in town were definitely suspicious at first, or distrusting of the media in general. I think once they've gotten to know me, it's a lot easier to combat that misinformation.

When former-President Trump made the fake news comments for the first time, I got called fake news three times in that first week — in my community of people that knew me.

And so I was a little taken aback that, I don't know, I felt lumped in with kind of this otherness of this bad media. And I think people know intrinsically that that's not accurate for their local journalists, but it's easy with the national news and even statewide news to be like, "Well, they're not our reporter, they're not our paper lady."

Mauk Well Gwen, I have felt that as well, when I first covered a Trump rally and had the entire thousands of Montanans in the audience turn and boo when they saw the press in the hall, and flipped us off and that kind of thing — I'd never experienced that in Montana before.

Florio You know, and it's doubly disappointing to hear what Emily had to say because my stereotype would be that small-town papers are the last bastion of defense against the fake news charge.

When you know the reporter, the editor, the people who work for the paper personally and see them every day, I would like to think it would be a lot tougher to lob those charges. And apparently that's not the case.

Mauk Disappointing to say the least. You know, Emily, you mentioned that you do want to present your community in a flattering light. And I find that a lot of small town papers generally try to steer away from anything overtly political, at least in their own editorials, try not to press any hard buttons. Is that accurate, do you think, for your paper?

Petrovski I think I push buttons. Still, we try to stay not too political in our editorials — as far as we don't do endorsements of initiatives or candidates — but we do get a little political in the editorial page and I think that's a line that we have to draw with our readers too: That opinion is opinion, and we have our opinion page for a reason. And we try to be very clear that the hard news stories where we're pushing on politics, we try to cover both sides.

Mauk Small town papers are a great training ground for young journalists. You wear a lot of hats at the Philipsburg Mail, so you're learning to do a lot of different things that maybe a journalist working for a larger paper who had maybe only one beat might not learn. Do you think that's fair to say?

Petrovski Yes, definitely. I still cannot write sports to save my life, but I've had to wear a lot of hats and learn to do a lot of things that I wasn't necessarily anticipating.

I had taken one design class when I applied for this job and kind of talked up my experience in that. And then he was like, "Great, you're gonna now design the whole paper. Have fun." I was like, ahhh!

You learn to be very flexible and very adaptive, and I think it informs your other writing too.

Mauk Final question for you both: Are small-town papers going to survive? I think four or five of small-town papers in the last 15 years in Montana have gone by the wayside. What's the future look like, do you think?

Petrovski The future of small town papers is something that I worry about. Luckily, I think the family-owned papers will be a little more stalwart; they're not in it for the money, they're in it for the love and I would hope that they would stick around.

But with Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace, and Instagram and other social media, it's sometimes hard, I think, for papers to stay relevant and keep attracting ad revenue.

Florio First of all, I can't imagine a state like Montana, or any rural area, without its small-town papers. Even though towns now have Facebook pages and there are other groups and websites, nothing gives you the comprehensive coverage that a paper does for your local town council meetings or your sports teams or the events coming up.

You know, it's your one-stop shopping for everything that's happening in your town. And whenever I go somewhere, I always grab the local paper because it instantly is a window into that community. And again, I just can't imagine our communities without them.

Mauk And I think in those small towns, those local papers do so much to promote community and a sense of connection there that I think would be sorely missed.

Emily and Gwen, thank you so much: That was a fun discussion.

Retired in 2014 but still a presence at MTPR, Sally Mauk is a University of Kansas graduate and former wilderness ranger who has reported on everything from the Legislature to forest fires.
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