Stephanie Porter-Nichols, editor at the Smyth County News & Messenger in Marion, is our Q&A this week.
Nichols talks to us about her love affair with community journalism and how each year it grows stronger, the challenges of reporting in a small community, getting cornered by elected officials while shopping for groceries, the value and privilege of being able to tell people’s stories and more.
To start, can you please introduce yourself and tell us a little about who you are and what you do?
I am a native of the mountains of Southwest Virginia and I have tried to serve our communities in print journalism since 1988 when I joined the staff of the Bland County Messenger and Wytheville Enterprise (then the Southwest Virginia Enterprise) as a reporter. I’ve held a number of positions throughout the years that have taught me many aspects of the business, but my heart is in news. I’ve spent the last 15 years as the editor of the Smyth County News & Messenger, where my love of small-town journalism has only deepened. This morning, I was with elementary school children celebrating the last day of school and who knows what the afternoon will bring. We’re charged with covering the successes of wide-eyed children and the tragedies such as the recent line-of-duty death of Trooper Lucas Dowell, who called Smyth County home.
My time with newspapers has taught me the power of storytelling to connect people. As humans, we learn and grow from stories. I haven’t met a person who doesn’t have a powerful one to tell – sometimes we just have to help them recognize it.
At a small newspaper in a small community, when we feature individuals, I love to hear people tease them and say, “Hey, you’re famous. You made the front page” and see the quiet look of pride that so often crosses their faces. Plus, I still get a kick out of standing behind folks in checkout lines, see them pick up the paper, look over the front page and then put it in their basket!
In addition to covering people, events and issues and editing, I also do some of our design, help customers with subscriptions and similar needs, and, from time to time, unstop toilets and do rodent removal. Most days, it’s rewarding beyond measure.
What do you think has made you fall more deeply in love with community journalism?
I was a stranger when I came to Smyth. It has taught me so much about forging a relationship with the community – the people – we serve. Like any relationship, it takes time, care and attention. It’s easy to take that relationship for granted, but, in this day and time, we have to work even more diligently to help our readers and advertisers see the value of investing their precious time and money with us. As I’ve tried to accomplish that, the relationships I’ve forged with community members have given me deeper insight into how our newspaper plays a role in their individual lives and the community’s life. On this level, we get to see the newspaper’s influence at work. Last week, a man who opened a business in the community called. We’d published a business brief about his new recording studio. He was overwhelmed by the flood of calls. We helped grow his business. A young woman who had no health insurance was severely injured in an accident. We shared her story. Strangers turned out to help her. We helped make those connections.
We try to keep the community informed about critical issues such as the meth and opioid addiction crisis and mental health issues through a local lens. When we write about the local police force having to buy a car seat to transport a mentally ill child to a hospital, it brings home the importance of the mental health debate. Being a partner in the community makes a difference and that’s deeply important to me. I try to keep that in mind even when a passionate local government challenger can’t wait to share his latest complaint and has me backed up against the grocery store’s dairy case late in the evening and I really just want to go home.
“…Even in small-town journalism, we can find ourselves face-to-face with assaults on freedom of the press…”
Is it ever challenging for you, personally and professionally, to report on the critical issues (addiction, mental health) in the area? In a small community journalists are really out there. And as you said, you can easily be cornered in a local grocery store by someone for just doing their job.
Absolutely. While this work is enlivening many days, it’s soul-crushing at times. Recently we extensively covered a major drug bust that included the daughter of a close friend. She’s an addict and had progressed to meth distribution to support her habit. We shared the news for the world to know. Then, I go and sit beside my friend, ready to take the anger or simply put an arm around her shoulder. Another staffer had a family member charged. As hard as all that is, it underscores the importance of our work, of the need to dig deep, to make as many people aware of the crisis as possible, and point to possible solutions.
On another occasion, an acquaintance accused me, quite publicly, of being a racist because I didn’t put a photo of her retiring husband on the front page. He’d had a stroke and the family was suffering, but, turning the other cheek when someone is attacking who you as a person takes a toll. Still, in time, such encounters give you opportunities to reflect and learn – walk in another’s shoes.
A couple years back, I handled coverage of an ongoing and intense controversy that pitted the board of supervisors against the local library’s supporters. Their actions, at times, drew standing-room-only crowds. The supervisors were dismayed with my coverage, contending it was too critical. One, who I’d known for years, came to my office, angrily screaming and threatening. Another took to social media attacking the newspaper. They’d make personal jabs against me and the newspaper during meetings. The label “fake news” was thrown around liberally. For months, just walking into their meeting room raised my stress level. I so wanted to be anywhere else, but, even in small-town journalism, we can find ourselves face-to-face with assaults on freedom of the press and the need to stand up to intimidation and those outweigh my comfort level.
“To have someone trust me enough to allow me to tell his or her story is one of my life’s greatest privileges.”
What’s one story that has stuck with you, for better or worse?
The first image that comes to mind is of Miss Virgie. I met her once – probably 20 years ago. The then director of the area’s hospice agency suggested that she would make a wonderful feature. Nearing 100, she’d seen everything from presidential candidates coming through the mountains via train to a lynching and, of course, the Depression, both World Wars and so much more. Though dying, Miss Virgie still lived alone. She was quite independent and her family was caught up in their own lives.
When I arrived, Miss Virgie led me to her tiny kitchen and we sat at the window-side table, looking out over the mountains. I immediately began to worry about how the interview and article would work out. Her dementia was daunting, but, as I began to ask about her past, her eyes sharpened and brightened. She couldn’t remember yesterday well, but 70 years ago was remarkably clear. We talked for what seemed like hours.
As I was getting ready to leave, she asked if I’d get her mail and bring it to her. I did. In that short time, she fell and was struggling to get up. I helped her as best I could and eventually left, consumed with worry about her being alone.
The article and photos were published and life went on until a month or so later when I heard from the hospice director. Miss Virgie had died.
However, she’d died with her family at her side. They had read the article, been amazed at what they didn’t know about Miss Virgie, and re-connected. She spent her last weeks with family.
Miss Virgie taught me about the power and wonder of storytelling and journalism.
As a journalist in a rural area, are there any challenges you have that you attribute to geography?
Geography has an impact on the culture. For generations, people largely stayed in their valley. Going to another community meant going over a mountain. Many of our older residents grew up in that circumstance. The geography produced highly independent and resourceful people, who knew a great deal about being self-sustaining long before it was a buzzword. Yet, it also created a skepticism about strangers. People who aren’t from your community often find making inroads challenging. Even today, we often find ourselves needing to share where we grew up, any family connections to the community, people we may know in common, and the like, to build a rapport with someone, but it’s well worth the investment.
What makes it worth the time and explanation?
To have someone trust me enough to allow me to tell his or her story is one of my life’s greatest privileges.
What’s life outside of newspapering for you look like? Any hobbies or surprising facts you want to share?
My husband, Doug, and I will be celebrating our 26th anniversary in a few weeks. While he’s now a celebrated educator, we met covering news. We would stand out outside the town hall after long council sessions and talk for hours about anything and everything. Today, we sit outside our log cabin and do the same. We just adopted a puppy from the local animal shelter and are rediscovering how hard it is to hide socks and shoes! While trying to keep those out of his teeth, I’m spoiling our senior-citizen dog, who frequently gives me looks that quite clearly convey, “What were you thinking?!?!”
In some ways, my encounter with Miss Virgie has come full circle. I’m also pursuing an avocation in ministry, serving as the associate pastor of a church in Marion and as a PRN hospice chaplain. In those capacities, my belief in the power of telling our stories is only reinforced.