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Striped cheetahs

If small towns are unique places, than the small town news business is an even more interesting animal. Kind of like a striped cheetah – something just a little incongruous, but you have to look twice to tell that something is off. When I told my parents I would be working two days a week this summer at the local newspaper – an unpaid, not-for-credit internship – they said the paper was getting a good deal. Probably true, but you have to start somewhere, I reminded myself.

I went in for my first day with no idea of what to expect. I started out by blanking on my employer’s name, asking at the front desk for Lucille. “Lucette, you mean?” the no-nonsense looking secretary asked sharply, peering over the rims of her glasses. “Of course,” I stuttered.

She took me back to the news room – quite literally one room! – with four desks and a fireplace decorated with framed journalism awards. “This is where the magic happens,” I thought. Exhilarating.

I barely had time to process the thought before the assistant editor – my immediate boss – came in the door behind me. She was dressed all in red, white, and blue, with the exception of a green foam visor in a peculiar shade of pistachio green. (The beloved visor is apparently her first fashion accessory of choice, as she wears it every single day. The only time I saw her take it off was when she switched out for a reflective blue visor because she needed to go outside. Her second favorite accessory is dark glasses which she wears inside...all day long.)

“It’s Flag Day,” she announced mildly in explanation of her outfit. Aha! Wait…what? The newspaper office is housed in a quaint old-fashioned building downtown, formerly a schoolhouse. It’s the kind of building where every room has a slight variation in the height of the floor, so you may trip and fall on your face every time you go through a doorway. And the restrooms are outside. “Not port-a-potties,” they were quick to reassure me. “Just cabin-style.”

The small square rooms are stuffed with work cubicles and buzzing with an undercurrent of half-hushed energy. I couldn’t help but grin at the desks piled high with paper and paraphernalia in true reporter style. I even saw a stuffed animal labeled the Procrastination Penguin perched next to a pot of misshapen cactus. I loved everything about it.

The building’s idiosyncrasies fit the people who work there. After taking the tour, where I met basically everyone in the operation from reporters to advertising reps, I came back to the newsroom with the realization that I was definitely not working for even close to the zaniest person in the building! It’s a hodge-podge family full of round aunts and queer uncles. I can tell that the challenge won’t be the work so much as learning how to fit in.

It was a busy Monday, so I was soon immersed in small town happenings. The letter from an angry grandmother demanding justice in the reckless umpiring of her grandson’s little league baseball tournament; a press release about a feng shui decorating class; an article about heart health; announcements from proud parents that their child got a scholarship…is going to medical school…got an award…is getting married. And, of course, obituaries. Lots of obituaries. (This is Fallbrook, after all – a senior community). Small-town news has its own rhythm and personality. In a way, it’s learning to be content with less. It’s a glorification of the small, recognizing that even the smallest thing is big to someone, and giving it a place.

And of course, it has its moments. You would not believe the buzz in the news room over the car crash where an SUV flipped over, blocking one of only two roads that go through town. We sent someone out to drive by the scene…twice! and the phone was ringing off the hook with witnesses offering photos (i.e. their 12-year-old’s lightning-fast reflexes with his iPhone).

And then there was the false alarm about a brush fire a block away. Sirens become so much more ominous if you think they signal a threat to your safety. I’m surprised we weren’t running for the exits in full-fledged evacuation mode (yes, I’ve done that before. After all, this is Southern CA – a veritable tinder box during fire season.)

But that’s another story for another day. In the meantime, I look forward to what interesting things another day with my “striped cheetah” will bring!

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