Writing News about the People You Know

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The closeness of small towns means that local journalists are likely to know more than the “who, what, when, and where” of their news subjects. For writer Sara Millhouse, the challenge of living with the people she covers is part of the job. An upcoming murder trial – her first – may be a special test.

A camping trip to Colorado was the inspiration for Sara Millhouse's recent Daily Yonder story about coal power plant closures. (Photo courtesy of Sara Millhouse)
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This is not a story about a rural American forced to work multiple jobs in far flung locations for lack of better options. It is instead about someone who embraces unconventional choices because she finds the work interesting, it keeps her near loved ones, and it helps others. Plus, she said, her work as a rural journalist can be tons of fun.

Sara Millhouse is one of the thousands of journalists you’ve never heard of doing important work in rural America. But her professional life is a little more complicated than some people’s.

She’s as staff writer for the semi-weekly Sentinel-Press in Maquoketa, Iowa, a county-seat town of 6,000 about 30 miles west of the Mississippi River. She’s also news editor for Big River Magazine, a bi-monthly publication based about 180 miles north in Winona, Minnesota.

When she isn’t covering the news, Millhouse is also a server at a French/German bistro and an occasional substitute at a public library in Galena, Illinois. Also, she’s a part-time business coordinator for a non-profit organization in Dubuque, Iowa, sponsored by the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which offers hospitality, educational opportunities and advocacy to immigrants.

And if that’s not enough variety for you, Millhouse also lives in two places: Galena, Illinois, and Sabula, Iowa, Mississippi River towns about 30 miles apart on opposing sides of the river.

Over the years she’s put a lot of miles on Sweet Judy, her little blue Subaru Baja, prowling the limestone bluffs and hollows of the Driftless Area, so-called because the last round of ice-age glaciers retreated before scraping the landscape flat. For Big River Magazine she writes about Native American cultural ruins and frac-sand mining and the burgeoning whiskey distillery trend in cute river towns. And as a government and courts reporter for the newspaper, she’s spent plenty of time in county courthouses and city halls, covering supervisor board meetings or council sessions or trials, trying to get to the part of the story that matters to readers.

Sara Millhouse is suited up and ready for ziplining across the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, to write a story for Big River Magazine. “The zipline was put up in preperation for the Superbowl: probably the only time anybody (well, thousands of people) got to zip across the Miss.” (Photo courtesy of Sara Millhouse)
Sara Millhouse is suited up and ready for ziplining across the Mississippi River in Minneapolis to write a story for Big River Magazine. “The zipline was put up in preparation for the Super Bowl: probably the only time anybody (well, thousands of people) got to zip across the Miss.” (Photo courtesy of Sara Millhouse)

Millhouse has worked on newspapers since her high school days. She earned a degree in English in 2005 from Grinnell College. She’s spent significant time learning or working in places like India, New Zealand and Scotland, broadening her perspective on how the world works. She’s been the editor of community papers in several Iowa towns, and even in western Wyoming where she lived for a two-year stint because it sounded interesting. Then she took a job editing a weekly in the river town of Bellevue, Iowa, which put her very close to Galena, where her parents still live. When she left that job after a few years it was for a small-town library job that allowed her to help people get the information they needed. Then the time came to return to journalism, and she came full circle back to jobs at the newspaper and magazine.

Fortunately, she’s able to work remotely for the magazine and newspaper some of the time, even though her phone connection in rural Sabula is sketchy.

The question is, why is she sticking with small-market media? With her experience, the eclectic and quick-learning 35-year-old Millhouse could likely be working for an outlet with a higher profile, telling national stories and—face it—making more money. Instead, she covers stories about the Upper Mississippi River Valley and the highly localized disputes and triumphs that come with the territory.

Millhouse finds features about people fascinating and interesting. But she prefers longer form stories that look at bigger trends and that have political and culture relevance, particularly related to rural life.

“Looking at aspects of how being rural shapes people’s experiences is pretty important in terms of trying to connect our experiences with national experiences,” she says. That might mean writing locally relevant stories having to do with funding new schools, jails or hospitals: things that have corollaries in the national news. It could also mean writing about which groups of people are migrating into a community, and which groups are leaving.

Finding those stories means chipping through all the noise and minutiae that covers up information, especially when the stories are about local government. “The challenge is to block out the things that don’t have an effect on people’s lives and see the things that have the potential to have an impact, things that people want or need to know about,” Millhouse says.

Ideally, those stories would be put in front of readers while it is still possible for them to participate in the decision making. For example, in recent months flood plain maps have been re-drawn for a number of Mississippi River communities. Suddenly, people who were once not technically in a flood plain have discovered they need to buy potentially costly insurance.

“Most people aren’t affected but if you are, then it’s really important. We want to make people aware of situation. If you find out early enough, you can plan for it.”

Millhouse sees it as her job to scrape through the layers of bureaucratic process that can cover the facts. In this instance, officials were also interested in being transparent and helpful to affected residents. “But that’s not always the case,” she notes.

“The challenge is to not lose track of big picture items while managing to cover a lot of small things people care about, too. It’s a balancing act, not a see-saw but something more circular. A lot of small papers or community news outlets fall into losing track of big things a little bit in favor of small things, but it is possible to go both directions.”

When local community publishers and editors see their role as simply telling stories residents enjoy reading, they might shy away from the watchdog role that larger media outlets hold as their chief purpose. But it’s awkward to press for answers about budgeting decisions or government transparency or nepotism, and then meet the person you’ve been pressing the next morning in the line in the town’s only grocery store. That’s a difference between rural and urban journalism, but its also a difference between rural and urban life, more generally.

Sara Millhouse and her accordion Pearl sometimes join the author for front-room jam sessions, in Bellevue, Iowa. (Photo by Julianne Couch)

Millhouse borrows a phrase from sociology that she likes: “repeat interaction with known others.” To her that means that in small towns, where one has interactions with the same people over and over, it changes the way people go about their daily life. The ways community journalism is different than the urban variety are the same ways that the grocery store, post office, and so forth are different in a small town versus a large one. When you see the same mid-level acquaintances every day, it is hard to pretend they don’t know you, and you don’t know them. You behave accordingly.

These personal interactions can get tricky when a community official tries to shut a journalist out of what is in fact the public’s business. Millhouse notes that newly elected city council members do receive a basic level of training to follow the law regarding public meetings and inclusion of the press. She’s witnessed occasions when the official who pushes for transparency is seen as the bad guy because that person makes things harder, in the short term. “Even if they start with some intention of transparency they get hung up when they realize transparency makes things harder for themselves or other people. That’s when good intentions fall apart.”

Soon, in a high-level matter of public interest, Millhouse will be covering her first murder trial for the newspaper. The case involves the killing of a Bellevue man whom Millhouse knew by sight, just like most of us who live here did. She also knows several of the witnesses who will be called to testify, and possibly the associates of the accused man, many of whom have lived for a time in Bellevue. This is the sort of interaction that would be a very strange coincidence in a bigger city. But for a journalist in a small community, it is yet another repeat interaction with a known other. She says she’s actually looking forward to what will be a “fascinating” new professional experience.

In spite of all the driving and the sometimes tricky interpersonal experiences, Millhouse doesn’t strive for a job that others would read as “better.” What drives her isn’t “external modes of achievement,” she says.

“What does motivate me is the life I’m living now, figuring out ways to do things that I love doing and that have service, in a way that allows me to be around people I care about.”

Julianne Couch is the author of the novel Along the Sylvan Trail, as well as works of nonfiction. She lives in Bellevue, Iowa.

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