By Jason Recker
The Herald (Jasper)
Editor’s note: “Local news sells” is the mantra of today’s community newspaper industry. The Herald (Jasper) recently marked 35 years of telling its readers’ stories each week.
Saturdays do not relent.
For everyone in the newsroom from which this newspaper is produced, Saturdays linger as the punctuation mark. You can’t finish a sentence without one of those.
Since 1978, the Saturday feature – the longer story each week with several photographs occupying the first few pages of the newspaper – has been our punctuation mark, an exclamation point of sorts.
The ordinary written word has its value. For The Record, obituaries and high school sports take their places among the most-read subjects, and we have covered our share of contention – biomass, libraries, elections. Photographs, no matter the subject matter, lure eyes in awe. But the Saturday feature is our signature.
It is unique. It is appreciated. It is feared. It is both a challenge and a reward. It is constant.
This is how we do it.
“I am amazed that the Saturday feature has had this long of a run,” said John Rumbach, The Herald’s co-publisher and founder of the Saturday feature. “When I was developing the idea of a longer word-picture story that could run as a cover piece every Saturday, I thought the concept would have a five-year shelf life and then we’d run out of good story ideas. But the stories kept coming. That’s because we tell stories about people and their lives. Even if the surface topic is about some political issue, we tell it through people’s lives.”
Ideas are mandatory. Likewise with planning. Monthly group meetings ensure both.
We have our annual features, such as the recap of the 4-H fair, and quick-hit stories, like a gathering of Santa Clauses in Spencer County, that are covered, shot and published in days.
Usually, more time is required. We are accustomed to operating on daily deadlines, so thinking in advance requires us to veer from our customary path. Some of the stories discussed in this month’s meeting won’t be published until March.
The Saturday feature often brings a dual sense of ownership. Many times, writers and photographers work on stories they thought of themselves.
The story might be about the life of a professional triathlete, but we want to tag along when he drives his school bus route. We might watch you eat dinner. Fix your hair. Call your grandmother. The deeper the foundation, the better the story. It’s something we explain to potential subjects before they agree to let us be a fly on their living room wall for weeks at a time.
“I tell people up front that we want to be able to follow them around for everything, even for what seems to be the most insignificant things to them,” said Candy Neal, a reporter and author of 90 Saturday features. “Most people get that. But there is some resistance at times, in the form of people asking, ‘Why do you need that?’ I’ve found that if you assure them that your being there will help the story, they cooperate.”
The Saturday feature creates a sense of burden, like a major homework project you are confident you can finish but worried won’t earn an A. Usually we take too many notes, stockpiling too many details. We decipher what to leave in, what to take out.
Writers, photographers and editors meet in small groups several weeks before a story’s publication to ensure the idea remains on track. Stories and captions, usually turned over for editing on the Wednesday of the week they are to be published, bounce from writer to editor and back.
“Some of the most pressure I feel comes from having the photographer read the story,” said Brendan Perkins, The Herald’s sports editor. “They’re along for the same ride and seeing the same things. If they give the nod of approval, that’s always a huge relief, because I’m always worried a photographer will read a story and think, ‘What the hell was he seeing the whole time? That’s not the same story that I saw.’”
Photos are essential to the Saturday feature. It’s within reason for photographers to take 1,000 photos for a story.
With prints of photos strewn over a conference table, Dave Weatherwax, the chief photographer, and Justin Rumbach, the managing editor and former chief photographer, make cuts. They, with the photographer of a given story, pare a string of pictures to a dozen or so.
We are given an expandable leash to spend time and money to get what we need. We have traveled to Louisiana, Tennessee, Michigan and plenty of places beyond.
Our readers have stories. We are here to tell them.
“Through the Saturday feature, we can offer readers something few if any small newspapers do on a regular basis: In-depth stories about local people, topics and issues told in words and pictures. The Saturday feature is all about storytelling – stories that over time paint a picture of our community,” John Rumbach said. “I think everybody here at The Herald takes pride in it. I’m sure it will evolve because of the new tools and platforms available to journalists. But its soul, and the key to its success, will always be storytelling.”
Every week has a Saturday. We hope to keep pace.