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J. Todd Foster column: This is the little paper that could ... and did

J. Todd Foster column: This is the little paper that could ... and did

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One of my life’s greatest disappointments was spending 10 hours interviewing for a reporting job at The Washington Post in late 1998 and, a couple of weeks later, being told by a senior editor that Post brass feared I already had “reached my potential and was as good as I was ever going to get.”

I was 38 years old at the time and, in my opinion, my star was still rising. But I couldn’t dissuade this Post editor from her misguided prognosis of my career. I went to People magazine instead and was grateful for the job.

My decision to become a journalist was made at age 12 when two Post reporters, Woodward and Bernstein, were exposing President Richard Nixon for the liar he was. The Post is a lion of journalism. It’s also afflicted with the same drive-by journalism that we all can be victims of if we allow ourselves, because of the current unfortunate economics of newspapering and just plain shallowness, to fall into that trap.

After the Bristol Herald Courier won the top Pulitzer Prize on April 12 (and just writing those words gives me a warm and fuzzy), the Post sent a reporter to Bristol for nearly three days. The subsequent story, published six days ago, was at best underwhelming and at worst misleading.

The Post characterized us as a “struggling” newspaper because we made the difficult economic decision two years ago of pulling out of two far-flung Southwest Virginia counties – Buchanan and Dickenson. As painful as it was, the decision strengthened us financially and saved jobs.

Post reporter Ian Shapira has no idea what the Bristol Herald Courier's bottom line is. If he did, he wouldn’t have gone there. For if the Herald Courier is struggling, then the Post is on its knees with a boot to its neck.

Mr. Shapira also wrote that our reporter, Daniel Gilbert, who spent 13 months investigating the mismanagement of our region’s natural gas rights and compensation system for landowners, was on his way out. It was news to me: “Bristol reporter weighs career change,” the secondary Post headline blared. The story stated young Daniel is considering law school or the Foreign Service.

What the story didn’t say is that Daniel answered a hypothetical question about what he might do down the road if the journalism gig is up.

Shapira’s implied premise is that you cannot be a great journalist if you don’t work at the Post or The New York Times – a premise I adhered to for most of my career but one that was soundly and forever disabused for me on April 12.

There’s only one newspaper and media outlet in the country that could have done our natural gas series – the very one that did it. The Herald Courier and only the Herald Courier had enough of a vested interest in this region to spend 13 months researching such minutiae as mineral rights law in Virginia. The goal was to help disadvantaged landowners getting the shaft from state bureaucrats and gas companies. Only the Herald Courier would allow a reporter to drive more than 2,000 miles, spend hundreds of dollars in Freedom of Information Act requests and then send him to a week-long course on computer-assisted reporting at the University of Missouri.

According to the Pulitzer jurors, we exceeded our goal. Among many new developments, the gas companies already have paid more than $1.1 million in delinquent royalties into an escrow fund for Southwest Virginia landowners.

That’s what the Post story should have said: that we were the little engine that could … and did.

Daniel Gilbert is still a reporter here. I’m still the editor. And like we did eight days before the Pulitzer announcement, we will send Daniel to cover an Easter egg hunt if it’s his turn in the weekend rotation.

My job isn’t changing either. I’ll still rewrite a few press releases and try to intercede on behalf of readers whose newspapers are thrown into rose bushes instead of on front porches.

This little newspaper has been besieged with national media coverage since winning the most-coveted prize in journalism – the Pulitzer for Public Service. We’ve been exposed to what it’s like to be on the other side of the microphone or notepad. We’ve gained a greater appreciation for what it’s like to be the subject of a news story.

That revelation will make us better and more compassionate journalists.

A Huffington Post blogger wrote that I was a “Lou Grant-style editor.” Guilty. And proud. One of my former editors, writing in his Sunday column, called me a “pain in the neck” when I worked for him between 1992-96. Actually, I was a pain in the ass.

But this editor also made the point that journalism needs more pains in the neck and more reporters who will stop at nothing in search of the truth.

Mr. Shapira is a sharp young fellow, in his early 30s. But his only journalism job has been at the Post; such plums often accompany young journalists with privileged backgrounds and Princeton pedigrees.

Few of us are so lucky.

But we now know and have shown the world that you can do thoughtful, complicated journalism at any level. It doesn’t take The Washington Post.

By the way, my favorite part of the 10-hour Post interview was standing at a urinal next to David Broder, the dean of Washington political reporters and now 80. I wonder if his editors thought he was washed up at 38?

J. TODD FOSTER is managing editor of the Bristol Herald Courier and can be reached at jfoster@bristolnews.com or (276) 645-2513.

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