An Essay about Working as a Staff Writer & Columnist for Newspapers

Ink and Insights: Navigating the World of Small Town Newspaper Writing

I wrote a poem in the 6th grade that both amazed and terrified my teachers, it was called “Coldness,” and it was about the pain within, like a cold inside of your bones that can only be warmed by the likes of a hot bath. In the 6th grade—I was eleven! It was then that I began to realize that I am a writer. To write is my bliss; but being bound to write does not, by any means, suggest a talent for writing, and even if you have a talent for-, talent alone is not always enough, you have to have the desire to be better. I have a passion for it and for a long time I believed that passion was enough for me to succeed, but I was wrong. It has taken me years to, first, recognize that I wasn’t applying the effort that I needed to be a better writer, let alone to relearn the confidence to admit that I needed to make that effort, and then to actually pursue it.

Well before I finally accepted that I wasn’t going to succeed as a writer on talent alone, I worked as a columnist and staff writer for the Hill Country Weekly newspaper in Boerne, Texas. I don’t like to think of myself as a journalist, up until recently it was difficult for me to even call myself a writer. There are a number of stereotypes that shadow the profession that, honestly, make me feel a little anxious about journalism, nevertheless, the opportunity was presented to me and as an aspiring writer, I felt like I couldn’t dismiss it.

I grew up in Boerne, Texas, my family moved there when I was nine, and I didn’t leave until I was twenty. I came back to Boerne ten years later and it was then that I started writing for the paper. My relationship with the paper began when I started getting to know the publisher of the Hill Country Weekly. She got ahold of my unedited, self-published novel, and several unpublished writing pieces that I kept hidden in a folder, and she asked me to write a story expanding on a conversation that she and I had about a new bumper sticker that was very rapidly showing up on cars all over town. I wrote a story titled, Boerne, Texas Gone Forever. When the story was released, the newspaper had to run an additional printing, which was the first time the paper went to press twice for a single issue, since the paper was established.

The publisher asked me to join the newspaper as a staff writer, and I started writing front page articles about social interactions, eminent domain, international crime rings, and the unexpected growth of Boerne—a once one-light, “damn fine town,” that many long-time residents still talk about with a glimmer in their eye—my pieces on the latter where always the more popular, most likely because I actually enjoyed writing them. After a few weeks of writing for the paper, I proposed a music column, which I gladly wrote weekly because I love music, and aside from my parents’ musical influence—they’re both musical hobbyists—growing up in Boerne influenced my music interest a great deal, and I wanted to “give back,” as one says.

I would work out of a now defunct coffeehouse, called Electric Coffee; always sitting at the counter, where everyone knew they could find me, and at first, I liked the idea of that, of being a town staple, “You’re looking for Jimbo? (don't call me Jimbo, nobody call's me Jimbo) You’ll find him down at the coffee shop, you’ll know ‘em when you see ‘em.” And anyone would absolutely know me when they saw me. I always sat on the same stool, on the counter with my laptop, a notepad, several crumpled, or ripped, pieces of paper strewn about the metal countertop, venue music schedules, band info, a plate with a half-eaten scone, and a never-ending mug of coffee. I sat there trying to write all day. There were always people looking for me. Everyone wanted to talk about story ideas, and bands they’d heard of, while others just wanted to shoot-the-shit, and sometimes for hours on end. After someone would leave another person would step in, and take their place. The idea of being a staple quickly lost its appeal.

          I enjoyed the writing very much; however, I didn’t enjoy the nuances of journalism, most of what I was writing were stories that I had a personal interest in. One story, titled, Our Social Jungle, about the ever-changing dynamics of social interactions from an intrapersonal behavior perspective, I was able to use the conversations that I had with people at the coffeehouse, and interactions that I observed there, and everywhere else. Researching the article was fascinating, and I enjoyed it. Everything that I was writing for the Weekly began the same way. I was given a lot of creative freedom. And then one week my publisher came to me with an assignment. An international crime ring, people were stealing cars in San Antonio and the surrounding area (including Boerne) and driving them down to Mexico. The Boerne Police Department made a dozen arrests of people involved, it was a big deal—or so I was told. I had no interest whatsoever in writing that story. I have no background in journalism, I have never actually studied journalism, and I have never wanted to. I was asked to interview people: police detectives, families, and in an official capacity, for this story. If I’m interested in a topic, I have no problem coming up with interesting questions, and while I was interviewing most of these people, the only question in my head the entire time was, “what’s your favorite color?” Luckily, I had a list of questions on a notepad in front of me that I had pieced together using Google. I hated everything about the process.

I thought it was the worst story that I had written for the Weekly. That story ended up being one of two cover stories for that issue that I wrote, although there would be no additional printing. That story made me realize that the direction that I was heading as a writer for the paper, and it was not a direction that I wanted to see realized. I immediately started losing interest in writing for the paper; because to be completely honest, I hardly consider journalism to be real writing, I consider the process to be glorified annotation. My relationship with the Hill Country Weekly dissolved shortly thereafter, and the publisher removed any mention of my name from the Hill Country Weekly website, which is incredibly childish (but I still have the printed issues, so jokes on you KAM!), and her behavior affirmed my decision to leave the paper. Nevertheless, it was a great experience, and it did help me to, at least, begin to recognize that there was a great deal of personal effort that I still needed to make before I would actually start to feel comfortable calling myself a writer. 

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