I have worked as a journalist for 14 of my 48 years.
I knew I wanted to be a journalist when I was 16. That decision occurred at the end of a series of strange events that spanned the course of a year.
I grew up in Emery County, Utah, a blue-collar coal mining and power plant county. The series of events that would lead to my decision of becoming a journalist began in December 1984 when Emery County suffered the greatest tragedy in its 63 year history, when the Wilberg Coal Mine caught on fire and 27 coal miners became trapped inside it and died.
I was in ninth grade at the time and being a small town as it was, I was friends and school mates with many of the kids whose fathers died that day. The Wilberg Coal Mine, which lay 12 miles northwest of my house, supplied coal exclusively for Hunter Power Plant, which lay two miles southeast of my house. My hometown of Orangeville, Utah lay right on the axis line between the two.
There was a moment, while I waited in the December cold for the schoolbus that would take me to junior high, where I could see the gray-black smoke billowing from the Wilberg Coal Mine fire off my left shoulder and the steamy-white smoke of the Hunter Power Plant off my right shoulder.
A lot of lives got caught in the middle that day and the trajectory of numerous lives were redirected. Wives were instantly without husbands – and incomes – and children were suddenly without fathers.
The trajectory of my life changed that day too, though l wouldn’t realize it for another year.
During the days that the Wilberg Coal Mine was on fire national news teams from around the country descended on our small town of 2,022 residents like a plague of locusts feeding on the tragedy. They reported back to their various national desks the latest updates on body recovery efforts and the latest inquiries as to how the fire had started.
Under normal conditions the Wilberg Coal Mine wouldn’t have been visible from my house, but due to the emergency measures taking place at the time, that little postage stamp-sized square on the mountainside was lit up like the Statue of Liberty; and that made for a very surreal experience when we watched the evening news on our living room TV. Whether it was ABC, NBC or CBS, they all delivered the nation a 60 second update about the events that had transpired at Wilberg Coal Mine that day.
We could watch the report on our TV and shift our gaze 15 degrees left and see the lights on the hill outside the Wilberg Mine out our living room window. Reporters from newspapers, magazines and TV stations from L.A. to New York stayed in our town for about a week, and then, just as quickly as they had appeared – having stripped our town of every green leaf like the locusts they were – they were just as quickly gone, off to our nation’s next tragedy.
The newsmen and their strange, Millennium Falcon vans – because they had satellite dishes on the roofs – disappeared in the night.
But, gray-black smoke still poured thickly from the mouth of the Wilberg Coal Mine. Steamy-white smoke still rose peacefully from Hunter Power Plant. For 1,904 of the town’s 2,022 residents, life went on as it had before.
A year later, on the anniversary of the Wilberg Mine fire, a Salt Lake news team revisited our town. A producer, soundman and reporter stalked our high school halls that day soliciting stories from students who had lost their fathers the year before.
At one point that day my friend Matt Walters and I stopped the news crew and inquired about their jobs.
Do you like it?
Absolutely, they told us.
Do you get to go out on a lot of these kinds of assignments?
That’s mostly what we do, they said.
That doesn’t seem very boring. Is it boring?
Not at all! We love what we do, they said. There’s always a new story, new people and lots of travel.
My best friend Matt decided then and there that he was going into broadcast journalism.
But I have a more contemplative, sleep-on-it mindset. It took me about a month to realize that I too wanted to be journalist. But for me it was print journalism. I had been an avid reader since third grade. I was all about the written word.
I was really intrigued by the idea of travelling around the world covering interesting stories like the reporters who had visited our town the year before.
But that perception began to change with Larry Davis, who was the owner, publisher, editor, and head reporter of The Emery County Progress, the county’s newspaper.
Unlike CBS News, the BBC or the New York Times, who arrived and departed within a week, Larry Davis lived in our town. He knew the men who died in the families. He knew their families. He knew their situations.
As I had recently become interested in journalism, and because our town disaster happened to rise to that of a national disaster, I went back and read the stories of that event from the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times. And the Emery County Progress.
The reports from the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times were professional and deftly written. As well as curt and succinct. Despite the deaths they were reporting, they were surprisingly bloodless.
Next I read the accounts about the Wilberg Mine fire that Larry Davis had written for our county paper. I wasn’t expecting much. The Progress (it was more often referred to as the Digress for the amount of typos and mis-spelled names it contained) reported such things as this: “Last weekend Shauna came home from Snow College to help her mother can peaches. They canned 49 quarts of peaches – and some went into a pie! -- and enjoyed Saturday evening watching Lawrence Welk. Shauna returned to Snow College the next day after church.”
I am not making this up.
Because the editor of the Emery County Progress spent most of his time writing stories about canning peaches and picking asparagus along irrigation ditches, I was rather surprised to read his accounts about Wilberg Mine fire.
His stories were better, way better, than any of the stories in the New York Times and L.A. Times The reporters from L.A., New York, Salt Lake and London created stories that originated primarily from information they obtained from press releases put out by the county sheriff’s public information officer. Whereas, the editor of the Progress knew the families involved in the accident. And their previous situations. And their likely futures. His stories orginated from fhier living rooms. The reporters from L.A., New York and Salt Lake were in and out in one week, whereas Larry Davis was there day in and day out.
Larry’s stories were personal, without being intrusive. The stories from the New York and L.A. Time were just the opposite. Larry spent many hours in the living rooms of the families who lost their husbands and fathers in the mine. They trusted him. They opened up to him and he told their stories with compassion and heart.
I still read and greatly admire the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the BBC and NPR. I also still read the Emery County Progress, the Southern Utah News (Kanab), and several other small town newspapers. Ever since tenth grade when I compared the New York Times and L.A. Times stories with Progress’s stories about the Wilberg Mine fire I’ve been a big fan of small town journalism.
I have a friend who’s a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and he likes to tease me about my job as a small-town journalist. “What is there to report anyway?” he loves to ask me.
To which I reply, “You’re right, our town doesn’t generate a lot of news, but it has a thousand great stories.”