Working for the Hometown Paper: Lessons in Accountability and What Really Matters

I remember Walter Cronkite saying the best training you could get as a reporter was at your hometown paper, where you better spell your neighbors’ names right or risk getting punched in the nose. I started my journalism career 28 years ago at my hometown paper, The Baytown Sun, on the upper Gulf Coast of Texas. Back then, there was no Internet and the Houston papers and TV barely covered this little refinery town some 30 miles to the east. So, what we did at the Sun mattered. Getting it right mattered. Being fair—well, you better be. And giving voice to the people mattered. For a small town, Baytown wasn’t boring when it came to news.

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In my 22-year-old mind, things were either blowing up or blowing away.

I remember ripping the seat of my pants climbing over barbed wire to get up a water tower with my friend David Byford for a clear view of a gas well blowout, and another time climbing through the brush to see what was happening at a chemical plant where an extortionist had planted bombs. That kind of stuff doesn’t happen in most hometowns. Another thing that was peculiar about Baytown is that a once-upscale neighborhood had sunk about 10 feet in a decade—probably due to withdrawal of ground water for drinking and industrial purposes. The death of that neighborhood came in 1983 after Hurricane Alicia roared through and the government initiated what was one of the largest federal buyouts of private property. But my memories of the people are most poignant—my editor, Wanda Orton, a passionate newspaperwoman; City Manager Fritz Lanham, whose soft-spoken integrity attracted the best and brightest public servants, all eager to share their knowledge with an inexperienced reporter; Police Chief Wayne Henscey, who I once overheard from several offices away as he told a guy he wouldn’t fix his ticket no matter who he was friends with. I also remember a couple who were homeless after their subsidized housing became unlivable.

As a reporter, it’s easy to treat news events as daily stories you file and then move on to the next headline. But not so much in your hometown where the people who are affected are your neighbors, relatives, former teachers, people you’d grown up with. While I’ve covered much bigger stories since leaving The Baytown Sun, none were more important. Yes, there was nothing like working for your hometown paper.

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