This summer I’ve had the opportunity to practice what I teach.
During my four week internship, I traded in my identity as Mr. McHale, English teacher and newspaper adviser at Hunterdon Central Regional High School, for Tom McHale, reporter at the Hunterdon County Democrat. I was able to make this transformation through the New Jersey Press Foundation’s Teachers at Newspapers Program.
As a reporter, I’ve written news and feature stories, worked on obituaries and re-written press releases. I’ve also had the opportunity to cover a land use meeting, interview interesting people, and even cover a murder. In addition to all of this, I’ve worked with Shirley Sasor to try and develop a stronger connection between the county’s five high schools and the newspaper.
My work with Newspapers in Education and the development of a teen section for the Democrat is something I hope to continue into the future.
After all that, what can I take back to my students and newspaper staff?
A new appreciation for the role of the news media in society. In covering the murder of Monica Massaro in Bloomsbury, I got the chance to see a close-knit small town yearning for information. The day after her body was discovered, officials wouldn’t confirm her name, address, or even how she was killed. We worked hard to publish what we could find out through a variety of sources and illustrate how residents were reacting to the lack of information. I participated in discussions with editors on what we could say and what we should or shouldn’t say. Contrary to prevalent public perception, I have been part of a newsroom that cares deeply about the accuracy and ethics of what they print. I’ve even witnessed heated discussions over the choice of a single word.
The importance of knowing and serving your readers. As I’ve worked with editors, I’ve learned the importance of not just telling a good, concise story, but also making the local connection. I’ve come to understand that the Democrat is in the business of telling the story of Hunterdon. In that context all of the decisions that are made make sense: From the collection of stories that make it on the front page, to the printing of almost every letter to the editor, to the history photos and columns, to the use of Mr. and Mrs. in front of names. All of it revolves around a projection of Hunterdon county's identity and a respect for the reader. The Democrat takes its role as a community newspaper into account with every decision it makes. I hope the staff of The Lamp works to serve the Hunterdon Central community in the same way.
A new knowledge of the community in which I teach. For nine years I’ve known little about Hunterdon county beyond the highways I travel to commute from my home in Pa. Yes, as one of the editors likes to tell me, I’m a carpetbagger who lines my pockets with local tax revenues. In reporting on local meetings, attending the Farmers and Businessmen's Picnic, talking to local officials and citizens alike, and just being a part of the gathering of news, I’ve come to know the county’s people and places much better.
Everybody has a story to tell. In my few weeks here I’ve had the opportunity to learn the stories of a variety of current and former Hunterdon residents. I’ve talked to the Red Cross National Volunteer of the Year, a former resident who is certified to fly the world’s largest passenger aircraft, a world-class master rower, a former resident who is an online business whiz kid, and a master auto technician who will compete for a world championship. I’ve come to discover that in telling their stories, I’m telling the story of this community. And that being a good reporter involves being curious and taking a general interest in those around you. My students would do well to reach out to some of the more than 3,000 people who walk through the doors of Central each day.
So as I begin the transition back to “Mr. McHale,” I’d like to thank everyone in the Democrat’s newsroom for sharing their knowledge, craft, and friendship; all the people who shared their thoughts and stories; Tom Engleman and the NJPF which provided this opportunity; and all those who read my stories as well.
I return to Central a better writer, teacher, and adviser.