When we think of the power of the press, we tend to think big.
Like The Washington Post doggedly uncovering the Watergate scandal. The Boston Globe laying bare the extent of complicity by Catholic Church officials in a sex abuse epidemic. The LA Times uncovering massive corruption in the city power structure in the obscure town of Bell. Or the New York Times publishing the Pentagon Papers despite threats that it might face federal prosecution.
The reality is that most journalists never even get an opportunity to tackle a story that big, any more than most athletes win an Olympic gold medal or than most scientists win a Nobel Prize.
But just because journalists (or athletes or scientists) don’t get to slay the largest of dragons, doesn’t mean they don’t get to make a difference. Particularly in small towns and highly local journalism, sometimes the stories we tell – or even the phone calls we place – can make a huge difference for someone.
My own first taste of this came in the first year of my career. Clyde was a well-known figure around the little town where I worked. He ran a small engine repair shop and could fix anything, no matter how weird or badly damaged. He wasn’t a smart guy, but he had a big heart and would do anything for anybody in need, particularly children – at least when he was sober. He had a fierce drinking problem and, because he was strong like a bear with a temper to match, he was best avoided when he was drunk.
One day, Clyde’s big old Victorian farm house burned down, a total loss. His insurance company agreed to pay for a modest pre-fab home, which had to be hauled across the mountains from a nearby city.
As I was driving to work several months later, I noticed that Clyde had nailed a big piece of plywood on a post in front of his house. On it he had scrawled a message saying the company that provided the pre-fab had cheated him. I stopped by and he showed me the slipshod work that made his home uncomfortable and possibly even dangerous. The company, he said, had been giving the run-around for months and he was at his wit’s end.
I took a photo of Clyde and his sign and headed into the office. I looked up the company and placed a call to their president. I explained that I was doing a story about Clyde and his sign, which sat in plain view along the county’s main east-west highway, and asked for the president’s comment. He hemmed and hawed a bit and said he would look into it.
Within a day or two, a new truck arrived at Clyde’s property and began to unload a beautiful new double-wide. When I went to see Clyde later, he hugged me so hard I thought he would break my rib. He picked up his new refrigerator and lifted it into the middle of his new kitchen to show me how lovely his new appliances were.
Clyde only lived another year or so – his demons consumed him too young – but he spent the rest of his life in a home he could not have been prouder of. And he credited that one phone call I made for getting action he had been trying to get for months.
We’ve had a couple of small wins like that here at the Register recently.
During our recent storms, for example, a homeowner on Silverado Trail found that a road crew had piled up debris in her driveway, essentially blocking her out of her house (no way to get a car in, people had to climb a fence to get onto the property). When nobody appeared after several days to remove the debris, she began making calls to local and state road agencies, trying to find out who left the pile.
After getting passed around in circles, she called us. Our reporter Barry Eberling made a few phone calls and, once the relevant city official learned of the situation, he dispatched a cleanup crew.
The mess was being cleaned up before Barry even finished typing up his article.
In another case, a rumor surfaced last Sunday that the Women’s Marchers had vandalized the monument to Napa County residents who gave their lives in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Commenters on Facebook were murmuring angrily about the disrespect and lack of patriotism shown by the marchers.
I asked our reporter Howard Yune to head down to the park to assess the damage. He reported back that the monument was in its place, undamaged and unmolested. He even sent a photo.
I posted the photo on the discussion of the rumor, and within minutes the person who was spreading it had removed her post.
We haven’t heard a peep about it since.
Both of these were little things, but they are the kind of things that make journalism worth it. We were able to make life a little better for someone and to head off a damaging false report that could have bred ill-will and misunderstanding.
Most journalists never come close to winning a Pulitzer Prize, but it does feel good to score a win, even a small one.