Eighteen years ago, I sat down and wrote a letter to Independent Herald editor Paul Roy, asking him for the opportunity to write a weekly outdoors column for his newspaper.
I had no idea at that time that I would one day forge a career in the newspaper industry, much less at the Independent Herald. I was still convinced that I wanted to teach middle school and coach. But I loved to write, had done some freelance work for some outdoors publications, and I was convinced that an outdoors column would go over well in my hometown newspaper.
If I’m being honest, I didn’t expect a reply from Paul. Fortunately, I got one. I had volunteered to write for free; Paul gave me the opportunity to earn a bit of money. It was much more than I had asked for; not much, but enough to put a couple of tanks of gas in my car each month — which is a lot to a college kid.
A little more than a year later, Paul sent an email asking if I knew anyone who would be willing to cover high school football on Friday nights. I suspected that he was asking, in a round-about way, if I was willing to cover high school football. And of course I was.
I spent the next couple of falls leaving my job in Cookeville on Friday evenings, driving to Oneida to pick up a camera, then driving to wherever the ballgame was being played to jot down notes and take photos. Afterwards, I would drive back to Oneida to drop off the film at the newspaper office before heading back to Cookeville.
All of the driving meant that the pay I earned for covering each week’s game didn’t do much more than cover the cost of gas, but I was having the time of my life. When I would drop off the film on Friday nights, I would stand in the silence of the newspaper office and envision myself someday working for a newspaper on a full-time basis.
I still couldn’t have known that I would one day wind up at the Independent Herald, much less abandon my plans of becoming a schoolteacher to focus on a career as a journalist. But a couple of years later, I did just that. And after a short stint at a newspaper in Middle Tennessee, I contacted Paul again — this time about moving back home and going to work for the Independent Herald.
Again, Paul graciously said yes to my request when I really expected no for an answer.
Fast-forward 15 years. I signed an agreement with the newspaper’s owners earlier this month that will see the business’s ownership change hands.
I’m approaching this radical change in my life the only way I know how — head-first, trusting God. It’s the same way I approached the change almost 16 years ago, when as a college senior who was majoring in elementary education, I abandoned my plans to teach and coach so that I could pursue a career in journalism.
I’m taking this step for several reasons. Despite the gloom-and-doom forecasts of print journalism’s future, community journalism is largely insulated from the national trends, and I am both a fan and believer in community newspapers. If I do say so myself, strong weekly newspapers are very much community institutions, and they make their communities stronger. They do more than enlighten and inform. In their own way, they advocate and encourage. For nearly a decade and a half I have committed myself to that role and that purpose, and I believe Scott County is a much stronger community with a strong community newspaper than it would be without local news.
Secondly, I always knew that I wanted to settle down and raise my kids in Scott County, and Paul Roy gave me that opportunity. Not all of my friends from high school were that fortunate. Some were forced to move away to find work and never had the opportunity to come back home. It is an opportunity that I don’t take lightly. This newspaper was Paul’s dream as a young man, and it was his pride and joy throughout his life. He spent his life working hard to make it a successful venture, then was robbed of his retirement years by lung cancer without having an opportunity to sit back and enjoy the fruits of all his labor. Before he retired as his health declined, he entrusted the publisher’s role to me. That, too, was an opportunity that I didn’t take lightly. Paul Roy was my mentor in this business, and I am determined to make sure that his vision for news in his hometown continues.
The owners of the Independent Herald — Debbie Roy, who worked alongside Paul from 1976 until he fell ill a couple of years ago, Jack M. Lay and his wife Sue, and Dody Duncan, as executor of the will of her father, Bill R. Duncan — have graciously worked with me to give me the opportunity to assume ownership of the newspaper and lead it into a new era. But while the newspaper may be changing hands, it will not be changing direction. The Independent Herald has established itself as one of Tennessee’s most consistent award-winning community newspapers — one that its advertisers can place trust in and its subscribers can take pride in.
To that end, it’s important to note that a community newspaper is exactly what that implies. It belongs to the community, because without those advertisers and readers, it is worth little. I’m merely the caretaker of this community institution, and I’m proud to say that, for us, the way forward will simply be business as usual.