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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: Small-town newspapers have cliffhangers, if not breaking news

Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Before the 24-hour news cycle, before the daily newspaper, every community had a weekly – and no breaking news.

The news was broken the week before press time and wouldn’t arrive in the mailbox until two or three days after printing. High school sports often lead, no bleeding required.

Some Eastern Washington communities still have a weekly and maintain those slow-news traditions.

A dramatic photo above the fold in the Feb. 20 Davenport Times highlights two Reardan wrestlers competing for the regional title in the 152-pound class. The entire back page covers Davenport and Reardan’s efforts, headlined “Gorilla wrestlers grapple for State” and “Indian wrestlers advance to Mat Classic.”

Wrestling might have taken over the front page, except for a Feb. 11 press release from the sheriff’s office. “Deputies arrest mail thieves – Two suspects in Lincoln County Jail; mounds of evidence recovered” was the headline in the Davenport Times and the Odessa Record for Feb. 20.

An alert citizen noticed suspicious activity north of Davenport and “advised dispatch the occupants appeared to be going through mailboxes … the caller followed the two and continued to provide information to the dispatcher.” Deputies moved into position, stopped the car and made a major bust of stolen mail.

Sheriff Wade Magers posted a detailed update on the results of the search warrant on his Facebook page on Feb. 13, inconveniently after press time.

“We found mail from the following cities: Davenport (52 pieces), Pasco (92), Wenatchee (32), East Wenatchee (120), Ephrata (1), Entiat (13), Moses Lake (85), Kennewick (53), Othello (35), Warden (3), Chelan 27), Coulee Dam (25), Grand Coulee (47), Ritzville (2), Olympia (1), Spokane Valley (1), Malaga (1), and Yakima (2) for a total of 593 pieces of mail,” Magers wrote. “We also counted 43 debit/credit cards, 3 gift cards, 8 driver’s licenses/ID’s, and 2 passports all with names not belonging to the suspects.”

The weeklies will catch up next week. It’s a cliffhanger.

The Odessa Record front page from Feb. 20 features a color photo stretching above and below the fold, with the mail theft story tucked below. Proud father Larry Moffet and proud coach Larry Weber stand with basketball standout Ryan Moffet at the 1B district basketball playoffs under a double height headline. “Moffet sets state scoring record – Odessa player hits 3,101 points and then some.”

Another headline, “Community means everything in a small town,” recaps a story of an Odessa family receiving support to cover lost wages, travel and childcare while several family members face complicated medical treatment. Reporter Linda Goodman reminds readers even if you have to plan ahead to visit a Walmart or McDonalds, “one major upside to a small town is the sense of community that rises to meet adversity.”

On the Davenport Times’ front page for Feb. 20, new editor Chris Person reports “Chamber of commerce discusses future: Members voice concerns and talk about new ideas earlier this month.” An article about a local business closing has already been superseded by a Facebook announcement that it’s been bought by a local family and will be reopening. More cliffhangers.

The Wilbur Register runs a series every spring interviewing all pending graduates on their senior research and service projects. This week we learned about careers in underwater welding and psychology, and the challenges of developing a business plan for straw baling.

Most of the teens’ service involved assisting with community events and repairs. The future welder built a collapsible game cart for hunting to be featured at the upcoming Wildcat Booster Auction. All three young men agreed the best part was “having the project complete and getting the presentation done.” Good lesson for life.

In other school news, we learn “Harrington hires new paraeducator” studying for a degree in special education who hopes to “use my time as a paraprofessional to help these children reach their goals.” Now there’s a future hometown hero.

Also making the front page were “House passes bill to expand court-ordered gun confiscation” and a photo of a demolished semi outside a crunched pizza parlor in Grand Coulee. The photo is accompanied by a lengthy story headlined “Failed brakes cause of truck wreck at GC.” Even weekly papers pick up on some bad news.

Then there’s local politics. “Almira Town Council meets, Clinesmith resigns, Council installs new member.” Local correspondent Larry Hansen reported, “for the first time in seven years of covering the Town Council meetings, there are no gray hairs among the Council members.” Youthful leadership stepping up really is news in a small town.

The latest local stories may already have been shared over coffee at the shop or conversations after church. And, yes, word spreads on Facebook. But it’s only official when it appears in the newspaper.

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