I recently experienced a moment in time that truly revealed and encapsulated the significance of what we do and why we do it. This revelation made such a big impact on me that I have to share it.
On Friday, August 25, I was proofreading the last of the pages for the Sunday paper when I received a call at 6:22 p.m. from my coworker Brian who was en route to Houston for Livingston’s football game against Houston Episopal. He’d learned that the Alabama-Coushatta Police Department had been summoned to escort a body from a Lufkin hospital to a Livingston funeral home. I told him I’d see what I could find out.
I immediately went to Facebook where I soon learned from reading my friend Herb’s post – a member of the tribe – that their Second Chief, Mikko Poliika Istaaya, Millie Ann Thompson Williams had succumbed to a long illness. I felt as if I’d been punched in the gut. Miss Millie had made history earlier this year when she was inaugurated second chief, the first woman to ever serve as a chief in the history of the tribe. I’d had the honor of being in her presence on more than one occasion, had heard her speak and had photographed her several times. She was a soft-spoken, stoic, beautiful woman who knew she was making history and fully appreciated the opportunity to share her knowledge with others.
I called Brian back at 6:39 p.m. to relay my findings, telling him that I’d do my best to get it covered. Our page designer Amanda and I discussed it and agreed that it was too late to get it in the Sunday paper as those pages had already been sent to the press. We agreed that I’d work it up and have it ready for the following Thursday’s paper. It had been a busy week and I was tired and ready to head home but I had a couple errands to run first. I also needed to get gas, having driven “on fumes” most of the day.
My conscience began niggling me, however. That woman deserved more. And so did the tribe. And so did our readers. I returned to Facebook to see if Herb had provided any updates and he had. He’d given an ETA of when the procession was expected to go through town. I looked at my watch and realized the timing would work out perfectly. I completed my errands, got gas and then parked in front of Alma’s Courthouse Whistle Stop Cafe where I would have a front-row seat to the procession as it rounded the corner in the main intersection downtown. I stood there on the sidewalk eyeing the red and blue flashing lights on the patrol cars in the distance as they came closer and closer. Although I missed getting a shot of the hearse carrying Miss Millie, I was able to get a photo of the deputies blocking traffic for the procession. It would have to suffice.
I headed back to the paper, quickly retrieving the digital files of my previous coverage of Miss Millie and cobbled together a story that reported her passing, told a little of her history and even included direct quotes made by her at a press conference earlier in the year. I then called our webmanager Jim to tell him that I was about to email a story and a couple of pictures to him, that it was breaking news and that I needed it posted on the website and the paper’s Facebook page immediately. I felt sad but good as I returned home, still tired but feeling that I’d done the right thing. I checked the website, it was there and I texted Jim a thank you for his efforts.
The following morning, Saturday, August 26, I arose, made my coffee, sat down at my laptop and went to easttexasnews.com. I pulled up the breaking story and saw that it had been viewed over 30,000 times. I rubbed my eyes, briefly wondering if I was losing my mind. I X’ed out of it, puttered around the kitchen a little bit and then went back and pulled it up again. I had read the number correctly and it was continuing to tick higher and higher as more people viewed the story.
The gravity of what had occurred was not lost on me. Although it would be another five days before we would put out a paper, we pivoted, using the tools and platforms at our disposal and reported breaking news in an extremely timely manner. And even more telling – over 30,000 people trusted us enough to go to our website and seek out the story.
The last time I looked, that story had been viewed by 43,657 people. With apologies to Mark Twain, I would opine that the reports of the death of community journalism have been greatly exaggerated.