Stephen W. Browne Rants and Raves

April 30, 2014

Rural journalism

Filed under: Op-eds,Personal — Stephen W. Browne @ 8:21 am

I’m a rural journalist. Meaning I’ve spent my professional career to date as a journalist at local papers that serve communities of less than 20,000 people, often called “hyperlocal” news reporting.

In an odd sort of way, I’ve had a backwards career. I started out writing for publication while I was living in Eastern Europe in an exciting time. I’d reached a point where I was getting stories such as interviewing the wife of a murdered dissident in Minsk, and covering the Serbian election that led to the downfall of the Milosevic regime.

Which I either gave away to “journals of much passion and small circulation” in Prince Kropotkin’s fortunate phrase, or sold for beer money.

Eventually I realized this was dumb and went back to my alma mater Oklahoma University, to get some formal training and turn pro.

The next step was to get experience at a daily and learn the essential but unglamorous skills of a reporter. I am now starting out at my third newspaper.

The editor of a rural newspaper in Oklahoma once told me his paper was a “farm team.” That is, they took new graduates from Oklahoma University and seasoned them before they moved to bigger communities and newspapers with larger circulations.

Of course, not all do. Journalism is a poverty trade and a great many move on to some other profession that requires researching and writing skills.

But it’s also a very pleasant way to make a living if you have a good paper. Check out small-town papers and you’ll find a lot of local journalists are women with families. They might be supplementing the family income or providing the family’s health insurance if their husband is a self-employed contractor, farmer or tradesman.

But for now, I have no plans to move up to the big city newspapers. The fact is, I like rural journalism for several reasons, not least being that I get to live in good places to raise my children.

Another is, I find covering local government very interesting precisely because of my experience living in post-communist Eastern Europe.

The communist countries had nothing like local government, and by the time I returned to America in 2004, they were only beginning to institute locally elected city councils and county commissions.

In spite of growing centralization, much of America is still governed locally by people tied closely to their communities. It’s here you get to see how the gears of civilization work: how roads are built and maintained, how drinkable water comes in, garbage and sewage go out, and how cops and firemen are equipped and paid.

When you cover local government west of the Mississippi you find there are basically two infrastructure stories.

One is that in the rural areas of the Midwest and West, the tax base is too thin to support 21st century infrastructure.

It costs just as much to build and maintain a road to a town of 300 people as it does to a city of 30,000. The traffic affects maintenance costs, but in the north central part of the U.S. an awful lot of road wear is about winter as much as traffic.

The other is that on the edge of the western expansion in the 19th century a lot of towns sprang up overnight – literally. One day there was nothing, the next day there was a town. Sometimes the towns grew into cities, but sometimes not. They either maintained roughly the same population or grew only slightly over the next century.

The consequence of this is, for a great many rural communities the infrastructure is decaying at the same rate all over town. Especially the hideously expensive underground infrastructure: water and sewer mains.

Maintaining those roads and rebuilding that infrastructure requires supplementary state and federal funds.

This is why blue state people sneer at red state people.

“Oh you don’t like the federal government but you sure like those federal funds!”

The red state people can of course reply, “Oh you don’t like ‘flyover country’ but you sure like our wheat, beef and vacationing in our parks!”

You see? “Hyperlocal” isn’t just local, it impacts national issues as well.

And consider, if it weren’t for all of us out here in the boonies there would be no one speaking for your community at all.

April 29, 2014

Yom ha’shoah

Filed under: Eleagic mode,Personal — Stephen W. Browne @ 8:40 am

Yom ha’shoah began on Sunday at sundown, according to the Jewish custom of measuring a day from sunset to sunset. So it ended sundown Monday.

The Hebrew word Shoah refers to the Holocaust and literally means something like “catastrophe.” The name itself does not date to those terrible years during WWII. It’s first known use dates back only to 1967.

“Holocaust” is oddly enough a Latin word, probably the Romanization of a Celtic word meaning a mass sacrifice of living beings by burning.

I studied the Holocaust in school and read about it more than most I suppose, but it means something personal to me. I’ve been to Oswieciem – better known by its German name of Auschwitz.

The reason this town in southwest Poland has a German name is before the war it was ethnic German. There was a Polish army base there with three story brick barracks all surrounded by barbed wire, so when the Nazis took over they really didn’t have to build much. Only the murder machinery.

Polish freedom fighter Jan Karski, who tried to warn the West about the Holocaust, wrote in “The Story of a Secret State” that when Poland was invaded by Germany and Russia in 1939, his reserve army commission was activated and he was ordered to report to the base at Oswieciem. When the army retreated from the the base the locals were taking pot shots at them with hunting rifles.

It’s all still there, a sleepy town in the boonies, with an economy based on a furniture factory at one end of the main street, and the camp at the other. I wonder what it’s like to live there, grow up there.

Everyone has their one memory of visiting Auschwitz. For me it was two faces from a wall of mug shots.

One is a young girl, maybe 14-16, wearing a Polish peasant outfit, kerchief covering blond hair. She’s looking at the camera, afraid but not really comprehending what’s going on.

The other is a girl about the same age, but dressed in prison stripes, hair in a buzz cut. She’s looking at the camera, terrified, like she knows exactly what’s going on.

I can still see those faces in front of me. I will see them when I die.

April 26, 2014

New job, new home

Filed under: Personal — Stephen W. Browne @ 8:25 am
An abandoned coal mine on a mountain road leading to Red Lodge, Montana.

An abandoned coal mine on a mountain road leading to Red Lodge, Montana.

I am settling in in my new job in Cody, Wyoming, a town founded by Buffalo Bill himself, at a newspaper founded by the legendary showman.

This is some of the most beautiful country I’ve ever lived in. I live among the mountains of the Big Horn, Owl Creek, Bridger, and Absaroka ranges. The Shoshone River flows through town in a deep gorge. One way out of town takes you to high plains covered with sagebrush. Another takes you into the mountains of Montana where I came across this abandoned coal mine where in 1939 73 men died in one of the biggest mine disasters in American history.

Mornings and evenings deer graze on the lawns in town and bears have been known to wander across the golf course across the street from my apartment.

Who’d have thought I’d have to have the Bear Talk (“Those bears aren’t cuddly like Chubby honey”) before the Boy Talk (“This bear spray works on boys too”) with my little girl?

I’m doing the same general kind of reporting, local government, but the issues are different. In less than a month I’ve seen the hot button issue around here is about land use in the immense national parks and forests – the first thing I learned was the difference between the two is important!

People are as friendly as can be here. Walking down the street we’ve had complete strangers start conversations and welcome us to town.

In the meantime, things are heating up in Eastern Europe. Russia is doing what Russia does and friends of mine in Poland and the Baltics are worried. Someday I may have to return to tell their story, perhaps once too often, in the possibly vain hope people in this rich, fat, happy country will take heed.

In the meantime, this is a great place to settle with my children.

April 10, 2014

Filed under: Philosophy,Politics — Stephen W. Browne @ 8:39 am

Silent Cal

I saw this poster on Facebook and I got to thinking, why don’t we know more about “Silent Cal”?
By most historical accounts his administration was a good one, a time of peace and prosperity. So how come he’s almost forgotten?
A story from history:
In 11th century Norway there was a king called Harald Hardrada, meaning “Harald Hard-council” or perhaps just “Harald the Ruthless.” Seven feet tall he was. Served in the Varangian Guard of the Byzantine Empire. Succeeded to the throne or Norway. Fought 20 years to unite the kingdoms of Norway and Denmark.
He died at the Battle of Stamford Bridge while trying to conquer England. But the effort of the Saxon King Harald Godwinson to march up to defeat Harald Hardrada certainly contributed to his defeat mere weeks later at the Battle of Hastings, 1066.
Harald Hardrada bankrupted his kingdom and the Kingdom of Denmark. He trampled on the rights of the freeholders of Norway, and ruined a rather promising Saxon kingdom of England.
His son Olaf waged no wars, ruled justly, and respected the liberties of the Norwegian freeholders.
Harald had sagas written about him.
His son had no sagas written about him and comes down in history to us as “Olaf the Quiet.”

P.S. To loyal readers, and those who heartily wish me in warmer climes. Sorry for the infrequency of posting lately. What happened was, I got another job, in Wyoming of all places. It increases my income by 40%, offers more challenges plus I’m living in paradise.
It is impossible to sustain a bad mood when you can step outside your front door and take a walk with the Rocky Mountains for your companion.
I’m settling in, getting to know the place and taking possession of my new apartment. Soon enough I’ll be getting my children enrolled in school, etc.
Bear with me please, I’ll be baaaaaack.

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