A month or two ago, while coasting down Cedar Hill drive, I caught part of an NPR show and they were talking about small town newspapers. I turned the volume up and told the boy to tone down his motor (he pretends to drives his dually truck from the back seat each time we are in the car).

The reporter was interviewing Art Cullen — editor at Storm Lake Times in Iowa — who was there to talk about a documentary that had been made about the family owned newspaper he operates with his brother. He talked about how hard times have hit the newspaper industry, and about how important small town journalism really is.

Cullen read an editorial he had written— Letter to a young reporter. It was written to his son, Tom, who chose to work at the paper though he had just graduated with a degree in economics.

Every word resonated with me.

“When you spot your mistake in the paper, it should make you want to wretch. We strive for accuracy. Really. This is a healthy neuroticism. Correct your errors prominently and your credibility will build. When you lose that nausea over a mistake, go sell shoes or be a shaman in India,” Art wrote to his son.

Am I neurotic? Do I wake up in the middle of the night with a pounding chest, yes wanting to wretch, because I remember the time I misspelled Santa Claus throughout a story ? More often than is sane to admit.

Do I have nightmares about the time I wrote that a photo ID was required to vote ( back when it wasn’t) and the circuit clerk called to tell me I was wrong and that he was getting all kinds of phone calls about it? Not as many as I used to, but my face burns with embarrassment just thinking about it.

Art wrote to Tom, “It is all worth it when you see that newspaper roll up on the Mighty Harris Press every Tuesday and Thursday, and your byline leads the page. When that thrill is gone, try the monastery or actuarial sciences in Clive.”

Between you and me, seeing the words “By Danielle Wallingsford Kirkland” never gets old. It never gets ordinary. It is worth all the big bucks I never made. For months after I started my first full-time newspaper job I experienced the highest level of elation I’d felt in my life. I will always be so grateful to Mazie for helping me get on this path. I used to save every newspaper I had a story in. It’s one of the tragedies of my life that someone seems to have thrown away the copies of Bayonet and Saber that I had stowed away.

It’s another tragedy that I didn’t figure out I was supposed to be newspaper writer sooner. I have a journal entry from fifth grade where I wrote about how I liked to use a typewriter and thought I might like to work for a newspaper or magazine. I have distinct memories of driving down the road in college thinking “Man, I should just change my major to journalism.”

 When I think of the years I could have spent in small town news as compared to the time and money I spent chasing some other expectations I had for myself, well it makes me depressed quite frankly. Too bad you can’t turn back time.

What could have been? What stories did I miss? Can I even say I ever had a career at this point? Will I ever get to go back and have the rest of my career? Will the sight of my words in print always offset the fact that I will never make millions? It’s all foolishly heartbreaking.

Not long after I heard Art Cullen on NPR, I was standing in front of the grocery store putting my quarters in the newspaper machine.

“There’s nothing in it,” a man said. “Never is.”

Well, you know what they say. No news is good news.

They also say little newspapers are dying. Maybe it’s true. I blame the internet and social media.

There’s a newspaper clipping I have. It’s a candid picture of me and my dad just after he won a spot on the county commission. I can’t see how a social media post could ever come close to being as special as that wrinkled and torn up old newspaper clipping that I stumble across now and then.

I watched the documentary about Storm Lake Times on Monday. It made me miss the excitement of the job, and if it’s true that small town newspapers are dying, well I guess I hope they stay on life support for a good long time.

Danielle Wallingsford Kirkland is a former Sentinel staff writer and correspondent. She can be reached at danielle.w.kirkland@gmail.com.

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