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Community journalism is best

This month marks my 20th year as a journalist and my 20th year as an employee of the Echo Press. It's incredible how quickly time goes by!

I was excited to obtain a college internship in 1991 with the newspaper that I grew up reading and even more excited when that internship turned into a full-time job a few months later.

But I remember that excitement being mixed with some other feelings - insecurity, anxiety and some fear.

I was never afraid of writing. Give me a pen and paper or a computer (back then I was even good with a typewriter) and tell me to write and I'm comfortable as can be. That wasn't the problem. My anxieties came about when the editor assigned me a story, and then told me to make some phone calls and set up interviews to get the necessary information to write that story.

I was a novice just out of college. How was I supposed to call the powerful, important people of the community and ask them to give of their valuable time to talk to me? Why would a city council member or a county commissioner or the sheriff or police chief or - gasp - the mayor take time to talk to me?

I remember those first assignments, and how I busied myself with researching the topics through a variety of sources - the library, historical society, county records, etc. (there was no Internet at our office 20 years ago) - so that I could put off making those phone calls as long as possible.

But alas, being a journalist is all about deadlines, and it didn't take me long to find out I couldn't put off making those calls for long.

Once I started making them, I realized that all my fears and insecurities were unnecessary. Those "powerful, important people" took my phone calls and told me everything I needed to know. Not only that, but they were patient, kind, helpful and encouraging.

That's because I was lucky enough to get a job at a community newspaper. I think it's great to be in a community this size, where you get to know people professionally but also see them at community events, school or church functions or just out and about and get to know them on a personal level.

When you get to know people like that, it's easier to form a mutual respect.

Fortunately, the editor broke me in easily. He didn't give me any tough, controversial stories right away. But even when I did get those after some time on the job and much-needed experience, I was pleasantly surprised at how willing people were to talk to me and help me do my job.

Even after 20 years, I can still look back at my first couple of years on the job and vividly remember some of the people who made things easier - the people who helped me let go of my fears and insecurities and embrace what I really wanted to do - community journalism.

Some of those people include then-sheriff Bill Ingebrigtsen, police chief Chuck Nettestad and police captain Rick Wyffels; county extension educator Larry Zilliox; county highway engineer Lynn Olson; county commissioners Roland Kronberg and Bill Collins; county treasurer Harvey Tewes (who also happened to be my uncle!); and senior citizen director Kathryn LeBrasseur.

To this day, LeBrasseur is still one of my biggest cheerleaders, sending me e-mails about story ideas and boosting my confidence with her gracious praise.

Even more helpful were the members of the Echo Press editorial staff. When I first started, editor Al Edenloff, reporters Dennis Dalman and Hollan Lommen and sports editor Larry Holverson were helpful and patient and encouraging as well. While it's an understatement to say those guys drove me crazy many, many times over the years we worked together, they all loved community journalism as much as I did, and that kept us bonded. But thank goodness for Marian Iverson, family editor, who helped me deal with these messy, unorganized, annoying men. She was my "work mom," and that's a great thing to have when first starting out. I miss her dearly and will always have fond memories of Marian.

And along with all those helpful souls are the thousands of other people I've come in contact with who have made my 20 years in community journalism truly memorable.

I've met people when covering community events or meetings, asked a lot of very personal questions of people during feature story interviews, and had to ask others some very painful questions when writing about tragedies or loss. Those questions are never easy, but I am no longer afraid of them. Because asking the questions is what gives us the story, and those stories are important to everyone who is part of a community. That's what community journalism is all about.

Tara Bitzan

Tara Bitzan is editor of the Echo Press. She joined the company in 1991 as a news reporter. A lifelong resident of Douglas County, Tara graduated from Brandon High School and earned a bachelor of arts degree in mass communications and English with a minor in Scandinavian Studies from Moorhead State University. She and her husband, Dennis, and their children live near Alexandria.

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