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Remembering Loretta Crites and other stalwarts of community journalism

The following column by Aegis and Record Editorial Page Editor Jim Kennedy was published on Jan. 15, 2010, following the retirement of The Record's longtime Aberdeen columnist Mary Loretta Crites. Mrs. Crites died July 12 at age 93.

Over the years, hardly a month has gone by when I haven't received a phone call or two from Loretta Crites, stalwart community correspondent for Aberdeen.

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She's called to get a late item into print to ensure that readers of The Record would be informed about an upcoming event. She's called to make a change after finding out a time, date or spelling was incorrect in what she initially submitted. She's called to complain and congratulate or to ask why something was cut or changed. And, on occasion, just to say, "Hi."

It came as no surprise when I picked up the phone a few weeks ago and I heard her familiar voice on the line. What she said, however, did come as a surprise. She said she was going to give up writing the Aberdeen community column for this newspaper.

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Mrs. Crites has been writing the Aberdeen community notes column – announcing birthdays and anniversaries, highlighting special events, lamenting sadness and ending each one with a little snippet of wit or wisdom – since before I started working for The Record, which was in April of 1988.

In the time I've been dealing with her, I came to know her as being concerned about making sure the Aberdeen community column got in the paper, so I know by the time she had called me, she had given a fair amount of thought to not writing it anymore. But family commitments, as they should be, are of much higher priority, and she just isn't able to commit to both these days.

Curious though it may seem, I have to say I've learned an awful lot about news from Loretta Crites and the other community columnists. When I graduated from college and knew everything there was to know, I had a very particular idea of what news is. As I've come to learn over the years, just about everyone has his or her own idea of what news is, and, just as importantly, what news isn't.

So is it really news that someone is celebrating a birthday or anniversary? It is if you know the person and didn't know that person was celebrating a birthday. It may not rise to the level of being something everyone on earth is interested in, but when you're putting together a newspaper for a community of a few thousand people, it's the little things like birthdays and anniversaries that make a big difference.

Way back when, though, I was puzzled by the community columns. I asked my dad, who worked for more than 30 years as a social studies teacher. Early in his career, as it turned out, he had been put in charge of a student newspaper. The previous faculty advisor had moved on, and he was volunteered for the task because no one else wanted it.

The previous incarnation of the newspaper had been one that was very polished for its day, but it didn't contain much information and it was published only once or twice a year. And it was expensive.

When my dad took it over, he told me, he told all the kids who signed up for newspaper staff to go out and talk to their friends, and come back and write up what was going on in the school. This hallway news was typed up and put together weekly, printed on a Mimeograph machine and copies were sold for a nickel or dime each (I'm not sure which) and the weekly publication became the talk of the school. And it went from losing money, to making a little bit. (It's always worth remembering that newspapers are businesses and businesses are there to make money.)

News, as it turns out, is information you tell someone who then responds, "That's news to me."

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Foolishly, I'd forgotten the first thing they teach in all communications classes in coming up with my more high-end definition of news. That first lesson: know who you're talking to.

This is where another person who helped me greatly early on in my professional development comes into the picture, Hal Willard, whose obituary we published in this paper last week.

Whenever Hal, a copy editor with big city and worldwide experience, read a story turned in by a reporter and that reporter was worried about how a source would react to the story, Hal could care less.

According to Hal, your responsibility as a news reporter is not to your sources – though you have a responsibility to treat them fairly – but to your readers. In other words, you have to know who you're talking to.

Luckily, thanks to the likes of Loretta Crites, the late Carol Donaldson, who wrote the Havre de Grace community column for The Record for a number of years, Hal Willard and probably two dozen other kind folks who treated me with patience, I've come to a much better understanding of what constitutes real news.

Real news is what people want to know.


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