Earlier this year I began interviewing Publishers and Editors from some of Arizona’s community newspapers. Some are larger than others, but they share one thing in common – they are in smaller communities. Many new reporters want the excitement of working for a large newsroom, but those roles are fewer than they used to be. Small communities offer so many opportunities to learn and explore different types of journalism. A reporter can realize the impact they can have on the lives of the residents more readily. My hope is that this series may change a few minds about working for the local “small town” newspaper. What are your thoughts? Please read Part 1 below. And a big thank you to copy editor, Tracy Townsend, for creating these articles for us.
Why Report Local?
“Why Report Local” is a special series that showcases community newspapers throughout Arizona. The series provides a glimpse into small-town and rural newspapers, highlighting the value of being a reporter in these communities.
First up is Yuma Sun Editor Roxanne Molnar.
Tell us about your journalism background and how you came to where you are today.
I started at Yuma Sun in 1998. This was my first job out of college. I graduated from Ohio University School of Journalism in the fall of ’97. [After graduating], I thought I would go home and relax for a little while and then find a job. [That year] was one of the worst winters in Ohio; it was freezing cold. I [had to] dig my car out every morning. And so, I got online and thought, ‘I’m going to find the warmest place I can go to.’ I applied to a bunch of newspapers in Arizona and New Mexico, Texas, California. When I got the job offer in Yuma, I jumped on it. And I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just be there for a year or two and get the basics.’ After a year, they promoted me to news editor. I did that for probably 10 or 12 years. Then our editor retired in 2013, and I moved over to become the editor of Yuma Sun, which is where I’ve been ever since.
Was moving to Yuma a culture shock? Was it what you expected?
I’m from Norwalk, Ohio, which is halfway between Cleveland and Toledo. I grew up going back and forth [to those cities], so I was used to a bigger community. I moved to Yuma sight unseen, and [when I arrived in February], it was trailers as far as the eye could see. And I thought, ‘Oh my god, I made a terrible mistake,’ not knowing that there’s this huge winter-visitor culture. I did not know what I had wandered into not realizing that this was where people came to vacation and retire. It was a whole different microcosm of the world.
What it’s like to live in Yuma? Why do you love it?
Yuma is positioned in the southwest corner of Arizona on the Mexico/California border. Everything from Yuma is three and a half hours away or less. You can be in L.A. in three and a half hours; you can be in San Diego or Phoenix in two and a half hours; you can be on the beach in Mexico at the Sea of Cortez in like an hour and a half. Yuma also has wonderful desert landscapes, and we’re blessed to have the Colorado River running through here. There’s a lot of outdoor hiking, camping and off-roading out in the desert.
There’s a lot of farm life – agriculture is a multibillion-dollar business here. We also have two military installations. And then tourism [is a big part of our economy], between winter visitors and then people who come here for winter and summer river recreation. Yuma’s population adds about 100,000 people in the winter, give or take.
And the community itself is incredibly generous. When there is a need in Yuma, Yumans rise to meet that need, whether it’s raising funds for a nonprofit organization, a cancer patient or the victim of a house fire.
What challenges would one expect if one chose to work in Yuma?
Yuma is 100,000 people strong [and] the county is 200,000 people. Yet, it still has a small-town feel – which might be a challenge for someone looking for a big-city environment. It can be tough sometimes to build relationships, depending on the beat – yet with some patience, those relationships can flourish successfully.
Tell us about Yuma Sun – a brief history, its structure and culture.
This year, Yuma Sun celebrated its 150th anniversary, making it the oldest continuously operated newspaper in the state of Arizona. It predates the city of Yuma itself – our roots stretch back to the Arizona Sentinel, which was founded in 1872 when Yuma was still called Arizona City. Yuma didn’t get the name Yuma until 1873.
Our primary focus is community journalism. We know that readers can get national and international news on CNN or Fox. Our goal is to cover community news, here at home, with a strong focus on Yuma County, shining the journalistic light in every corner possible to make sure that Yumans know what’s happening here at home.
As for culture, we have a small staff, which means we are always busy. But it’s very much a family environment – team members are willing to jump in and help one another, and we host several team appreciation events with snacks to say thanks. We have great managers in place who are willing to go above and beyond to make a difference.
How long do reporters typically stay at the newspaper? Do they tend to move on to a bigger newspaper, or do they stay?
I have two reporters who have been at Yuma Sun for 35 and 45 years. I have two who have been here for 15 years, and one who is coming up on his one-year anniversary.
I’ve had staff members leave and go on to work for metro papers in Phoenix, Chicago and Las Vegas. One went on to ESPN, and another became a producer for HBO, working on the Michael Jordan documentary a few years ago. Yuma is a great springboard for new reporters, but it’s also a great place to grow roots.
What is a typical day like for a reporter at Yuma Sun?
The experience here depends on the beat. Our reporters write anywhere from 12-24 stories a week. Their hours are not set in stone – it’s up to the reporter to choose when to work to cover what they need to in their beat. In education, for example, the reporter might cover school events one week, working from 9-5, and the next week, it might be a school board meeting night, which necessitates evening hours. Every day it’s a little different.
Why should a reporter come work for Yuma Sun?
Yuma Sun is a fantastic environment to learn and grow. We know there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to reporting – and we don’t try to impose one on our team. Instead, we work to grow our staff, helping them learn as reporters and giving them opportunities to try their hand at a variety of reporter experiences. One reporter came to Yuma to be our education reporter, yet also got to cover really interesting subjects, such as the border wall and two presidential visits by Donald Trump. Living on the border, we get some really strange, high-profile things that happen here. Yuma might seem on the surface like, ‘Oh, it’s a little town of 100,000 people,’ and then the border blows up and the president is here.
What advice would you give a new graduate looking for a journalism job?
You can do anything for a year or two. You can go anywhere; you’re young, you get to explore; you get to do all these cool things. There’s no better opportunity to go travel somewhere where you get paid to do it. Yuma is a great springboard to live. There are so many adventures three hours away from where we are or less.