In this part, we will visit the small but mighty town of Williams, Az. It’s one of my favorite get-a-way spots. Hear from Wendy Howell about what it is like to work in that community in this part. Once again, a huge thank you to Tracy Townsend.
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.
Wendy Howell, the editor of the Williams-Grand Canyon News and Navajo Hopi Observer, talks about how valuable these newspapers are to the communities they serve and the benefits of working as a reporter for a small-town newspaper.
Tell us about yourself.
I’m the editor of the Williams-Grand Canyon News and also the Navajo Hopi Observer. Before I was the editor, I was a reporter for the Williams News for seven years. Prior to that, I was not a journalist; I moved around a lot working for the National Park Service. My husband did too. Somehow, I got into the news business here. I found that I really enjoyed it, and now I can’t imagine doing anything else.
What’s it like to live in Williams, and why do you love it?
Williams is a community of about 3,500 people and the outlying area has almost the same amount. It’s a small community with a high school, a city council and a school board. There are a lot of tourist-based businesses here. It’s also a gateway to the Grand Canyon, which is about an hour away. The Grand Canyon is very much a part of the Williams community. We’re also about 30 minutes west of Flagstaff.
Williams is surrounded by forest service land, so most people who live here, do so because it’s not urban. It’s just a nice small community – very tight. A lot of people who live here grew up here, and their parents and grandparents grew up here, too. The community has a lot of history, and its people are very protective of it. However, it’s still a pretty friendly community. They’re welcoming to people who want to contribute to building up the community in any kind of way.
What is the history of Williams-Grand Canyon News? What is it like to work there?
The newspaper is 130 years old; it’s one of the oldest newspapers in Arizona, and it has been a big part of the community for a long time. It was owned by the Wells family until about 15 or 20 years ago, and then Western News purchased it. We cover news for Williams, Parks and Ash Fork, and we have a section for the Grand Canyon. We also publish the Navajo Hopi Observers and that’s based out of Flagstaff. We have a reporter and an associate editor who oversee the newspaper.
One thing that’s nice about the papers is that the community thinks the papers are important; they think they’re valuable. When we talk to advertisers and people who support the newspapers, they are almost like sponsors – they’re supporting what we’re doing. It’s a benefit to them, but they also see the benefit for the community. People realize that if these papers are not here, nobody’s going to talk about Williams or about the issues that the city is facing, or even the Grand Canyon. We’re able to provide more boots on the ground and report on the Grand Canyon versus just press releases that the Grand Canyon is feeding to everybody.
What is the reporter’s experience like at the newspaper?
One thing that’s nice about a small-town newspaper is when I started here, I didn’t know that many people, but a big part of my job was developing these relationships with people in the community. It’s a weekly paper, so in a week, I would be going to a city council meeting one night, a school board meeting another night, and I would be covering all the high school sports. We put a lot of sports stuff on our social media and our website. The community loves that – people love to see their kids in the paper. In addition to that, we do a lot of what we call business beats, where we report on any new businesses that come into the community or any changes to existing businesses. We also cover tons of events, since it’s a tourist town. There are a lot of parades and car shows. We take a lot of pictures and put those on our website and in the newspaper. We try to provide as much as we can to the community, for the people who live here, and for the people who are visiting.
With the reporters that you’ve brought in, do they tend to stay for a while or do they move on?
We’ve had people here who stay on for a while. I think part of that is because it’s pretty fun. We have a reporter position that’s open right now, and it’s challenging because one of the biggest problems we’re running into is the cost of living. It’s really expensive right now in northern Arizona, and that didn’t use to be the case. Flagstaff was a little more expensive, and people were living in Williams and commuting to Flagstaff. Now, Williams has gotten expensive to live in, too. So, everybody, not just the newspaper but the entire community, is having a hard time filling jobs.
As a reporter, if I were to work in a small town like Williams, does that better prepare me for working at a bigger newspaper?
One of the appeals of working at a small paper is that you’re doing everything. You’re writing, you’re taking photos, you’re learning how to manipulate those photos, and you’re editing each other’s work. Then you’re putting the paper together using InDesign and proofing it. We’re doing all of it ourselves, and then sending it off to the printer. Our publishing company gives us a lot of freedom to do the things that we think are best for our community. Nobody’s telling us to go and do some story here or there. They trust that we know our community more than anybody else.
Why should a reporter work for the Williams-Grand Canyon News?
The best thing about it would be that you would learn a ton; you would learn a lot very fast, and you’d see a wide variety of things. I think every journalist should have the experience of working at a small-town newspaper because there’s just so much to learn. And you know, you’re not just pigeonholed into one specific thing.
Is there anything else you would like to add about the value of small-town newspapers?
The one thing I would say to people who want to do small-town stuff is that caring about what you’re doing is more important than being a really good writer. If you’re a decent writer, but you care about issues, and you care about a community, the technical things kind of fall into place. People who struggle to come into these small communities to do any kind of journalism are the ones who want to write. They don’t want to be a part of the community – maybe live somewhere else and kind of come in and do a few stories and then leave. It’s a lot tougher to do things that way, and it makes it a lot harder for those journalists because they aren’t making connections.