Speaking Personally

The role of a small-town paper in 2023
That’s my daily fight – to help my readers care about things like municipal contracts and council votes so they can be part of the action in real time. I think it’s much better than reacting in dismay after the fact.
This edition of Howell County News contains the 80th installment of The Way We Were, which is Lonnie Whitaker’s column. Congratulations to Lonnie, who has been an absolute asset to this publication since his first submission!
Big, round numbers like eighty (80!) tend to put me in a contemplative mood. In July, Ron and I will have owned and operated the newspaper for four years. As I have reflected on all the challenges and blessings the newspaper has brought to my family, my thoughts turned to the service we provide for the community. 
It's a digital age. At first blush, a weekly newspaper may not seem to have a place in this time when instant gratification is the standard and Google is the all-knowing oracle. We don’t do breaking news. In fact, the last time I tried my hand at breaking news the backlash was so volatile and vulgar that I paused at length to consider whether a career in local news was right for me. 
There’s another trend in modern journalism that isn’t my style. I’ll probably date myself if I call it “gotcha journalism.” The people who do it call themselves “First Amendment Auditors,” and their goal is to catch public officials in their natural environment. Here in Howell County, law enforcement is the most common target, but judges and court clerks have also been “audited.” Ranging from confrontational and profane to delusional and incendiary, I’ve never seen a piece from a First Amendment Auditor that gave the impression the creator was a rational person. 
Their growing popularity, however, reveals an unmet need that local, weekly newspapers can (and in my case do) provide. People seem to want transparency. They want a watchdog holding local officials accountable. They want someone to ask hard questions and to (figuratively) step on toes when necessary.
I believe I provide that service for this community. And I try to do it with professionalism because I don’t get to go back to the city after I harass a Sheriff’s deputy. I live here. The issues that affect you affect me too. They affect my children. 
This brings me to some thoughts I have to share on a story I wrote last week about the Howell County Collector’s office. Despite the apparent desire for transparency on a local level, I spend most of my days trying desperately to convince everyone I meet to care about their local government. With the recent race for Collector of Revenue, I didn’t have to drum up interest. It was already there. So, I covered it. And covered it. And hosted a debate. And then covered it some more. 
Now, thanks to the public appetite for information about it, I believe a lot of people learned something recently about the office of the county collector, namely—on top of his county salary, he also earns as compensation three percent of the taxes he collects on behalf of West Plains and Willow Springs. In 2021, this was an increase of about $51,000.
Though I was shocked and even dismayed to learn a public official in Howell County earns so much from the taxpayer, I do think it’s unfair to present this information as a shocking revelation, or some closely guarded secret. Nothing I have found in my investigation leads me to believe anything illegal happened. I wrote it up as news because the new collector wants to change it, and the uphill battle before her is interesting.
But the initial action of this story took place over 35 years ago. I was a wish in my mother’s heart the year the first contract was signed. It’s a shock primarily because of how much money it is, but also because it all happened long, long before there was lively public interest in this office.
And that’s my daily fight – to help my readers care about things like municipal contracts and council votes so they can be part of the action in real time. I think it’s much better than reacting in dismay after the fact. 
Still, it’s a struggle. 
National news outlets have an army of reporters searching for the splashiest headline-worthy stories. This news outlet has hot topics like Collector of Revenue compensation and the removal of downtown parking spaces. Which one is more like to affect your daily life – the artwork on a can of beer or eight fewer parking spaces in downtown Willow Springs?
This is the service I provide, my mission in life--to investigate and report on hyperlocal news. I will keep track of the elections, the players, their jobs, and the Sunshine Law. I will ask the hard questions, but I need your help. 
I don’t consider myself to be a tastemaker, or even to be able predict the issues that will matter most to my readers. Lively interest in the Collector of Revenue was not on my 2022 bingo card.
The vast quantity of information I collect about the actions of local governments and school boards is enough to fill 100 pages weekly. I have twelve pages to give you. 
When I sit in these meetings, I represent you, the public. I am your eyes and ears. So, I want to hear about your concerns and questions more often. Every time I host a community forum, I get questions that weren’t on my radar at all. I can’t host a weekly community forum, but I can chat over a cup of coffee or answer an email any day you like. What captures your attention? Is it budgets? Ordinances? Crime?
Stop by the news office at 110 West Main. Call us at 417-252-2123. Email me directly at editor@howellcountynews.com
Amanda Mendez is the publisher and owner of Howell County News. She is an enthusiast of all things Ozarks and old-fashioned.
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Howell County News

110 W. Main St.,
Willow Springs, MO 65793

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