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Campana: Life Isn’t Measured By Column Inches, But These 2 Stories Show Why Our Communities Need Them

BY DAN CAMPANA, NINA Board President

That moment when you find a story you didn’t know you wanted, or needed, to read remains one of the beauties of flipping through the print edition of your favorite paper.

Such lightning struck me twice in two days recently, each piece speaking directly to NINA’s emphasis on community journalism this year. Both also fit into the classic themes every local reporter past and present knows so well — weather stories and obituaries.

I never met a weather story I wanted to do. A check of The Beacon-News archives will turn up a particularly snarky report carrying my byline from 2008 about a, get this, DECEMBER SNOWSTORM, that grizzled veteran news editor John Russell threw my way because I was the night reporter.

When life gives you snow, you can throw snowballs at your editor. Or, in the case of Post-Tribune columnist Jerry Davich, you write about plight of already weary postal workers trudging up, over and through endless piles of Northwest Indiana snow to swiftly complete their appointed routes.

Davich colors this story with anecdotes about mail trucks getting constantly stuck in the snow and a mail carrier who saw miserable early 2021 weather as a rotten cherry atop the resoundingly lousy year USPS workers endured in 2020. Davich didn’t let this play out simply as a slice of life column, he subtly turned it into a community call to action for residents to clear a path for the people delivering mail and packages.

Seeing past the obvious angles and resisting the easy takes is what makes for the best community stories. Clearly, Davich did something right to get me to read a weather story.

The obituary I happened upon speaks to the ultimate question we all face – how we will be remembered. Any reporter who spent time writing or editing obituaries likely had their mind drift in that direction at some point. We write so many stories about others, it just seems natural for us to contemplate how someone would tell ours.

Perhaps James Pluta thought about his story at points during a journalism career that spanned about 30 years. I didn’t know, or know of, Pluta until seeing the headline on his obituary that read “Veteran journalist ‘cared about the communities he covered.’”

Three columns wide and three-quarters of the page deep, Pluta’s obituary shares the tale of his award-winning career that started with the City News Bureau in the late 1980s, included a span working for UPI, and ultimately saw him serving communities throughout the west, south and southwest suburbs for print and online publications.

Pluta died Feb. 6 at the age of 56. Life isn’t measured in column inches, but not one line in the obituary felt gratuitous about his Pluta’s dedication to readers and generally being a good man. His friends and colleagues described him as friendly, curious, modest, an old-school gumshoe reporter and someone who wanted to bring “truth to the towns and people her revered.”

As much as I enjoyed the anecdote about Pluta covering a zoo event and a school principal’s arrest on the same day, it’s the adjectives used to describe him as a person and journalist that resonate deeply. If this one account of Pluta’s life and body of work is any indicator, he is an example of the impact a reporter can make in his or her community.

Take away what you will from Pluta’s story, but don’t underestimate the underlying theme: Everyone on the local journalism front continues to play a vital role as the eyes and ears of their neighborhoods, towns and cities.

The challenges for reporters and editors today are mighty, no doubt. That doesn’t lessen the opportunity you have to make a difference in your own way, just as Pluta did for so many years.