I’ve always known I wanted to be a writer. It took me a while to figure out that I was a journalist.
I’ve tried many jobs. I worked at a candy store, restaurants and bars. I’ve worked in customer service, delivered singing telegrams and bred ball pythons.
I stumbled into journalism completely by accident, which is actually how all the wonderful things in my life have happened. I was on one path, I happened to be in the right place at the right time, and new opportunities fell into my lap.
I began my college career in a computing field, but by the time my senior year rolled around, I knew that sitting behind a desk wasn’t something I was cut out for. So I decided to change my major to English and take a gamble on the writing thing.
I went on to get a master’s degree and after defending my thesis, I was offered a job at the University of Central Oklahoma to teach. So I did, for a decade. But that wasn’t exactly right either.
Burnt out of grading essays and with two small children to support on my own, I applied for a job with Community Publishers, which at the time owned newspapers in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri, as a web content editor. The job description said, “You need to have the ability to wear many hats.” In the interview I told them that the job description was written for me, that was my job. And I got it.
What I didn’t realize at the time was my hat, my story, would be in that pile of hats that I started to wear.
I’ve always been a storyteller. I wrote my first book at age 6 called Baby Animals. I still have it. It’s a riveting read. I have published poems and an encyclopedia entry. I have started around seven novels that have never gotten past the first couple of chapters. I have blogged and can tell the best bedtime stories you have ever heard.
But that job at Community Publishers is what led me to journalism. It was a man that led me to Skiatook.
If there is one thing that always stays the same about journalism, it’s that nothing stays the same. As Community Publishers was being sold to BH Media, I decided to move my small family to Skiatook, where my now husband lived. It was a far cry from the dreams I had growing up of living the writer’s life in New York City, but this small city quickly became home.
As fate would have it, BH Media did not need a web content editor, but they did need a managing editor for the Skiatook Journal. Another opportunity had fallen into my lap because I could write and I just happened to already have moved to Skiatook.
Over the last few years, Skiatook has become my story and journalism has become my passion. Every kid in Skiatook is mine. I attend as many sporting events as I can. I attend all graduations. I attend all awards ceremonies, plays, musicals and band concerts. As an editorial staff of one, I cover all the community events, all the city council and school board meetings, and all of the church events. I cover and patronize local businesses. I never go to Walmart without getting myself completely ready because I will run into the mayor or a teacher or someone that knows who I am.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, my normally busy spring schedule of cheering on the athletes who compete in spring sports, attending events at Central Park and gearing up for prom and graduation celebrations came to a sudden stop. The color-coded calendar I keep turned white.
Lee Enterprises bought the Skiatook Journal right before the shutdowns. I still have the same job, but furloughs became a necessity to make sure that community news stays alive in this region. And it must.
Despite furloughs and a complete halt to the lifeblood of the community newspaper, I do not want to let my community down. I want them to be aware, to be informed and educated. My passion for community news goes beyond the craft of writing to love this town and the people that create the hometown atmosphere you find in Skiatook.
I got creative. I looked for the helpers. I talked to people at the school who worked even harder to move what is still considered a rural community to distance learning and to make sure that every child in this city has two meals a day. I talked to First Baptist Church, which is holding services online when it never has before and which works tirelessly to make sure that people in this community have food, toiletries and their basic needs covered by supporting the community and hosting lunch distribution for all children in the area.
I talked with Heaven Sent Food Pantry, which has seen the number of families they serve with food, clothing, toiletries and prayer triple over the last few weeks.
I have talked to Bulldog 100 Pizza, which gave away pizzas asking nothing in return except for donations of change and food for the food banks. I have talked to Mac’s BBQ, which used its supply chains to help provide things like milk, eggs, flour and toilet paper to the community.
I have conducted socially distanced interviews to find out how people truly feel in these strange times and have photographed iconic statues around town wearing masks such as the Bulldog mascot at Marrs Elementary School and the sasquatch at Skiatook Statuary. I visited Central Park and talked with mothers and grandmothers who were still taking their children to play at the park before the parks were closed. I spoke with shoppers in Walmart in the first few days when shelves were empty and people were panicked.
A pandemic does not stop the need for community news, even though it has stopped seemingly everything else. As journalists, we are tasked with looking at the bad news every day, weeding through what is important and what is real, and educating our communities.
But we are also tasked with providing hope and bringing the community together as everyone shelters at home. We let people know where they can find help and provide a haven they can find accurate and truthful information amongst so many who do not.
The most difficult thing about the furloughs is not being able to be that beacon for my community. And with a staff of one, I don’t have anyone else local to take over for a week at a time. So I doubled down and in the week before my first furlough, I wrote as much of the next week’s paper as I possibly could.
Kirk McCracken of the Sand Springs Leader and I, along with the Tulsa World staff, are supporting each other during these times, as Kirk is also a staff of one. The community that we have as journalists allows us to keep serving our communities even through furloughs, pandemics and the days the world stands still.
If there is a bright light in all of this, it is the support of my colleagues, the amazingly unbreakable spirit of my community and time to step back and reflect on the reasons behind the news, behind the scenes, where journalists become the storytellers of other people’s stories. And in that writing, end up telling their own.
Lindsey Chastain is the managing editor of the Skiatook Journal. She holds an M.A in English from the University of Central Oklahoma. Before starting her news career in 2011, she was a professor of English at the University of Central Oklahoma. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Coronavirus Storytelling Project is a collaboration between the Oklahoma-based Inasmuch Foundation, the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame and Oklahoma Watch to help state journalists who have been furloughed or displaced as well as those in struggling community news organizations. The Inasmuch Foundation has pledged $50,000 to launch the project and provide five $500 grants to those accepted into the project each week for the next four months. Apply here.