The image of a baseball sailing through the Skipperville air is the primary indelible image that I leave with after 23 years with the Dothan Eagle.
It happened more than 19 years ago but I can see it clearly. The ball sailed far beyond the center field fence at GW Long and it set a national high school home run record for the Rebels’ Wade Miller. I had the fortune of being able to write about it.
That moment sticks because, to me, it is a beautiful picture of the Wiregrass and a beautiful picture of the true purpose of newspapers.
Skipperville is a small community that centers around its school. The seasoned fans bring their lawn chairs and position them right behind the backstop to soak in every pitch. Miller achieved the record against rival Houston Academy and, even though the two are bitter rivals, I can still see the pitcher cracking a wry grin toward Miller as he circled the bases into history.
It encapsulates everything I love about this profession. I got paid to see those moments and record them for posterity. How lucky.
A lot of people think journalists live for the grit and grime stories, the ones that shock the system. The ones they give Pulitzers for.
That was never me.
I loved telling stories about players and teams who made their towns proud. I loved writing stories that made grandparents go find the scissors and clip the story to place in a scrapbook so they could give it to their grandchildren on their birthday.
I loved writing stories that moved people to make a difference, like the one in 2003 about a Guatemalan child given the gift of prosthetic legs by a man from Hartford who happened to be there for work. He was outgrowing his prosthetics and had no money for new ones. We wrote about it and many of you gave money so he could have a new pair of legs.
This is journalism. Those stories are the ones I take with me.
The second indelible image I take is me standing in a grass lot in Blountstown, Florida, the day after a tornado ripped through town. I wandered around for a moment and stopped to make a note or two.
“Excuse me,” a perturbed woman said from just a few feet away. “You’re standing where my living room was.”
I felt two inches tall. It reminds me how humbling this job can be. It also reminds me how many times people willingly spoke to me on the worst day of their lives.
I covered events involving President Bush, President Obama, and candidate Trump. I tried to give great attention to how local governments were spending your money. I have written stories that led to a judge being removed from the bench and a city commissioner resigning. Both were acting inappropriately and I don’t diminish this role of a journalist. But there is so much more.
These are not the primary images I carry with me. Give me the baseball in Skipperville all day long.
I often wonder – especially on a national level – how we’ve gotten so far away from the primary role of journalism, which is simply to report on happenings. That doesn’t occur at that level anymore. You don’t get news at the national level today. You get ideology, either yours or the other side’s.
I came to this conclusion: What we do is important, but we are not. The self-aggrandizement of journalists has been a severe blow to journalism, and made it exceedingly difficult for the local journalists who still try to do things the right way.
Somewhere along the line, too many people in our profession began believing they were the story. Don’t believe me? Just watch the next White House press conference. Journalists should be the most humble and grateful people on the planet. We get a front row seat to history every day, yet we’re not participants. We’re spectators who get paid to record it. Again, how lucky.
Technology has led to an incredible transformation in our industry over the last 15 years. I would ask you to continue to support local journalism, not necessarily because you agree with every word in every issue, but because governments will continue to spend your money, our children will continue to break high school records and kids will need help from the community to overcome obstacles. These are stories worth telling.
Much like the quarterback who remembers the incompletions or the missed free throws more than the touchdowns or buzzer beaters, I also know that I didn’t hit the right note on a lot of stories. If I mischaracterized your issue, failed to provide the right piece of information that would have made things more clear, misspelled your child’s name or failed to make sure the correct puzzle made it into the paper, I’m truly sorry.
Finally, I’ll carry a lot of images of a workplace made truly great by the people who worked here and continue to work here. I couldn’t have asked for a better environment. Back in the 90s, we made up games in the newsroom to pass the time while waiting for the press to run and then made some great memories at Waffle House after putting the paper to bed on football Fridays. I sat next to some of the funniest people in the world over my time here and can’t begin to count how many times they had me laughing uncontrollably.
I had the best bosses who gave me creative freedom to try new things and who understood that there are more important things in the world than what a person does for a living. Contrary to popular conspiracy theories, not once in 23 years was I ever asked to back off a story because it could cost us an advertiser or upset the wrong powerful person.
I’ve had more than 8,000 opportunities to tell stories in the Dothan Eagle. I hope the overarching story they tell is that the Wiregrass is an imperfect, but good place to live. It is full of people who have incredible stories. I’m blessed to have been able to tell them.
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Lance Griffin came to the Dothan Eagle in 1996 as a sports writer. He transitioned to the news desk in 2004 and became editor in 2017. On Aug. 4, he assumes the role of Recreation Minister at Ridgecrest Baptist Church in Dothan.