By Henry Colt
This is embarrassing to admit, but before I got hired by the Sitka Sentinel for a three-month reporting stint, I’d never read a newspaper in its entirety.
I loved magazines because they had flashy graphics and full-page photographs. I loved novels because they had one, and only one, story to follow. But newspapers, with their lack of flashy graphics and disorienting multiplicity of stories, offended my sensibilities as a millennial with attention deficit disorder.
Still, before I left my home in Maine for Alaska, I did my research. I started reading the Sentinel online every day. I read about the Wild Foods Potluck, the roadless rule debate, and the Planning Commission’s approval of Alice Island re-plats. But none of the news really registered, because Sitka wasn’t yet my community; Maine was. The Alice Island re-plats especially didn’t register, because I hadn’t the faintest idea where Alice Island was, what a re-plat (or even a regular plat) was, or who special projects manager Scott Brylinsky was.
Then I moved to Sitka. I started covering Planning Commission meetings on Wednesday nights, and, on Monday nights, playing folk music with Scott Brylinsky, who is as excellent a harmonica player as he is a Planning Department special projects manager. He knows all about re-plats.
After my second or third day of work, I biked to Lakeside Grocery to buy three russet potatoes and a block of Tillamook cheddar. When the man behind me in the checkout line bought a copy of the Sentinel—the same copy in whose front-page story on the holiday boat parade I’d blatantly misused the term “Nordic Tug”— I simultaneously thought, ‘Crap! People actually read this thing!’ and ‘Cool! People actually read this thing!’ (I would be impressed to learn that about 1,600 people—more than a sixth of Sitka’s population and about half its households—subscribe to the print edition of the Sentinel; compare that to the roughly 176,000 New York metro area residents—less than one hundredth of the New York metro population— who subscribe to the print edition of the weekday New York Times.)
That night at dinner, when my new roommates started talking about the roadless rule, I looked sheepishly down at my cheesy potatoes because I, a reporter who was supposed to be well-versed on what was happening in town, had nothing to say. I didn’t know a damn thing about the roadless rule: who the major players were, whether Sitkans supported or opposed it, or even that the popular salmon-shaped Nalgene sticker that read, “GUT FISH, NOT THE TONGASS,” was a pointed comment on wanting to keep the roadless rule in place. I was—not for the first time that winter—embarrassed.
I wasn’t a total greenhorn. I was an aspiring writer interested in cranking out fiction or creative nonfiction in some hazy potential future, but in the present, interested in writing something that would actually pay my rent. I didn’t know it then, but I was the latest Thad Poulson Special: a high-on-enthusiasm, low-on-experience youngster whom the Sentinel’s octogenarian editor / publisher / owner takes great pleasure in molding, scolding and transforming—dangling modifier by split infinitive—into a journalist. (I still have some transforming to do.)
Neither was I a total greenhorn when it came to Sitka. I’d spent two months there four years ago, and had fallen so totally in love with the place that I knew I would come back. Where else in the world does someone you’ve just met lend you their dog, car, and house for the weekend on the one condition that you eat some of the king salmon in their freezer? Where else in the world can you attend three potlucks, two concerts, and one gender-bending-marine- invertebrate-themed house party—in the same night? Nowhere in New England, that is for sure.
Ten days ago, when I left Sitka on the 6 a.m. flight so that I could return to Maine in time to work the spring session of my outdoor education job, Alaska had just gotten its first confirmed case of the coronavirus.
My itinerary, it seemed, was tailor-made for the spreading of germs: five airports, including the dreaded petri dish known as Sea-Tac.
To avoid catching COVID-19 and giving it to my 89-year-old grandmother while I visited family in Massachusetts for a few days, I was under strict parental orders to procure by any means necessary the last remaining bottle of hand sanitizer on Baranof Island, and to adhere to a multi-step sterilization protocol on each of my four flights—but I couldn’t find that elusive bottle, so I settled for a Ziploc bag of sanitizer decanted from a dispenser in the Sitka airport.
In Sea-Tac, which looked more like a hospital than an airport due to the number of travelers wearing surgical masks, I faced the difficult decision of whether to buy a bottle of Smartwater that might or might not have been handled by a COVID-carrying kiosk employee. I weighed the severity of my parched throat against the germ-blocking capabilities of a Smartwater bottle cap, then purchased the bottle from a gloved salesperson, rubbed it down with sanitizer, drank its contents, and discarded it. Then I checked my email and learned I was out of a job: all schools in Maine had closed indefinitely.
The past three months, while Thad and his wife, Sandy, the Sentinel’s co-publisher and AP editor, taught me the difference between a plat and a re-plat, a good lede and a lousy one, a strong cup of coffee and a weak one (and the innumerable journalistic benefits offered by the former), I learned a few other things by osmosis.
One of them: Newspapers, of which more than one in five have closed in the U.S. during the last fifteen years, are as vital to their communities as potlucks, concerts, salmon-sharing and marine-invertebrate-themed house parties are to Sitka. And in Sitka, few things are more vital than the Sentinel.
Who else will tell you that an electric fishing boat took its maiden voyage? That your neighbor just won a $50,000 grant? That an injured great horned owl passed its rehabilitation test with flying colors?
Who else, when crisis strikes, will tell you exactly what’s happening in Seattle, D.C., and Italy—then tell you exactly what’s happening at the Backdoor Café, the Pioneer Home, and Mt. Edgecumbe High School?
Thad and Sandy, who have been keeping the Sentinel going for the last half-century, will. Or they will make sure their reporters—whom they keep well-caffeinated, well-fed, and well-informed as they fix their (or, rather, my) split infinitives, dangling modifiers, and botched Planning Commission nomenclature—will.
Sandy, won’t tell you about her dynamite former column in the Salt Lake City Tribune, but she will invite you to her dynamite New Year’s party. Then she will go downstairs and cheerfully entertain the army of middle-school paper carriers who are growing impatient because the paper is late because your story on the Planning Commission was late because you lost your notebook, which, just when you were beginning to abandon all hope, she found and handed to you with a smile.
Thad will hand you a coffee in the morning, a beer at the New Year’s party, and two perfectly-placed sentences each day. When your confidence flags he will regale you with stories of cigar-smoking editors, potbellied columnists, and other miscellanea from his days at the Daily Oklahoman, back when print was king. When your confidence continues to flag and you become convinced you might just be the most clueless reporter in the history of Southeast Alaskan journalism, he will sense this, and tell you, very quickly but very convincingly, that you are learning a thing or two about Planning Commissions.
I won’t say how old Thad and Sandy are, but I will say that they are almost as old as my grandmother, who, at 89, is currently on a strictly-enforced senior-citizen-COVID-crisis — lockdown—no grocery shopping, no visitors, and no hugs from grandchildren, especially from grandchildren who’ve just come back from a five-part tour of U.S. airports. When she goes for her morning walk, she is forbidden not only from coming within six feet of other walkers but also from petting their dogs, whom certain family members now refer to as “virus vectors.” My grandmother sounds cheerful on the phone, but I think she’s getting lonelier by the day. Still, lockdown is currently the best option for an octogenarian. It’s sad but true. Working five days a week in a cramped newsroom may be one of the absolute worst options for an octogenarian. But I know two of them who do it anyway, because their paper and their town are more important to them than their health.
When I got home, I did something I would never have done four months ago: I read the newspaper.
As I scrolled through the Sentinel PDF, learning about the closure or cancellation of 31 local businesses and events, I was hardly surprised by the tiny textbox in the lower right hand corner titled, “Sentinel Response.”
Its first sentence:
“The Daily Sitka Sentinel plans to publish and deliver the paper Monday through Friday as usual during the COVID-19 emergency.”
Well. How could it not?