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Viewpoint: Bulletin was community newspaper training ground for New York Times columnist

David Carr, who spoke recently to the Minnesota Newspaper Association, interned at the Bulletin in the early 1980s. Bulletin photo by Scott Wente

It's a long journey from photographing hungry goats in south Washington County to writing about the business of media for the New York Times.

Such a path -- from a quality community newspaper to print journalism's flagship publication -- is unusual in this profession, but it is the route David Carr's career took, albeit with more life detours than you could chart on a map.

Carr is a columnist and reporter for the Times, but the Minnesota native's early journalism experience included an internship some 30 years ago at -- of all places -- the Bulletin, then called the Washington County Bulletin.

Carr's Bulletin stint might have been lost to microfiche, old newspaper volumes and a brief mention in his memoir, "The Night of the Gun," if not for his recent speech at the Minnesota Newspaper Association's annual convention.

Some of that entertaining speech was shop talk -- assessments of the newspaper business, where we're headed as an industry, etc. -- but he conveyed another message: he learned some of his core professional beliefs decades ago as a reporter at the Bulletin and other Minnesota publications.

What are those beliefs?

"Getting it right is important," he said. "Looking after the people that you write (about) is important."

Also, be firm but fair, and remember that at community newspapers you are writing about your neighbors.

"These are things I learned in Minnesota," Carr said.

Those beliefs would seem to go without saying, but they are worth repeating because Bulletin reporters follow them whether we're covering city council meetings, school events or other local news.

Chatting with Carr later, I was curious what he remembered of his time at the Bulletin.

"I don't remember what I wrote last week," he quipped.

But he did remember one south Washington County assignment: photographing goats. The story went something like this:

Carr was assigned to take photographs and write about goats on a boat on a Mississippi River island near St. Paul Park. Some locals offered Carr use of a small boat to get out to the goats.

"Off I went and rode over, and they all kind of gathered along the shore while I was going out there," he recalled. "I thought, 'Do people never go out and see the goats?'"

"So I get out there," he continued. "The goats are friendly ... they're waiting for food. Nobody told me the only reason people go out there is to give them, like, carrots and nuts and stuff like that. I had no food for the goats, and if any of you have spent any quality time around goats -- when they get pissed off they're not pleasant to be around."

The goats goosed him as he tried to take pictures.

"All the locals are just sitting on shore watching," he said. "Long-haired dip---- kid being knocked around by these goats."

He concluded: "There were other assignments that were far more pleasant."

Carr's time at the Bulletin was short. He moved on and his journalism career advanced, even amid a long recovery from drug addiction and alcohol abuse, detailed in his remarkably candid memoir.

Carr may seem an unusual voice for the importance of community newspapers like the Bulletin. But in his work -- and in ours -- it's clear people are changing how they get their news. After all, to the traditional newspaper and its website you can add myriad online sources, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, sites that collect, or aggregate, news stories from other sites -- the list is ever-growing.

The Bulletin has more than 50 years of history and remains the most comprehensive source of south Washington County news. Carr predicted that even while facing challenges and new competitors, small newspapers like the Bulletin will do well.

Social media -- viewed as a competitor to traditional news sources -- tries to claim a community connection, but knowing a community and its people is nothing new to local newspapers.

"Community papers have been doing that for a long, long time," Carr said.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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