One of my favourite books of 2016 was the memoir of a photojournalist who has worked in some of the modern world’s most dangerous places. Lynsey Addario got her professional start in Afghanistan after Sept. 11, 2001, and has since worked in Iraq, Darfur, Congo and Libya. It’s a compelling read, in terms of watching history unfold through her talented lens, and via the natural tone in which she tells her dramatic story. The book’s unassuming title — “It’s What I Do” — lays plain how journalists feel about their work.
While reading, I recall telling Andrew how my profession could have led me into a similar existence. I could have been fitted for body armour whilst pregnant so I could be embedded with the military, or held for ransom, or worse. When one thinks of journalists losing their lives for their craft, these extreme scenarios come to mind.
Then Dan Rankin died on his way to cover a Christmas concert at South Perth Centennial School. An annual Christmas concert may not seem as history-making as the war in Afghanistan, but for a community newspaper, it’s just as essential. Stew Slater paid eloquent tribute to Dan last week; Chet Greason was equally expressive in the Stratford Gazette. The three of us discussed Dan’s passing at great length, of wanting to “do write” by our colleague.
Dan and I never had the pleasure of working together — if anything, he’d probably think of me as an anal-retentive submitter of press releases and photos — but his life is made familiar to me by the profession we shared. Journalism, for a variety of reasons, is a vanishing profession. The sudden loss of someone who thoughtfully did this unglamorous job unexpectedly and sadly pushes it further toward extinction.
I’m not self-aggrandizing when I say that small town reporters are local celebrities. Much like how most Canadians would recognize Peter Mansbridge over whoever stars in CBC’s most popular sitcom, we become recognizable faces in the community we serve. Our beat isn’t just politics, crime or culture, it’s an entire community. You see us everywhere, trying to document small town life accurately with well written stories and attractive photographs.
It’s more challenging than most would think. You have to become an encyclopedia on your community (Dan was a natural, as anyone who’s lost to the Pecan Sandies at trivia night could tell you). You have to distil the messages of people who aren’t trained in giving good interviews. You have to be humble, patient, and a natural multi-tasker, all on deadline. You have to have a sense of humour about your job (lest I promote “the competition”, but the Independent’s April Fool’s 2016 front page was genius).
Considering this, I knew Dan as an acquaintance. I got to know him more during his funeral. Many of the photos in his slideshow made me laugh, and it was the first time I heard music from my favourite musical groups played during a visitation. Professional similarities became personal. The poignant eulogies given by Dan’s wife, sister and mother filled my eyes with tears. They told the story of the loss of a young man deeply loved by his family, friends, and the community at large.
We all knew, even if we didn’t realize, that Dan was an active volunteer in St. Marys. There aren’t many men who can play age 20-40 in Community Players productions, for example, or who can spout baseball knowledge for “Ball Hall” events. As much as small town journalists are a part of the community they work in, they have to remain apart from it, to be able to cover any manner of controversy with a clear conscience. It is a delicate balance.
As a fellow journalist, who chose to pursue higher education to hone their writing craft, I assure you that Dan’s passing is worth the ink and discussion it’s been given, and the sadness felt by the St. Marys community.
When asked what’s news, any journo will say “Dog bites man: not news. Man bites dog: news.” It is, as Stew aptly wrote, unfathomable that a young man would meet his end in the way he did on his way to the same school he attended in his youth and in which he had extended family members performing on that day, to do his chosen work. A public figure not by choice, but by profession.
The conditions surrounding Dan’s death weren’t as exotic as war in a far-flung locale. They won’t be studied in any journalism school. But it doesn’t matter. In addition to the devastating loss felt by those who knew and loved him — not as journalist, but as son, husband, brother, uncle, friend — Dan’s death is a loss for the community he covered.
Journalism is what we do. But for one of us, this shrugging description is sadly forever in the past tense.