David Phillips: New chapter in newspaper story

By: 
David Phillips
Reflections from my Notebook

My working relationship with outgoing editor Melissa Vander Plas started in an unusual way. When she applied for a part-time office position in Harmony, I tried to talk her out of it, wondering if she was overqualified and would want to go back into teaching shortly after taking the job.

At least that is what she claims I said. I don’t recall that exact conversation since it was nearly 26 years ago and I’ve interviewed so many job candidates of varying degrees of suitability since then that I don’t recall the particulars of all those conversations.

She proved me wrong, though, as she eventually took over more journalistic duties by using her English education for journalism, writing informative stories for our readers and later overseeing other writers as an editor. And she stuck with it for nearly 26 years, not the 26 weeks I feared.

Now, the editor of the News Leader, Chatfield News and Bluff Country Reader is moving on to serve as director of the Harmony Chamber of Commerce. The reasons are many — the industry has changed drastically in recent years, her editor duties took her away from writing that she most enjoyed and she gets to work in the community in which she lives.

It was a tough decision for her as she told me she loved working in our communities and telling important stories. She said she even embraced the challenges we faced because she enjoyed the feelings of success when we overcame them. Some weeks, just getting the newspapers to press was an impressive accomplishment, she joked.

It’s going to be an adjustment for both of us. She is one of the last long-time employees of mine as time has moved on, causing many to retire or seek other opportunities.

I feel our newspapers will suffer for a while because she had taken over many responsibilities over the past decade and that won’t be easy to replace, particularly in this tight job market. So readers need to bear with us as we make the transition.

She’s right about the changes in the newspaper world. I’ve seen more changes in the past few years than in the 20+ years since she started.

When change is brought up, most people think about the changes in our process due to technological improvements that forced us to modify our routines. However, those really didn’t take much of an adjustment, except in learning new information. In fact, they were welcome as they made producing a newspaper easier.

The changes in relationships, particularly in the past few years, have been the challenge for me. I don’t feel the same relationship between the community and newspaper that I once did.

It’s not that newspapers are obsolete, but there isn’t that same role that we used to fill as the paper of record. We’ve taken on a little different role and that is a difficult adjustment for me to make. And, I’ve taken to worrying more about our future than I did when the world wide web was a new innovation that supposedly threatened to put us out of business.

The unease now is more complex, a combination of new technology, an economy that favors big companies and a population that is less tied to the local community.

Of course, the newspaper industry isn’t the only one facing an uncertain future that has had to make drastic adjustments. There seems to be a great transformation going on that is changing retail (Amazon), hospitality (Airbnb), transportation (Uber) and even human interactions (Facebook).

So, I’ll embrace the challenges like Melissa did, but I’m not sure if I will be around long enough to enjoy the successes because I feel the trends will take a while to play out.

That doesn’t mean I’m leaving the business, too, in the next few weeks. I plan to stick around for a while at least.

Melissa will still be involved in the newspaper, too. Like so many of my employees who leave, they rarely completely leave. I have at least three employees now who previously resigned their positions, only to have them come back to help in various capacities.

For Melissa, she will be doing some free-lance writing for our newspapers, covering some of those important stories, particularly in Harmony and the surrounding area. That will be a welcome addition because writers have been particularly difficult to find in recent years.

I’m not going to make any predictions on how long this new relationship will last. It’s not just that the future is uncertain. I also have this feeling she enjoys proving me wrong.