Editor's Note: Welcome to a new series by the Pine Bluff Commercial. “We are Pine Bluff” will bring you stories of people who make up the fabric of our community. From the plumber, the baker and the mailman to teachers and the hourly-wage worker, this series will be dedicated to showcasing what makes our community great: Our people. We know everyone has a story to tell, and we can't wait to bring them to you. We begin this series by introducing you to us. We hope you enjoy the articles in the coming weeks. We will be featuring each newspaper department, telling you what we do here at the Commercial. Thank you for your readership.
Each word in every Pine Bluff Commercial edition represents the collective work of our newsroom staff. Whether it's editing news releases or creating original content, our staff spends hours every day carefully gathering facts for the next day's edition.
“One thing that most people don't realize is that even items that are submitted to our newsroom need to be processed and edited, and it takes a great amount of time each day to do that,” said Commercial Managing Editor John Worthen.
“For example, if we get a news release from the Arkansas Department of Health, we don't just copy and paste it into the newspaper. Oftentimes we will try to localize the issue if we can. Let's use the flu as an example. When we received a news release about the flu, we spent time talking to officials and tried to localize it as much as we could to make it more relevant to our readers.”
Original content, that is, stories that are put together exclusively by the Commercial's staff, take an even longer amount of time to produce and finalize. When an assignment is made, reporter Ray King or reporter David Hutter will then begin interviews, research and finally will write the article.
This can take as little as a half-day to a day or more, depending on how in-depth the piece is. But since the newspaper's newsroom staff only consists of two reporters, larger, in-depth pieces aren't always a possibility.
“With a small staff, we prioritize news issues and try to write as timely and concisely as we can, because we don't have the luxury of having a reporter who can exclusively work on larger pieces all of the time,” Worthen said. “A lot of times people will ask me about an issue and why we haven't covered it. I tell them that we are working on it, but it may take some time. We don't ignore issues, as some people believe. We cover the most pressing issues, then prioritize stories from there.”
The Commercial's newsroom consists of King, who primarily covers crime, along with county and city government, Hutter, who covers education and various city commissions, Sandra Hope, who handles church news, news briefs and other various items, and Ocie B. Brown, who covers sports.
King has been with the Commercial for 15 years. Hope is one of the longest-serving employees at the newspaper with 30 years of service. Hutter has been with the Commercial for three years, and Brown for almost three years. Worthen has been managing editor more almost two years, coming from the Democrat-Gazette, where he served as Pine Bluff Bureau chief.
Once stories are written, they are edited and sent on to design, where Andrew Spahr, who works out of northwest Arkansas, fits the copy and photos around the ads using a program called Adobe InDesign. The newspaper also employs a part time designer in Little Rock, Richelle Antipolo.
The Commercial once employed several design team members at its Pine Bluff office, but due to cutbacks, staff sizes have been reduced over the years.
“Most, if not all, newspapers are dealing with much smaller staff sizes than they had 10 or 20 years ago in an effort to cut costs,” Worthen said. “A newspaper's two largest expenses are personnel and news print paper. With the rise of online news, which in most cases is free, a lot newspapers have seen declines in paid subscriptions since the 2000s. And in our case at Pine Bluff, we have lost around 10,000 in our population size in a decade. So that greatly affects us as well. One advantage we have, however, is that there is no other source that provides as much news about our community as we do. If you want to know about the big issues affecting our city, we are the go-to source.”
Worthen continued: “One thing that all newspapers today struggle with, even larger ones, such as the New York Times, is a shortage of copy editors. At the Commercial, we don't employ a copy editor. Rather, I proof each page before it goes to the press each night. It's a tough task, especially considering there are literally thousands of words to review. Mistakes happen, and we always regret them. What bothers me the most is that sometimes people think we don't know any better; that we don't know how to spell a particular word. We do. Trust me. Twenty years ago, there were several people who proofed each page before press. It's the same situation at other newspapers as well. We do the best we can with what we have.”
Worthen said he is optimistic that with Go Forward Pine Bluff and the prospect of a casino resort being located in Pine Bluff, the newspaper will grow again — maybe even back to staffing levels seen 20 years ago.
“As Pine Bluff goes, so goes the Commercial,” Worthen said. “If our community grows, we will, too. More businesses mean more advertising, and more people means more readers. That would allow us to hire more workers. It's exciting to think about, and I really feel like it is going to happen. I am very proud of the herculean task our small group takes on each day. I just wish people could realize how much we truly care about our product and ensuring that everything is accurate. We take great pride in that.”