Full Court Press’s Dan Cohen recently interviewed Caitlin Fillmore – a former reporter and current nonprofit communications professional about her experiences reporting in Northern Iowa. Below is a fascinating look into her job as a rural reporter. Caitlin now serves as the Executive Director of Association and Brand Advancement for the Central Coast YMCA in California.
What inspired you to become a reporter?
I am the baby of five, so the allure of knowing something first and having people say to me, “I didn’t realize that!” was irresistible. I’ve also always had a natural affinity and passion for writing and a deep belief that everyone has a meaningful story worth telling, especially in underserved and forgotten places.
What was special about covering small-towns in northern Iowa?
In small towns, it’s all about “who your people are”. Every time I would introduce myself to someone or set up an interview, the second question was almost always, “Where are you from?” “Are you related to so-and-so?” That sometimes made it challenging to get the job done because I did not share DNA with anyone I was interviewing, but a welcome challenge because it provided a great foundation for my future career in philanthropy: know who you are, always be authentic and genuinely curious and build relationships built on trust.
What story sticks out as a “you won’t believe this” kind of experience?
There are so many! I have crouched at the end of a chute taking pictures of blue ribbon livestock as they charged at me. I have interviewed an elderly matriarch over the traditional Czech Christmas dinner she prepared for me, completed with briny head cheese. I have attempted to understand ham radios with an enthusiastic trucker as he rumbled along the highway, shouting into his speakerphone. I have researched “vajazzling” and, believe it or not, interviewed someone on the topic.
Probably my best story came from when I was a college intern in Wisconsin and it involved a local girl who ascended to the illustrious height of… Wienermobile driver. She was lovely to talk to and was literally driving the giant sausage around as I chatted with her, but she had been trained to speak almost exclusively in puns, which, as a reporter, you cannot use. Apparently, it’s not easy to be a Wienermobile driver and many “don’t cut the mustard”. So I ended up talking to this Wienermobile driver for a probably unjustifiable amount of time because I needed her to get all of her puns out of her system.
What was the first, last, and best story you’ve written?
First: I reviewed a madrigal concert I sang in for my high school newspaper. That is definitely not how it works in the industry, but that story was so important for me because I rediscovered confidence in my voice and perspective and it set me on my career path.
Last: I interviewed a local student for a 4-H series. The content was pretty run-of-the-mill, but as I conducted the interview at the student’s home, I had to take shelter with her whole family as a tornado passed through.
Best: This story is notable to me because it signaled the end of my reporting career and my shift to philanthropy. I met two grandparents who never missed a single sporting event of their high school-aged children or grandchildren. It was a very sweet story, and the couple was clearly beloved. A few weeks after the story ran, I got a lovely thank-you card that expressed how thankful the family was for the piece, because the grandfather had just died and this story and its photos were some of the last mementos they have of him. Now, I am part of their story. And that is an honor.
Iowa is obviously a political hotspot, what’s it like when the Presidential campaign comes around?
How do things change in Rural Iowa? It is incredibly surreal to live in Iowa during a Presidential campaign (and the approximately 12-18 months before a Presidential campaign as is the current tradition). As a 22-year-old reporter it was a remarkable experience to pivot from marching out to take obligatory corn pictures in a field, trying not to get grasshoppers up my dress, and then running to interview Sen. Rick Santorum. It is an almost constant flow of newsmakers coming into towns that were previously only known for their Hobo Convention (which is literally held in Britt, Iowa). Every day truly felt like an opportunity to interact with the foundations of democracy: humble people sharing the spotlight with the representatives shaping our country. It’s an unparalleled, American experience. I think it’s best summed up by the snarky Des Moines-based clothing company Raygun, that sells a shirt with the slogan “Iowa! For some reason you have to come here to be President.”
Have you noticed any difference in the way different geographies consume their news?
I don’t think it’s necessarily a Midwest vs. West Coast thing, but more of what our nation is looking for right now: the objective facts when our minds need them and resonant stories when our souls need them.
What is the biggest misconception about rural journalism you’d like to dispel?
Admittedly, most of the stories I covered weren’t earth shattering. It was Homecoming parades and city council meetings and lutefisk dinners.
But the awesome responsibility and opportunity in rural journalism is elevating what may seem ordinary into something that honors the topics and the people. It may just be a Homecoming parade, but it’s someone’s home. Regardless of your occupation, there always something there when you’re open to connecting with and honoring your people.
If you owned a small town paper what might you change?
Recently a small town paper in Storm Lake, Iowa was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for their editorials that were, “fueled by tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa.”
I loved hearing this news, but I think it should be the norm, instead of the exception. Small town papers, and nonprofits for that matter, need to punch above their weight, invest in what truly matters to their community, and never apologize for being who they are.
Oh, and there should also be plenty of quality coverage of their sensational local charities.
Caitlin can be found at: www.linkedin.com/in/caitlin-fillmore