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The Commons
Voices / Viewpoint

Writing close to home

'I've learned the craft of journalism while living in a place I know more intimately than anywhere else'

Evan Johnson, a native son of Marlboro, reports full-time for the Addison County Independent and its Vermont Sports magazine. Johnson, a 2013 graduate of Ithaca College, is also an editor for Offprint Magazine in Burlington, an “online arts, culture and news magazine dedicated to covering the issues that young people care about most.”

Originally published in The Commons issue #300 (Wednesday, April 8, 2015). This story appeared on page C4.



I became a published author when I was in high school.

The organist at my church, Alan Dann, became involved with a newspaper in Brattleboro, and he urged me to give it a shot. If memory serves, I wrote a piece about armed forces recruitment officers on campus at Brattleboro Union High School.

The reporting followed a typical arc. I checked with all the necessary sources at the school, called up a recruiting station and spoke with an officer (who was only too glad to talk with a 17-year-old male nearing the end of high school) and asked a handful of my peers how they felt about these recruiters photocopying pages of the yearbook. I finished the thing by deadline and sent it in.

Some time later, Alan handed me the printed edition of The Commons with my byline right there for me to see. The feeling was nothing short of electrifying; I still rode the bus to school and my face was covered in acne, but there it was: my writing, printed and available for readers in southern Vermont.

At the time, I was learning to love the written word and was contentedly chewing my way through the established canon of English literature. Poe and Whitman were nice, but I found that true stories always held my focus.

I wish I could say there was one book that did it for me, one singular piece of work that flipped a switch in my head, but I’m often reminded of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, or John Steinbeck’s Once There Was a War.

Gradually, I became aware that there was a special name for this kind of storytelling — journalism — and I latched onto the idea like a lamprey. My editor at The Commons, Jeff Potter, wrote me a letter of recommendation; I applied to nearly a dozen schools, and I was on my way to college.

* * *

I wish I could say I spent my time in great intellectual discussion under leafy arbors, but my four years in a nationally recognized school of communications were spent in the training of how and why people make news.

I learned to research, ask questions, cold-call, and shoot with a digital camera. Shorthand became as easy as breathing. By the time I was handed that cap and gown, you could keep Aristotle and Socrates; my literary titans were Roberto Saviano, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Tom Wolfe, and Charles Bowden.

Four years later after graduation, while many of my friends headed to New York City or Los Angeles, I found myself moving back to the woods of my home state, this time to the Champlain Valley for an internship at a nonprofit in Middlebury.

By the end of the summer after graduating just three months earlier, I landed a full-time job as a reporter at the Addison County Independent, just down the street. I’ve been there since.

It’s always tough being the new guy at work, and being the cub reporter brings its own learning curve. Many of my colleagues have been doing this work for longer than I’ve been alive; that’s literally a lifetime of experience and know-how that dwarfs my shiny new bachelor’s degree.

When we talk about the importance of local journalism, we’re talking about a collection of men and women who keep their fingers on the pulse of the communities they cover. These veterans know the power structures at work in Addison County and under the dome in Montpelier, and it’s always impressive to watch them at work. They’re also a fun bunch and some great role models.

I’d be lying if I said anything about writing coming easily for me. It’s messy, I spend too long thinking about the structure of my stories, and my editor still cracks me over the head for my sometimes-shaky knowledge of AP style.

But I’m patiently trying my hardest, and I’ve been told that I’m getting better.

As a result, I’ve got a list of rules for writing growing in a notebook that I keep on my desk. It’s been growing in the year and a half I’ve been in this business. They’re good rules for writing and some of them have broader applications.

Here are a few of my favorites:

• Don’t sell yourself short. Know your credibility — and your limits.

• Think five moves ahead. It’s like chess.

• Don’t write inside baseball. It’s not about you; it’s about the reader.

• Have some standards — keep ’em high.

Nobody goes into journalism for fame and fortune. It’s a craft that rewards quiet patience and humility, but it certainly isn’t lonely. This work thrives off of human contact, and you have to be genuinely curious and willing to go out, meet people, and hear what they have to say.

I’m someone who sometimes socializes more with the household dog at parties than with my fellow guests but, as corny as it sounds, working for a newspaper gets me out of the house and engaged with people.

The struggle and frustration that sometimes comes with reporting and writing is always followed by an enormous sense of satisfaction as heady as a runner’s high.

* * *

I’ve learned all of this while living in a place I know more intimately than anywhere else.

I used to think my distance from where I grew up would be directly proportional to my happiness and success: the farther from Vermont I would get, the happier and better off I’d be.

I’ve found the statement to be incredibly flawed, if not overly simplistic. I’ve got it pretty nice here in the Green Mountain State. Aside from a high quality of life, world-class skiing, and award-winning beer, Vermont is and always will be home.

These rolling hills, winding gravel roads, and sweeping sunsets in the Champlain Valley hold me like the arms of a mother.

And despite my contentedness for the time being, I realize there’s a bigger world out there, filled with a lot more to be seen.

In the coming months and years, I have no doubt a story will lead me across the United States and maybe the globe.

But for a young writer, this state has given me the best possible start, and I’m sure it’s going to be a good place to come back to.

And when I do, I’ll have some more stories to tell.

Just wait.

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