By Maria Fields-Chism
For The Arkadelphian
In late June, I exchanged a handful of messages with The Arkadelphian about a story they published about my son. When they mentioned having to take a two-week hiatus in July, I offered my help, noting that I know almost nothing about journalism but that I have a background in English.
A week later, I stepped into The Arkadelphian’s home-office-turned-newsroom and met Joel Phelps, the site’s founder. I expected something like a job interview. Instead, Phelps sat on the newsroom’s sofa and gestured to the chair behind the desk. “Go ahead and sit in the driver’s seat,” he said.
The first thing I learned is that Joel Phelps is not only the site’s founder but also its publisher, editor, reporter and photographer. He attends a dizzying schedule of public events and meetings, combs through stacks of records and news releases, monitors every aspect of the site’s online presence, and writes all the dad jokes.
Joel Phelps is The Arkadelphian.
The second thing I learned is that he doesn’t necessarily want to be. The Arkadelphian that Phelps envisions is not a single person but a community, a thriving network of readers, contributors and advertisers.
Phelps’ vision is one we should all share. According to “The State of Local News,” a 2022 report by Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, news deserts are growing across the country, leaving some 70 million residents with only tenuous access to local news or none at all, resulting in both a decrease in voter participation in local and state elections and an increase in corruption in government and business.
But I knew none of that when I offered my help. I knew just that I valued The Arkadelphian, that I had felt like a better informed and more engaged citizen since I had started reading it nearly a year before and that it was too essential to languish in Phelps’ absence.
Back in the driver’s seat, I published a death notice and wrote a brief story with Phelps’ help. That night, I attended my first city board meeting and spent three hours writing just over 300 words. Phelps is a patient teacher who doled out assignments in manageable chunks over the next few weeks: I started copy editing news releases and eventually graduated to compiling the police blotter. I gained a small measure of confidence and speed tempered by the certainty that I would never be as knowledgeable or as fast as Phelps. My only goal was to keep The Arkadelphian alive during his absence.
(Well, I also wanted to realize my childhood dream of being a reporter. As a kid of ten or eleven, I spent several summer afternoons wandering the hangars of my grandmother’s aircraft refurbishment business in search of employees willing to be interviewed. “Who is your favorite coworker?” I would ask, or “What do you like most about your job?” I carefully wrote their responses in a notebook, and when I filled up a page, I used the electric typewriter in the office to type my “newspaper,” a single column with the question as the headline and the responses bulleted underneath, which I taped to the wall of the breakroom, where–this was before the Clean Indoor Air Act–its edges would yellow and curl within hours.)
Still, nothing prepared me for the enormous sense of responsibility I felt for the site — for its readers and advertisers and for Phelps’ livelihood — during those two weeks. I woke early to gather reports and wrote late into the night. I checked the site’s email obsessively, afraid that I might miss something urgent. Though The Arkadelphian is all online, I had — am still having, as of last night — dreams of building layouts for a print newspaper, something I have never done.
In the end, nothing catastrophic happened in the news or because of my reporting of it. I stuck to the mundane but important, writing about board meetings and publishing news releases. Phelps left me breadcrumbs by way of ready-to-go stories and seemed always to reach out at exactly the moment I had a question only he could answer. Chris Babb contributed three fantastic stories — about new APSD superintendent Nikki Thomas, Arkadelphia’s own Babe Ruth team heading to the World Series and APSD’s incoming band directors — which were quite popular and for which I am immensely grateful. I was never truly on my own.
My experience was just as exhilarating as I imagined at ten years old. What surprised me was how much more value I found in The Arkadelphian while I was behind the curtain. Although I already believed that local citizens should know what happens in city board meetings, I gained a deeper appreciation for Phelps’ efforts in making that information timely and accessible. I may never attend another city board meeting, but as long as The Arkadelphian is reporting, I can be an informed and engaged citizen.
We all can.