'Shitty' is as 'shitty' does
What is the litmus test for journalistic shittiness?

by c.d. norman

Newspapers, by tradition, review the year's top stories on the last Sunday in December. The Putnam Pit, a non-traditional newspaper, has chosen to review the past year's top stories on the first Sunday in January.  Which is another way of saying that I missed my deadline.

But I have a good excuse for being late: I'm not a professional journalist.  I don't make a dime from my contributions to The Pit.  Geoff Davidian, publisher of The Putnam Pit, says that I should pay him to print my stuff.  I may have to do that, someday, if I want to see Bob the GOB’s smiling face on my computer terminal.  The Pit's accounting ledger has so much red ink in it that Moses would be needed to pull the pages apart.

With little or no operating revenue, a permanent staff of one man working in a converted garage, and a non-permanent staff of people like me, whose only prior journalism experience was a six-month stint on a high school paper (thank you, Mrs. Jones), The Putnam Pit barely qualifies as a professional endeavor.  We have an excuse, then, for being, in the word of an anonymous Cookeville journalist quoted in a November Houston Press article, "shitty."

So what's the Herald-Citizen’s excuse for being shitty?

Shittiness, of course, is in the nose of the beholder.  And the Herald-Citizen smells great to some people.  Circuit Court Clerk Lewis Coomer, for instance, probably loves the H-C.  I doubt if anyone from the H-C has asked Coomer a question harder than "Is that L-E-W-I-S or L-O-U-I-S?"  The Herald-Citizen is also cherished by people, like me, who collect "below-the-fold" stories.

Below-the-fold stories are those articles about six-legged sheep and talking frogs that usually appear on the lower half of a newspaper page, below the big crease that runs horizontally across every page.  The Herald-Citizen’s readers will often find those stories above the fold.  On October 5, for example, the H-C’s lead story was a report on the World Pumpkin Weigh-Off in which Allardt resident Dwayne Delk rolled in a 616-pounder.  We were glad to learn that the winner of the smallest-pumpkin award had "originally hoped to compete for size, but says his dog tore up his pumpkin patch."

I'm as fascinated by big pumpkins as the next man, and I was happy to cut out the pumpkin article and file it with the picture of the giant cucumber that appeared in the Weston, West Virginia newspaper.  But at least the Weston paper put the cucumber on an inside page, even though its harvest was undoubtedly the most newsworthy event to take place in Weston (where the main employer is an insane asylum) since the disappearance of the city-owned goat that cleaned garbage from the banks of a local river.

The Herald-Citizen, however, features front-page pumpkins while ignoring – that is, choosing to not investigate – stories of potential news-worthiness that may damage the reputations of local officials and politicians.  The H-C staff seems to have its own "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy: they can't tell you about corruption in the local government because they choose not to ask about it.

The Pit, however, chose to ask, and told.

Printed editions of the "shitty" Putnam Pit distributed in 1998 featured these headlines...

  • DA Gibson blocks state probe of Lewis Coomer
  • Gibson blocked TBI probe of Coomer’s illegal 'jailer's fee'
  • Lillie Ann Sells' property transfers raise questions
  • Putnam County continues to pay for Lewis Coomer's civil rights defense after case against him as official is dismissed
  • Shipley whines about records request, chats for hours on personal phone calls
  • Who called state agents off Cookeville meth bust?
  • Porno at Cookeville City Hall
  • Public funds pay for DA's campaign promises
  • County pays $6000 to defend Lewis Coomer's personal lawsuit
  • Gibson's drug task force pays itself with confiscated property
  • Gibson tried to 'set up' Looper in 1997
  • New police chief has loud ties but is quiet about his overtime

    Meanwhile, the Herald-Citizen of 1998 gave us these journalistic gems…
  • Elderly woman says pig went ‘oink, oink,’ attacked
  • Ostrich kicks 63-year-old woman to death
  • Soup and sauce cook bites off co-worker’s finger
  • Gator fan bites off Vol fan's ear
  • Students take the plunge, swallow worms
  • Stomach problems spread in North Korea as hungry eat grass
  • Kentucky man ‘critical’ after asking friend to shoot can on head
  • Church to continue snake-handling services despite preacher's death
  • Casket price war: Now you can buy your casket on the Internet, in showroom
  • Police believe cross burning was result of fight over dead dog
  • Cocaine found in underwear, police say
  • Loose bull shot by police
  • Two-headed calf born on Iowa farm
  • Boom expected in squirrel population
  • Bear repellent may attract bears
  • Memphis ducks visit Louisville hotel
  • Fugitive pigs that captured British imagination caught
  • Ape Alliance formed to fight trade in gorilla meat
  • Dog, owl save girl from cold
  • Dog alerts owners to fire
  • Bad Santa sends vile answers

    As fascinating as these stories were, none topped my all-time favorite Herald-Citizen article, a 1989 story by Mary Jo Denton headlined "Man drowns in barrel."

    Last year's "Loose bull shot by police," also by Mary Jo Denton, described a thrilling police action in which four Cookeville police officers and six shotgun blasts were required to corner and kill an elusive bovine.

    The "bull" story brought to mind another 1989 Mary Jo Denton article, "Firemen extinguish fiery cow." In that incident the Cookeville Fire Department, displaying an efficiency that rivaled that of the bull-chasing policemen, needed an hour and fifteen minutes to douse a dead cow that had been set on fire.

    With such competent officers and firemen protecting the lives and property of the citizens, is it any wonder that arson-homicide is practically a spectator sport in Cookeville?

    Coming next week:  What the Herald-Citizen told you and what the Herald-Citizen didn't tell you but The Putnam Pit did in 1998.

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