Here’s a rarity: a feel-good story about newspapers.
Valerie Wigglesworth was an editor at The Dallas Morning News when a reorganization landed her in a suburban bureau as a reporter. She hadn’t worked as a reporter for a decade, but she was determined to succeed. As the lone breadwinner for her family of four, she had more at stake than most.
It took some time, but she steadily improved as a reporter and writer. She could write a nice feature story, and cover breaking news. Then Valerie and colleague Matthew Haag learned about Exide Technologies, owners of a lead smelter that has been operating outside Dallas since the 1960s. These days Exide — and the lead pollution it creates — are surrounded by a fresh-scrubbed suburb, Frisco, Texas, one of the fastest-growing places in the country.
Valerie and Matthew recognized a health threat that most of Valerie’s fellow Frisco residents couldn’t see out their car windows, and they started writing. They wrote stories about lead pollution and the health threat posed by the plant, especially to children. The city manager started returning her calls, so Valerie wrote some more. The plant’s management wanted her to come take a tour. She did, then wrote some more. Groups formed. Public hearings were held. She wrote some more. She won a grant to conduct soil testing. Valerie wrote some more.
It’s important to note that Valerie didn’t write just about Exide. She had to balance those responsibilities with murder trials, the divorce of a pro football Hall of Famer, an obituary for the world’s oldest pig, and plenty of other stories. But Exide remained her passion.
Last week Valerie was the first to report that the last secondary lead smelter in Texas will close at the end of the year. When I called her to talk about it, she was nice enough to thank me for my help during the years I was her editor.
My enduring memory of Valerie Wigglesworth is of her staring at her computer screen and sipping a Diet Coke, surrounded by mammoth stacks of paper. I think she read every page. Anyone who lives in Frisco or near a lead smelter anyplace else should be glad she did.
Here’s my question, though. If newspapers shrink to the point they can no longer do this kind of work, who will?