Samantha Stetzer: See you later, River Valley

August 12, 2018

Samantha Stetzer

I have no clue how to start this.

I’ve sat with an open Word document for a few minutes now — after already pushing this off until the very last minute — while the cursor symbol mocks me with a constant blink, almost rhythmically saying “write, write, write…”

It’s very journalist-like of me. We all work best under the pressure of a deadline.

But in a way, starting Monday, I’ll no longer be able use that excuse. In a sense, I’ll no longer be a reporter.

I’ve been offered and have accepted a job as a copywriter with a print marketing firm in Boise, Idaho, and Friday, Aug. 10 was my last day as a reporter with the River Valley Media Group and the Chippewa Herald. I’ll be writing newsletter content and stories for businesses in Idaho, while also remaining active in freelancing work I do, writing content for magazines.

But I owe the last three years of my life to my high school guidance counselor, Laurie Kessler.

Kessler, who was then working at Holmen High School, heard I was interested in journalism, and asked Randy Erickson with the (again, what was then called) Holmen Courier if they needed any help.

Instead, he suggested the La Crosse Tribune, and that fall in 2012, at 17 years old, I was working in a newsroom.

It was a relatively calm gig. I spent many afternoons just practicing editing, re-writing handwritten letters shaming politicians and inputting community calendar events.

I was there when Sandy Hook unraveled. I got to tally numbers on election night the second time Barack Obama was elected. I experienced the joys and tedious intricacies that come with researching on microfilm for a story on downtown shopping.

And then I got to write! It was horrible, and nearly every word was changed in editing — but it was my first, real byline.

I still can’t believe I got to do it; they took a chance on a high school student. I felt like I was in the company of rock stars — people whose bylines I’d seen for years while searching for the comics (sorry, guys).

Fast forward to my junior year as a journalism student at Winona State University, and The Winona Daily News offered me a part-time reporter position. I worked maybe twice a week, editing and filing news releases and those announcements grandparents love to cut out and save.

I rotated weekends with two other college part-time workers and wrote an occasional profile — and I loved it. I was learning how to be a journalist at the university, and at the same time, I got to apply it and mold it.

But I’ll never forget my first weekend working alone. On Sundays, we typically just had to come in and do some desk work and tidy up the email inbox, which took maybe an hour. I had brought my lunch in that day, so I could eat while I worked in the quiet, almost haunted vibe of Sundays in the newsroom.

In the middle of a big bite (I distinctively remember it being very onion-y), I hear a dispatcher on the police scanner behind me state, “shots fired,” amid alarms and whistles. Mid-chew I scrambled for a pen to grab the address that was being thrown in among the chaos.

After confirming that I was indeed supposed to go cover that, I grabbed my notebook and met up with the photographer at the scene. I chatted with neighbors, officers and onlookers, standing there for what felt like hours, shaking as I occasionally remembered that some guy just had his life cut short at 1 p.m. on a Sunday because someone else decided to play God while I enjoyed an overly onioned sandwich just two miles away.

Families (and subsequently many families, as a handful of people were arrested for the murder) were shaken to their core that day.

It puts the whole job into perspective. I’m not just covering what happens around town.

I’m writing about people. I’m writing about lives and the stories that shape them, no matter how insignificant or grand.

A few weeks later, I would cover a train derailment over a weekend shift, which caused veteran reporter and eventual editor of the Winona Daily News, Jerome Christenson, to joke that maybe they should all be on edge when I worked weekends.

Throughout my 2-and-a-half years with the Daily News I covered two homicides, chased down leads about fires, sat in on an interview with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, basically toured the Minnesota and Wisconsin driftless area covering nearly every small town festival in a 50-mile radius of Winona, attended a multitude of way too early races (Seriously, why do they all start at 6 a.m. on a Saturday?) and got to know plenty of charitable organizations in Winona.

The events and the perks were cool and all, but it was the people that made it worthwhile. There’s a handful that I will always remember.

The women who created greeting cards to raise funds for the hungry. (My first story!) The two men in Galesville who have been friends for the past 80 years. The countless volunteers I’ve profiled for a monthly series. The Hoff family and their generational dedication to serving those in mourning through their funeral home. (I won an award for that story, but really it was the family whose story sold it. I just documented it.) The work the humane society and its volunteers are doing to bring dogs into its shelters after Hurricane Harvey. A group of widowed friends who meet for breakfast and good conversation. The Rushford couple, the Haakes, who are the definition of a good marriage.

These are the stories that have fueled my passion for journalism, and are the main reasons why I can’t give it up, even when going to “the dark side” as journalists affectionately call public relations and marketing professionals.

I don’t mind city meetings or covering the daily stories a community deserves to hear, but I love sitting in someone’s kitchen over a mug of lemon tea and a half eaten slice of apple pie, chatting about the day they met and the life they spent building up their farm. (I advise everyone near Rushford get to know the Haakes)

Those are the stories that give me energy and make me excited for work — and I got to continue them at the Chippewa Herald.

In September 2017, I also became a part-time reporter at the Chippewa Herald. I would spend half a week in Winona and another up in Chippewa Falls, crashing at my boyfriend’s place in Eau Claire (sorry, Chippewa Falls).

I met a relative, former Herald reporter Rod Stetzer, whom I didn’t realize I was related to, and got to hear stories of my grandpa, my dad and my aunts and uncles. It meant the world to me to have another connection to a grandfather who died when I was just 2 years old.

Plus, I got to work alongside some of the hardest working people I know. The Chippewa Valley is so lucky to have them reporting on their daily lives. Appreciate them, Chippewa area.

And get excited! You have so many amazing things happening in your community. Don’t forget what a wonderful, kind and gorgeous community you get to foster here in the beginning of the Northwoods.

Over the years, I got to write for the La Crosse Tribune and the Jackson County Chronicle periodically, too. My writing and professionalism on the job has greatly improved, and I genuinely believe that wouldn’t be the case if it hadn’t been for Rusty Cunningham, Marc Wehrs, Brian Voerding, Jerome Christenson, the reporters and photographers I worked with throughout the years and countless others I’m missing in this already way too long column (typical).

And there’s the debt I owe to Mrs. Kessler, of course.

I’m incredibly sad and excited about my next steps. Of course I’m going to miss what I do here. It’s comfortable, yet it’s fun and exhausting in a way you will never understand until you’ve done it.

I was given a chance to write stories about people who leaped into something new.

So, thanks for the lesson, River Valley. I’m going to try that, too.

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