By Leon D'Souza
On a heavy news day, Jeremiah Stettler’s phone rings off the hook.
But The Herald Journal’s city hall reporter does not grumble. He enjoys the attention.
Stettler answers each call differently, sometimes lounging on his swivel chair, and other times hunching forward, elbows on desk, the phone pressed close to his ear. His voice is business-like, suave, with each word enunciated clearly. His tone rarely betrays a caller’s disposition. Posture is the only giveaway. If he’s leaning in, he’s probably dealing with an irate caller who has phoned in to rant.
Then there is his laugh, a cross between a raspy chipmunk and a child at recess. It is infectious and seems almost made for the airwaves.
Stettler’s early ambitions lay in broadcast journalism.
ON THE AIR
"I envisioned myself as the next Dan Rather or Peter Jennings, but shorter," Stettler said.
Newspaper reporting hadn’t crossed his mind. Though he enjoyed creative writing, and even penned a crude science-fiction novel in his late teens.
Fresh out of high school, Stettler followed his broadcasting ambition into a small radio station in Price, Utah, where he got his start with a morning gospel program and an afternoon sports show.
"I interviewed Episcopalians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, you name it," he said.
It wasn’t the easiest job, or the most enjoyable, but it was a beginning. And it gave him an opportunity to discover what he didn’t like about being on the air: There was never any real action.
"I didn’t feel like a news-gatherer at the radio station. I was simply a voice, regurgitating the news that had already appeared in the newspaper," he said. "I discovered that newspapers allowed for in-depth reporting on issues that may have gone unnoticed otherwise."
So while he butted heads with ministers and reverends, Stettler looked everywhere for what he believed was more his calling. He wanted a newspaper job.
By then, he was halfway through a degree at the College of Eastern Utah.
"I decided to take a newspaper writing class, thinking it would be an easy elective for someone who enjoyed writing," Stettler recalled.
He was surprised when the instructor recommended buying a tape recorder toconduct interviews.
"‘Interviews?’ ‘Do you really have to do interviews to write a news story?’" he asked rhetorically, mimicking a confused frown.
EARLY DAYS IN THE NEWSROOM
A year after he was introduced to the vagaries of reporting, Stettler landed a job at The Sun Advocate, a community newspaper.
"There were two people on the news staff," he recalled.
This had some advantages. Stettler wasn’t hired on as a lowly reporter, but filled the more exalted position of sports editor.
"The other guy was the news editor, and we were responsible for everything," he said.
Everything is right. The small community paper did not subscribe to The Associated Press wire, which meant Stettler and the other handy reporter on staff were wholly responsible for digging up enough news to fill the paper’s pages.
"It was one of those papers where you carried around a police scanner all the time, because you were also the cops reporter, the editorial writer and the copy editor," he said.
The Sun Advocate was a far cry from the fairly mundane world of small-time radio, but at times it was too much for too little. Ultimately, it came time to move on.
Armed with an associate degree, Stettler moved north to Logan, where he planned on attending Utah State University, and, with a bit of luck, continuing his nascent journalism career. He met with Charles "Charlie" McCollum, The Herald Journal’s managing editor, and ended the promising rendezvous with one request.
"I told Charlie I didn’t want to have anything to do with sports," he said. "Imagine how I felt when Shawn Harrison, the sports editor, called and offered me a job.
A GIFT OF CHANCE
Stettler joined The Herald Journal as a sports reporter, much to his dismay.
"They made me do statistics. I was horrible," he said. "In fact, [the radio commentator] Al Lewis called me once and said, ‘Are we watching the same game, because your stats are terrible.’And they were."
Those were difficult days.
Determined to step away from the world of sports, Stettler snapped up every opportunity to cover stories on the news side.
"I finally made it as the paper’s agriculture reporter," he said.
Then the unexpected happened. A city desk writer resigned her job to attend law school in Salt Lake City. Her slot had to be filled, and the paper shuffled staff around, leaving the city hall reporter position vacant.
"I applied," Stettler recalled. "Charlie interviewed me extensively. He wasn’t comfortable. He even told me several times that he wouldn’t give me the job."
However, for some reason, McCollum decided to let him have a go at the beat, and Stettler landed the post.
"It was intimidating," he recalled. "For one thing, I always thought the city beat was a job experienced reporters aspired to. Also, in my public affairs reporting class at the university, we were covering smaller communities, and I was led to believe that Logan city was out of my league."
Stettler got off to a rough start.
THE ROAD TO A1
"My first several stories ended up on page 6," he said. "What I was doing was covering every agenda item discussed in the meetings, because that was the writing style at The Sun Advocate."
His tendency to summarize meetings made him an editor’s nightmare. Stettler’s stories were always marked up in red. For him, the long journey to A1 began with an understanding of how to craft a good lede.
"I slowly figured out how to draw people into a story. I understood that a meeting was about covering issues. I learned how to incorporate narration, setting and character into the news. My writing began to evolve," he explained.
He still struggles with that evolution today, returning from a meeting, every now and then, with lengthy records he labors over to mold into a story.
Although, overall, things have changed for the better. According to his editors, Stettler has remade himself. In a space of five years, the soft-spoken, 5-foot-something underdog from Price has emerged as the newsroom’s top dog.
LEARNING THE ROPES
The progression wasn’t easy.
When Stettler took over the city beat, he didn’t know where to begin. Writing is an important part of a reporter’s job, but it is still only half the mission. News gathering is equally essential, but it takes experience, and Stettler hadn’t spent a lot of time in the field
."I think at first you’re going through this frantic learning process, walking the halls, talking to secretaries and department heads," he explained. "I rummaged through any papers I found at city hall. They have printed schedules on conference rooms, and those tell you a lot."
The trick is finding the right sources, something he soon became proficient at.
"I’d talk to underlings, like the budget analyst. She’d say, ‘The power department is going down the tubes.’ That’s a story," Stettler said. "I like to emphasize [talking to] department heads rather than elected officials."
Nonetheless, that presents some problems, too.
"The biggest challenge is reaching a balance on how you treat a department head. Do you treat him as a friendly colleague or a source? For instance, I was very close to power officials until I had to investigate pornography charges in that department," he explained.
Stettler’s mantra: "Journalists should definitely not become too attached to sources. Building a positive relationship is different from engaging on a personal level. Always make sure you tell them why you’re there."
The past five years have taught him a great deal about journalism’s quest for truth.
"Truth is subjective," Stettler said. "Understand that
anyone who talks to you
So is the quest for a great underlying truth an exercise in futility?
"I think there are certain truths that exist in any story,"
he explained. "In a political setting, truth is an evolutionary
process that comes across through debate. For example, the wetlands
may cost $8 million, but that is
JEREMIAH THE BELOVED
Stettler’s insights and experiences have earned him the respect – even the envy – of his colleagues.
Cops and Courts reporter Jason Bergreen is one of his biggest fans.
"I’ve always liked his ability to report on the harder subjects," Bergreen said. "He asks tough questions in a way that people don’t feel threatened by them."
There were a few stories on Stettler’s beat that Bergreen is especially glad he didn’t have to tackle himself.
"There was this one story about the city hiring someone to help them with recycling. The new hire was going to be paid about $70,000. Thing is, he was the mayor’s friend," Bergreen explained. "I thought this was a sticky subject since it raised the issue of cronyism. But Jeremiah was really good about confronting the mayor with the issue and urging him to get it out of the way quickly by talking about it."
His gentle manner extends beyond scavenging for news. Features Editor Cindy Yurth recalled an incident at the office that influenced her impression of Stettler.
"One of our employees had a handicapped son who would follow her to work everyday, and he really latched on to Jeremiah," she said. "From that point on, Jeremiah had to explain everything he was doing, and as a result, couldn’t get out and work on his beat as much. Still, he was really sweet about it all."
That amiability will be sorely missed as Stettler moves on to the bigger and better. He’s been offered a job at The Saginaw (Mich.) News, and he’s bidding Logan adieu next week.
For many at The Herald Journal, his departure will be bittersweet. While the paper will miss his zealous reporting, Stettler’s colleagues acknowledge that his career is progressing well. They only wish they had more time to "kick around" outside the newsroom.
"I would have loved to take him out for a beer and an R-rated movie [even if he is Mormon]," Bergreen said. "He’s an outstanding kid."