Archived Opinion

On being a columnist for a small-town newspaper

op columnThree months into this, I’ve decided that being a columnist for The Smoky Mountain News is potentially more challenging than being one for The New York Times. I’ve never been a columnist for a big-city publication, but I bet it’s easier to get lost in a sea of fast-paced New Yorkers after a contentious or honest column than it is to walk into Joey’s Pancake House where one knows half the occupancy. Growing up in Weaverville, I’m no stranger to the small-town vibe, a vibe that’s both comforting and precarious.

Comforting in that kids have five sets of parents. With carpooling, birthday parties, sports and dance practices, vacations, sleepovers, parades, ballgames and the local pool, all adults chip in to take care of whichever kids end up in their car or at their house that day. Comforting in that the same students sit in classrooms together from kindergarten through twelfth grade. Comforting in knowing a walk down Main Street means friendly waves and chatting with familiar faces. 

Precarious in that gossip abounds. Rumors spread.  Precarious in that neighbors and “friends” are quick to judge if someone makes a moral mistake or bucks the status quo. Precarious in that the same students sit in classrooms together from kindergarten through twelfth grade. Precarious in that walking down Main Street leaves no room for anonymity.

Living in a small town can be both tricky and rewarding. 

Most of the time. 

When I first started writing this column, our editor Scott McLeod used the word “edgy” when describing what he was looking for. In my very first piece, I described my conversation with him and within 24 hours of publication, I received this comment in an email. 

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“This is just a quick query. I am wondering whether you will be able to address the bigger picture in your columns? For instance persistent contrails in our skies, sometimes called “chemtrails”? Can you discuss GMOs and Monsanto, or fluoride in our drinking water in your edginess?”

I remember just starting at the screen and wondering if this comment was a joke. Then I Googled “chemtrails” and in case you are curious as well, chemtrails are long-lasting trails left in the sky by high-flying aircraft carrying chemical or biological agents deliberately sprayed for sinister purposes undisclosed to the general public, according to the Internet, that is.

With my first reader comment as a Smoky Mountain News columnist being that far-fetched, I decided anything was possible and from that point, I pulled on my big girl pants and said to myself, “Let’s do this, sister.”

Four weeks ago I wrote about cutting a skin tag off my husband’s face with a paring knife and the hard work it takes to make a marriage work. People liked this column and said it made them laugh. Others said they appreciated the honesty with which I wrote about the entangled beautiful mess that is matrimony. 

Then came my Donald Trump column. 

And wow. 

I now know that if I want to get a discussion stirred up, I need to write about politics. The funny thing is I’m not really a politically minded person; I just wrote the column from my heart and used a few editorial citations to support my statements. 

A number of people have approached me in person to commend my honesty, and many of my emails about the Trump column were heartfelt and kind, thanking me for stating what they also feel. 

Some opposing comments were clear and warranted while others were slanderous and hateful. 

One Trump-supporting gentlemen and I had a very sincere email exchange that began with a rude comment on his part. In the end, I felt like we both had more understanding of opposing views. 

The difference between my column and a political column in the N.Y. Times is that I know the people who are commenting. Many of the names on the SMN Facebook page are very familiar. I’m not a national columnist where some random person from a far-off place is bashing me. 

After reflecting upon all of this, I’ve decided that it doesn’t bother me as much as I thought it would. I actually like the comments. I like that people have opinions, and I truly appreciate when people can articulate their opinions in an intelligent way without the use of vulgar language and cutting words. Apparently, this is a challenging feat for some. 

Despite the fact that I love to travel and feel I have a global perspective on most things, at the end of the day, I’m a small-town girl. Always have been, always will be. I grew up in a town so similar to Waynesville it’s eerie. And both towns mean the world to me. 

I want my two little boys to grow up respecting other people’s opinions, even if it differs from their own. I also feel like that’s what a columnist must do, especially in a place where everyone knows your name. 

(Susanna Barbee can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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