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* * Donna Alvis-Banks loves stories 

Donna Alvis-Banks has always loved the written word.

She is going through some changes in her life right now, preparing for a retirement move to Florida with her husband. She was downsizing and getting rid of some stuff at her house, including a series of 8 x 10 photographs of classic American writers. When I heard about this, I thought it would be fun to get together and catch up. We met at a local fast food restaurant, she nibbling away at some chicken bits.

Donna graduated from Christiansburg High School a year before me and then got an English degree at Radford University. She taught at Blacksburg High School for six years before her two sons were born, and then she took several years off as a stay at home mom. When she returned to the workforce, she did not want to go back into teaching.

She said, “I took a course at Radford University that I thought was fascinating, and I fell in love with 20th Century American writers. I love the naturalists, the writers of that period.”

She had photos of John Steinbach, Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner, and Carson McCullers. “There was lots of turmoil, lots of stuff happening. They were trying to make sense of it. My favorite book is the Grapes of Wrath. It is so depressing, but at the same time so hopeful.

“To inspire myself during college, I got photos of them and hung them over my desk. I never did well in math. I remember during grade school I’d hide a novel inside my math textbook and act really fascinated.”

When her sons were old enough for her to return to the work force, she didn’t want to return to teaching. “It’s the hardest job in the world. The Roanoke Times was producing a tabloid called the Current. It was 1988. They needed material to fill it to satisfy readers and advertisers. I applied and got the job as an editorial assistant.”

She worked for them for 20 years.

“It started off entry level, doing calendar listings and the arts and entertainment column. I worked closely with the public. I wrote feature stories when I had time.” Finally, she was given the job as a feature writer and reporter.

“I think I had the compassion beat. They told me I was the most compassionate reporter. What that meant was that every time there was a tragedy, they’d send me to interview the affected people. I wrote lots of obituaries.

“I interviewed people who lost children in fires or explosions. Despite the stress and anxiety of interviewing those affected by such tragedy, I loved feeling that I could be their voice. It was what I was supposed to do.”

“I think there is a need for more compassion in journalism. I think reporters are known for being intrusive, in your face, interfering, asking inappropriate questions. But I think they can provide a service and some comfort in the way they approach people in their worst times. I wanted them to be comfortable when they talked.

“Everybody has a story. We did what we called the obit of the week. I’d look over the obituaries that came in and then reach out to the survivors to get his or her story. I wish I’d known many of them. Then I went into Christiansburg government reporting, that fed my interest in politics.”

I asked about her views on the changing nature of journalism. She said, “Economics. Back then newspapers were highly profitable and were looking for ways to spend money. Subscriptions and advertising were generating lots of money. We had staff that could spend the time for investigations. That was the height of good journalism. That all began to diminish as the Internet came into common use. Papers started laying off people. That makes for a terrible work environment.

“When the Tech shooting happened (in 2007), I spent most of a year working on that. It was the best and worst thing that happened for me. The demands were constant. It was stressful with all the constant pain and suffering. It was taxing. The national media descended. People thought they were intruding on them and were resentful. There was animosity towards the media that was sometimes directed at me. I tried to be kind and report respectfully. People decided the press was bad. The local media was invested in being kind.

“Most people have no idea of the ethics that go into journalistic decisions. Spreading misinformation is irresponsible. There is still plenty of good journalism sources out there. The first rule of journalism is, ‘If your mother says she loves you, check it out.’ Newspapers are not sound bites. It gives a full understanding of the community.

“There is nothing like a beautifully written story.”

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