Before the pandemic reduced journalism to an unsatisfying mix of Zoom conference calls and unreturned messages, Jane McClure claimed with pride that she knew the location of every uncomfortable chair in the city of St. Paul. That’s what happens when you cover as many public meetings over almost four decades as McClure has, churning out stories for Twin Cities community newspapers like The Villager of Highland Park and the Midway Como Frogtown Monitor.
“Actually, I’ve kind of started to miss them,” McClure said. “Zoom and Skype and phone meetings are for the birds.”
There’s an old journalism axiom that news never happens in the office. Another axiom, not exclusive to journalism, says 90 percent of life is showing up. McClure, who turns 63 this month, embraces both as one of the most prolific journalists in the Twin Cities.
A freelance government reporter and managing editor of Access Press, the state’s largest publication devoted to disability issues, McClure was everywhere before COVID-19 shut down the world. Peruse any random issue of The Villager and you’ll find McClure’s byline throughout; she had 10 in the May 26-June 8 issue alone. Villager publisher Michael Mischke said if McClure quit, he’d need to hire three people to replace her.
“She’s the hardest working journalist I’ve ever seen, and has more patience than Job,” Mischke said. “I couldn’t do what she does. I don’t know how she does it.”
As community papers folded and the city dailies pulled back on coverage, McClure often found herself the only reporter covering things like a Ramsey County Truth in Taxation meeting in Maplewood. But showing up is the only way she knows how to do it. “Well, where do you think the stories are?” she said. “I don’t get this whole mentality that you sit in the office and things come to you.”
COVID-19, however, shifted public meetings online, to McClure’s ever-mounting frustration. McClure quickly discovered it’s much easier for elected officials to avoid questions and accountability when journalists and concerned citizens aren’t in the room. How do you cover the state Legislature when you can’t buttonhole lawmakers and staffers in Capitol hallways, or when there’s no access to an important committee meeting?
“I haven’t been to most places for a year,” McClure said. “What we’re hearing in St. Paul is, city meetings will start to go more in person in the fall, even though we have the different boards, commissions and committees talking about keeping them hybrid, doing more online than they did in the past.”
McClure concedes online meetings are great for those with disabilities or transportation issues, the elderly, or anyone hesitant to go out at night. For them, McClure said, it’s a godsend.
However, she adds, “there have been a lot of drawbacks. A lot of it for journalists is, the policymakers don’t see us. Sometimes you need to know we’re there, that we’re watching you, and you need to be accountable. That’s a big deal. … It’s a hell of a lot easier for people to ignore you, and that annoys me to no end. You’ll sit through some fabulous online presentations, but it raises more questions than answers. Getting ahold of people has become a huge issue for me.”
That’s 50 years of journalism experience talking. Originally from central Iowa, the daughter of a cattle and crop farmer, McClure gained her first byline at age 12 in a small weekly newspaper. She was one of those kids fascinated by the smell of newsprint and the clickity-clack of a wire service teletype.
While writing for the Iowa State University student newspaper, McClure is believed to be the first woman to cover Big Eight football. She graduated in 1980, moved to Minnesota three years later and never left, writing for various community and weekly newspapers. Some no longer exist.
These days, McClure works from her home in the Mac-Groveland neighborhood of St. Paul. She jokes that her two cats, Sweet Pea and Scratch, often wonder when she’s leaving for the office. (Another cat, Squeak, passed away recently after a long life.)
Like so many newspapers, Access Press lost advertisers in the pandemic. To save money, it abandoned its office last year when the lease ran out. A Paycheck Protection Program loan helped stabilize finances, and McClure said Access Press plans to hire an advertising salesperson and an executive director.
McClure expects Access Press to lease office space again, but she is in no hurry to go back. Though fully vaccinated against COVID, her five disabilities, including rheumatoid arthritis and high-functioning Asperger’s on the autism spectrum, make her vulnerable. McClure mentions this simply as a point of fact. None of the disabilities affect her journalism.
“I’m not here to inspire you,” she said. “I’m not here for, `There but the grace of God go I.’ I’m not your show animal. I’m not here to be the plucky woman in her wheelchair — and I don’t use one yet — who’s out shoveling all her neighbors’ walks and then sails downtown to sing the national anthem at the basketball game.
“There’s this kind of Hallmark Movie quality to it all, where we’re magically cured of our disabilities and we jump out of wheelchair and walk into the sunset along the beach and everything’s fabulous. That’s not reality.”
McClure edits Access Press to focus on legislative issues, a kind of Disability 101, while avoiding clichéd inspirational stories. Former Access Press editor-in-chief Tim Benjamin, who hired McClure 13 years ago, said three things set her apart: “The ability to listen. The ability to ask the right questions. And her dedication.” He adds: “She’s just a fabulous person, dedicated to journalism, dedicated to the disability community, dedicated to Minnesota.”
And, for now, stuck working from home, in a chair more comfortable than most in St. Paul. “It has been a really tough year on both sides of the notebook and microphone,” she said.