Rebecca Corbett is the assistant managing editor of the most prestigious and influential news organization in the country. She led a duo of investigative reporters in their pursuit to expose the decades of sexual harassment perpetrated by Harvey Weinstein, a powerful Hollywood producer, which in turn helped spur a worldwide movement of women sharing their own stories of abuse — shedding light on just how pervasive the problem is in the workplace and elsewhere in our society. She and her colleagues at The New York Times were awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Public Service for this work — and the work that exposed similar toxic cultures of sexual harassment at media companies, in restaurant kitchens, at Silicon Valley startups and in Ford factories — just last week.

But she and I, oddly enough, have something in common.

We both started our journalism careers at the same newspaper, here at the Morning Sentinel in Waterville. From here, she left to work at an afternoon paper in Connecticut and then went off to the Baltimore Sun. She spent 20 years there, and she says it’s where she “grew up journalistically.”

She and her husband, Chris, who met while working together at the Sentinel, still come to Maine every summer to visit with family and old friends. She keeps up with the news here, too — though not as often as her husband, who she said reads the Sentinel every morning online.

Corbett, who was born in Pennsylvania and spent part of her childhood in New Jersey, told me about her humble beginnings as the assistant state editor of the Sentinel in an interview last Thursday.

She started at the paper in 1974, the summer after she graduated from Colby College. Her role, she said, turned out over time to be broadly defined. She had her hand in just about every aspect of the paper, from reporting and writing editorials to filling in as the front page editor and sometimes even taking photographs.

Like many of us on our first day of a new job, she went into it a little bit clueless as to the logistics and protocols of some of the tasks.

“On my very first day, the state editor asked me to take an obit. I had never really been a student of obits, and some funeral director with a typical Maine accent called and starts dictating this obit. It was somebody who belonged to all these organizations — you know, the sisters of Pythias and whatever — and I had no clue what he was talking about.

“I was like desperately typing on a manual typewriter, and then he hung up. And I looked at this, what I had typed, and it was utter gibberish, and I thought, ‘Oh my god, what am I going to do?'”

She turned to the state editor and showed her the mess of information she took down and asked for guidance. And the editor, who, like any good boss that I’ve had, asked Corbett what she thought she should do.

“I said ‘Call them back,’ and she said, ‘Yep.’ I did and got him to really slow down,” she said. “But it was quite an inauspicious beginning.”

She later worked as the paper’s state editor, which she said consisted of overseeing a group of far-flung correspondents from all around the state.

“Their dispatches arrived by bakery truck — they smelled like bread when they arrived — by liquor salesman, by school bus and by retired husbands,” she recalled. The subject matter of the dispatches were hyperlocal: from genuine news about what was going on in local governments to who was in the hospital — which she noted, now, of course, would be a violation of the 1996 federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

The Sentinel was full of eccentric people in those days, she said. There was an assistant sports editor who kept loose-leaf notebooks of known facts about harness racing and meteorology. A correspondent in Phillips who didn’t report on murder because she thought it reflected poorly upon the community. The sports editor, Harland Durrell, who everyone called “Hardo,” had a special knack for predicting high school and college sports outcomes from around the state. And across from her desk sat Gene Letourneau, the famous outdoors columnist and sportsman.

“It was a constant procession of Maine guide wannabes who would be carrying up the stairs or out in the parking lot dead fish; stinking, snapping turtles; dead dogs they thought were coyotes; and albino deer.”

But also it was a place that allowed her to be close to the readership, as townspeople or city councilors would walk right into the newsroom to shoot the breeze or make their case about an issue.

“It was a great lesson in learning the impact and consequences of what you were writing about. Very close up, not at a far remove,” she said. “It both reinforced not only the need of accuracy of course but the need from getting the story right in the bigger sense: understanding the larger point of it, the context.”

She recognized that many of her colleagues might have had a more prestigious start than she did — some of them starting out as interns or news assistants who made their way through the ranks of the Times. She noted that with the hits the industry has taken in recent years, it’s more rare that young people who want to be journalists make their start at smaller daily papers. Instead, they have been turning to digital publications.

But Corbett still sees the value in humble beginnings.

“There’s still something really wonderful about the lessons you can learn while covering a local community,” she said. “There are so many opportunities to look at issues there that are part of the bigger story of the whole county. But also there’s the idea that you can be close to people and have this opportunity to really have an impact on the life of that community. I think that’s an incredible lesson.”

Emily Higginbotham, originally from Illinois, is a reporter at the Morning Sentinel. You can follow her on Twitter: @EmilyHigg. Or reach her by email: [email protected]

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