Dispatches From Oxford

What it’s like to be the hometown paper in the middle of the debate debacle

What’s the most common question currently being posed to the staff of the Oxford Eagle, the daily newspaper that serves the town of twenty thousand that’s been taken over for tonight’s debate? “Where should I eat?”

In fact, according to Eagle news editor Jon Scott, someone from Jim Lehrer’s staff called asking just that.

In addition to fielding calls from hungry visiting media, the staff has been covering the local angle: how the debates are affecting the community. “We know our readers, we’re glad that we have a unique role. While everyone else is covering this for the country, we’re interested in how local people are involved, how it’s affecting a town, and everyone else is covering the debates,” said senior staff writer Lucy Schultze. New traffic patterns and security measures have been of particular importance.

As the home of the University of Mississippi, Oxford is used to large crowds descending on the town. “It’s not worse than a typical football weekend,” says staff writer Melanie Addington.

But the visitors aren’t the typical football fans. Last week, Addington befriended a journalist from Norway who arrived without a car, and the pair have become carpool buddies. And she also spoke with a group of university students who were upset that a journalist wanted them to talk about racial tensions there—a non-issue, according to many on campus.

Other frustrations have been logistical: Although the Eagle’s office is located less than a mile from the Ford Center (where the debates will take place), the new traffic patterns mean that getting there requires an almost half-hour drive.

The paper’s photographer Bruce Newman learned what it’s like to be part of a media pack. The Commercial Appeal, from Memphis, caught Newman turning himself into a pretzel to get a shot at a press conference this week.

Schultze says locals are clamoring for celebrities: Tom Brokaw was seen at the Bottletree Bakery in town, and every seat in the cafe was filled with an Ole Miss student waiting for just such an encounter.

The town square is decked out in omnipresent red, white, and blue bunting, with signs welcoming the debate decorating store windows alongside student artwork. “Shop owners have been going all out to make their window displays make patriotic,” Schultze says. And a local artist created a window painting at a cafe which depicts Obama and McCain having coffee together. It’s called, “Strange, Indeed.”

Now that the debate is definitely on, both the town and the Eagle are breathing a sigh of relief. “For us in the newsroom and shared by journalists everywhere, we didn’t want to do it all over again, in the midst of our regular beats, other news still happens,” says staff writer Alyssa Schnugg.

For example, the local police set up a drunk-driving checkpoint last weekend and ended up making 100 arrests, exceeding jail capacity. “It could be related to the debates, though,” Schnugg says.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.