Last week, I met with an acquaintance at my house. The guy, Dale, was picking up some old files from me for a writing project that I was dropping and he was passing on to another writer.
As I asked about the writer, I learned that he’d worked at the same newspaper as Dale had years back. That was more than a few years back, “before the buyouts.” And just like that, for a few moments we were swapping stories back and forth – the buyouts that had hollowed out Dale’s former employer, the cuts at the hometown newspaper that I used to work for that left it more of a zombie publication than a living, breathing institution.
I was flashing back to my time as a journalist. I call myself an old retired journalist, even though I’m 20-40 years younger than most of the people who claim that description as their own. In years past, I would have been in my prime as a journalist, with honors aplenty and years left to go in my career. Now I’m retired from the profession, with no foreseeable way to return to it, or any real desire to do so.
I had walked out of my last newspaper, my hometown Muscatine Journal, in August 2015 under my own terms. I was taking a position as a special education teacher after 19 months of returning to the profession I’d spent a decade or so in, basically for a modest paycheck and for a lark. When the editor/publisher and managing editor of the paper interviewed me for the job in November 2013, they asked me if I’d be leaving in a couple of months for a teaching position, since I’d gone through the trouble of getting a masters’ degree in teaching and all that. I replied that likely wouldn’t happen until August of 2014 since that was when the next big round of new teachers would be taking their jobs next.
It was, in fact, August 2015 when I would leave, not the year before. By the time I walked out, that editor/publisher and managing editor, both great bosses and good men, had moved on to new journalism jobs in towns well away from mine.
By August 2018, my former newspaper was a shell of its former self. The editor of the paper does double duty as editor of its bigger sister newspaper in Davenport, a half-hour drive away. The newspaper is reported in Muscatine, edited in Davenport, its pages are laid out in Muncie, Indiana, and printed in Davenport. Except for a couple of reporters and maybe a couple of receptionists, the building is empty. The second of the two floors of the building were long vacant even when I worked there.
There might be one or two people I used to work with that are still in that building. All of the rest of them, a dozen people at least, have either quit, retired, moved on, gotten sacked, or had their jobs cut. There are plenty of open parking spaces in the company lot, and plenty of space in the building after the printing presses were removed.
Death is on the minds of a lot of journalists these days. Look at the poor Village Voice, closed up a week ago with an owner’s statement equivalent to “So long and thanks for all the fish.” I’ve gone on the record as saying most media companies should move to a nonprofit model, because I believe that it’s the only way for newspapers and other local news organizations to stay alive in this new media environment. We need local news.
In my opinion, if there really is no hope for its future and they want to honor a newspaper that has been in operation for 178 years, they should print a final edition and that night invite all of the past and present employees of the paper to have one last blast, a proper wake, at Jody’s Tap just a block away from the paper. That would be a worthy end.
(This is really becoming a photo-centric post.)
Wow, I spent 400-plus more words on that topic than I expected to. But I should have realized what was up. I may work as a teacher now, but part of me, for the rest of my life, is always going to identify as a journalist. At the end of every class I teach (at the end of the year or the end of my time at that school), I write a -30- on the whiteboard as a last goodbye for my students. (Read this if you want to understand what’s going on – otherwise, it’s a journalism thing.)
This is what is on the top of my bulletin board that I face at my writing desk every night – a newspaper ruler with measurements for column widths and agates:
Journalism is always going to be a part of me.
How did I get started in journalism?
I would say that was a decision that I made no later than 25 years ago, as an underclassman at the University of Iowa.
As an incoming freshman, I had a desire to major in English and become a great writer. I wanted to join the Writer’s Workshop at the university and become a respected writer like Kurt Vonnegut Jr. or John Irving, two of those who had taught there. At the time, I didn’t realize that it was one of the most competitive writing programs in the country, with about 17 Pulitzer prizes between all of the alumni.
(Apparently one of the people who was attending the Writer’s Workshop during the time I was an undergrad at UI was Anthony Swofford. But I didn’t begrudge him his success – he’d had a war to write about and those are always interesting.)
So, it was during a conversation that my father and I had with an academic advisor at Iowa that suggested I might want to consider another major or minor as a way to develop skills for the impending workplace. This was not an idea that I casually discarded, by the way. For one thing, my father had imprinted in me the idea that I needed to have something approaching a stable career once I had left the university. (I want you to know that my father has always been the best cheerleader for me, as my mother has. Other than my wife and my mother, there is no one I trust more in the world than him.)
Then, there was the fact that I was already deeply involved with the young woman that would be my wife. People, do you want to know if you should marry someone? Consider whether you would feel comfortable with them taking care of your kids even if you were no longer in the picture due to divorce or death. I was already at that point with the woman who would be my wife. Within a year or two, I would ask her to marry me secretly on a vacation in Wisconsin. She said no then, but I was dead serious. (She said yes after I graduated, on a bluff overlooking my parents’ hometown in southwest Wisconsin.)
The point being, I wanted to make sure that I had a solid career after I had married the love of my life and began to create a family with her. Because of that, I thought that journalism was a way for me to practice my passion with writing while having a steady job. At that point, the die was cast. I eventually graduated Iowa with a double major of English and Journalism and Mass Communication.
So… did your plan work out, Liegois?
Reader, for a time, it did.
I did the usual things to prepare me for my career – internships at my hometown paper and one during the summer all the way in Burlington, where I wrote fun feature articles about events such as the Iowa Threshers Reunion, and an internship writing press releases for the University of Iowa’s College of Law and College of Business. (About 20 years later, my old supervisor from that internship and I reconnected on Facebook.)
Then, I got an actual job, with an alternative weekly newspaper in Davenport called the River Cities Reader. (They now publish monthly rather than weekly, but I highly recommend the publication.) It was/is run by a man and woman partner team turned married couple who are great people. That lasted for a little less than a year, and then I went to a newspaper in Clinton for about five years, during which time I did get married and started my family.
I estimated that I covered parts of four Iowa presidential caucuses, numerous election campaigns, city council, board of supervisors, and school board meetings that ran into the hundreds, and every type of feature story you could think of.
I had gotten into the profession with the intention of becoming a better writer. I do believe I succeeded at that goal. I learned about research, keeping good notes, developing relations with people that would give me information, and more about politics and government than even a politics-obsessed kid was aware of. It was a personal point of pride one day that I was able to research background, interview a couple of people, and put together a coherent obituary story in just about an hour. I wrote stories that let people know more about their community and, I’d like to think, touched them at times.
To be honest, I was a good journalist but not an immortal one. A Google search will pull up a couple of the articles written this century, including this search of my articles from the Journal. You can find a few more with other Google searches – I was surprised to see I had covered a visit by Judge Roy Moore from Alabama when he had visited the town of Clinton, Iowa, about 15 years back. Other pieces, especially the ones written before and just after the year 2000, might be found somewhere in the back issues or microfilm (they still use that, you know) of some libraries in the Quad Cities or Clinton.
After a while, however, that career stalled. The specifics of why and how the process began are honestly unimportant and likely half-remembered by me. From what I could see, the key to being a high-rising reporter, and one with a growing career, was an ability to move where the work was. Dedicated as I was to my family and their wishes (and mine too, it seems) to staying in eastern Iowa, that avenue was not available to me. Big media is a big market business, and there are not too many truly big markets where I grew up. The economic opportunities there were few and far between.
To be honest, I could also see the slow decline and fall of the print industry. I remember reading Media Circus by Howard Kurtz for one of my undergraduate classes. It already talked about the decline of newspapers when the Internet was just a far-off concern for journalists like AI automation is for everyone else now.
That, plus a desire to be a teacher at some point in my life, caused me to set aside my ambitions of becoming the next Hunter S. Thompson and work toward my teaching certificate. By the time I moved back to Muscatine more than a decade ago, I was deep into my teaching career and never went back, except for that one last stint to my hometown newspaper. It was ironic that I would finally get a job there nearly 20 years after interning there and applying for jobs there at least three or so times. By the time I went there, my tour of duty was more like a coda.
But, it was worth it while it lasted. I did some good reporting and writing. I was especially proud of a series we did highlighting 50 things about my hometown. I feel like I contributed some to telling the history of the community I grew up in. It was a good feeling.
What about now?
I’m happy about the profession I’m in now, special education. I help people who truly need me, and I have no doubt as to whether I’m needed or whether I make a difference.
It’s not like my dreams of writing died with the end of my journalism career. I started this blog well after that happened. In fact, I had initially started my Facebook and Twitter pages for writing as a vehicle to contact people and find stories from the Journal. When I left the paper, I had a social media presence but no purpose for it. Then I repurposed them for my interest in writing, my desire to continue being a writer in another way.
Anyway, that will be for a later post, a later volume. Let’s just say that in some ways, being a journalist is never going to leave me. I still cheer on the reporters who keep doing what they do even when lesser people call them frauds. I appreciate finding out about the world I live in from them.
And every so often, like last week, when there was some flash flooding around our town, I drove down to see if it was as bad as people were saying.
I always did like to find out about stories.