Harry Foote, my first editor at my first newspaper job in Westbrook, Maine, pulled me aside after a particularly rough day in 1994. I’d missed or made mistakes on more than one story. I was 18 years old. He was approaching 80. He handed me a copy of the latest edition of the paper, pointed to three or four things I’d written, and said, “You won’t remember what you missed this week. You’ll remember and be proud of what you made.”
I keep returning to that advice today, which will be my last as editor of the New Haven Register, Register Citizen, Middletown Press and other publications in Connecticut. I’m leaving Digital First Media after working for it and its predecessor companies for the past 11 years, or nearly 30 percent of my life. I’ve worked as a statewide and regional editor for DFM for the past three years, as a publisher the previous three, and as a corporate director of news before that.
I could write a book about the frustrations and lessons from the past three years of our attempts to rapidly shift from legacy print structure to digital first journalism business model under hedge fund ownership and in a corporate newspaper chain environment. I’m not sure anyone would want to read it.
So I’m taking Harry’s advice. In the past 11 years at Journal Register Company and Digital First Media, I’ve come to know hundreds of people who have dedicated their lives to journalism, who work long hours for low pay, and put up with all kinds of crap (including plenty from me!) year after year. Cynical exteriors aside, at the heart of it, they care about strangers and are in journalism to improve people’s lives.
When I consider what our team in Connecticut has done and been through in the past three years:
- The Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, when more than 100 DFM journalists from Connecticut and across the country helped us cover the unfolding horror of that tragedy and its long, continuing aftermath.
- Two hurricanes in which our journalists kept working despite newsrooms having to be shut down due to no electricity or flooding, despite their own homes being damaged and/or without power, and despite their children being out of school for extended periods.
- Two historic blizzards, with conditions similar to the hurricanes, except much colder.
- Two historic death penalty trials in the Cheshire home invasion and triple murder case.
- Two historic elections, with races including New Haven choosing its first new mayor in a two decades and a 5th District congressional campaign that saw two federal investigations and multiple people sent to prison. Our coverage of that 5th District campaign won a national Editor and Publisher “Eppy” award for Best News/Political Blog.
- Our reporting led to a grand jury investigation, trial and conviction of former Connecticut Gov. John Rowland, who will be sentenced to a likely prison term in January.
- Our reporting exposed the “Gifting Tables” pyramid scheme on Connecticut’s Shoreline and resulted in its organizers going to prison.
- We covered UConn’s men’s and women’s basketball teams winning national championships the same year. And we covered a national college ice hockey championship in which two of “our” teams – Yale and Quinnipiac – faced off. Despite our huge focus on digital, we managed to produce a pretty spiffy keepsake magazine about the former and wrote a book about the latter.
- We launched GameTimeCT.com, an instantly-popular statewide high school sports site.
- Our staff provided award-winning, minute-by-minute breaking and live news coverage when an airplane crashed into two East Haven homes.
- Our comprehensive reporting and strong editorial voice added to the pressure for change in East Haven after its police department systematically profiled and harassed undocumented immigrants.
- We exposed the social media bullying of two 14-year-old rape victims, and sparked a nationwide conversation about rape culture and how it can be enabled by schools, athletic departments and the media.
- We sounded the alarm on an epidemic of heroin overdose deaths in small Connecticut towns as police and public officials wanted it kept quiet.
- We changed the way we covered urban violence in New Haven.
- We improved public access to police records across the state with a comprehensive audit of police department compliance with the Freedom of Information Act. We helped take another police Freedom of Information Act case to the Connecticut Supreme Court.
- We used data visualization tools to explain Connecticut’s broken campaign finance system, the injustice of its property tax on cars, and the waste in school superintendent pay.
- We celebrated the 200th anniversary of the New Haven Register, and moved the Register’s office after 33 years as an I-95 landmark on Long Wharf.
- We were recognized with the national Robert C. McGruder Award for Diversity Leadership for the success we’ve had in diversifying our newsroom’s staff, leadership and coverage.
This group of journalists in Connecticut accomplished these things despite constant uncertainty and change in the industry and company, multiple rounds of staff reductions and a nonstop agenda of training on new tools.
Although I’ll be moving on to not-sure-what-comes-next (hey, know someone who wants to hire me?), I’ll be excited to see the next few years of accomplishments from DFM newsrooms across the country and our group in Connecticut in particular.
Connecticut’s newsrooms will have strong and compassionate leadership from Mark Brackenbury, promoted today to executive editor, fresh off receiving the Local Media Association Editor of the Year award last week in Philadelphia. Backing them up are an incredible group of leaders, reporters, photographers and designers who made all of the above and a lot more happen over the past few years.