Yesterday was my 38th birthday, and today, I’m celebrating exactly 20 years working in the newspaper industry. Tomorrow, it will be exactly 10 years working for the company that presently employs me.
My first press pass, as an 18-year-old reporter at my hometown weekly newspaper in the suburbs of Portland, Maine.
I’ve worked as a reporter, editor, corporate director of news and publisher. I’ve handled news, sports, features, writing, editing, photography, page design, advertising sales, circulation, budgets, launching newspapers, closing newspapers.
I worked for small, family-owned newspapers for my first 10 years in the business. For the past 10 years, I’ve worked for Journal Register Company/21st Century Media/Digital First Media, which was even more print-focused than the print-focused newspaper industry when I started, and today is on the most radical “digital first” edges of newspapers that are jettisoning print.
I still don’t know what I’m doing.
So that’s my biggest failure (with a long trail of mistakes behind me), but in a way my biggest source of pride as well. If I can tackle each day at work with the attitude that I have a ton to learn and a ton of opportunity to grow, approaching 40 in a constant-state-of-change industry isn’t so depressing.
I became a daily newspaper editor three weeks before 9/11. I was 25 and struck by how how much I was just going to have to figure out on my own and on the fly. I turned to the more veteran journalists in the newsroom, and they were in the same boat, because nothing comparable had happened in their careers.
It was one of many times in my career in which stepping out of my comfort zone taught me things, made me a better journalist, a better boss, sometimes a better person. In this business, that can be a once-in-a-career news event, such as 9/11 or the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting last year. But I’ve also learned from 20 years of putting myself in new and challenging or foreign situations. This included a corporate editorial oversight role I wasn’t qualified for a year into my tenure with Journal Register Co., working on the business and advertising side as a publisher, and then getting back into the newsroom full-time and trying new stuff.
I never went to journalism school, and had only one semester of college before a guy named Harry T. Foote taught me the basics of journalism. Harry had retired as city editor of the Portland Press Herald, Maine Sunday Telegram and now-defunct Evening Express, and purchased two weekly newspapers, the Westbrook American and South Portland-Cape Elizabeth Journal, that he combined into the “American Journal” in the suburbs of Portland, Maine. He was 77 and I was 16 when he first interviewed me for a reporter job. He went with someone more experienced (ha!). I walked back into his office a little over a year later with a letter to the editor I’d written alleging that a local bar had over-served the drunken driver who had hit and killed the mother of a friend of mine. He rejected my letter as libelous, but he offered me a job as a reporter. I started the day after my 18th birthday.
Harry’s curiosity about an incredible range of subjects, from the minutiae of local life to matters of global importance, taught me what the editor of a good newspaper is like. On one page, he’d be asking (and investigating) why the Postal Service seemed to have fewer and fewer public mailbox drops around town for the convenience of the public, and on another he’d be tackling the long-term implications of nuclear power.
Harry kept pulling on the thread of a story, and pulling, and pulling, and pulling, to the point where I swear he had public officials trained to just spit out what they were hiding to avoid the interrogation-to-completion that would come as long as certain details were missing or unclear or didn’t add up.
He taught me that people in power lie to taxpayers, to their customers, to reporters. I can’t count the number of times he would be grilling a reporter about the results of an interview they’d done where something wasn’t right, and Harry ended the conversation with a loud, “He’s lying!” as he walked back to his desk. That was our cue to get back on the phone, go back to our sources, go back to public documents, and work harder to flush out the truth.
Harry taught me how to write with a can of rubber cement, proofreader’s pen and scissors that he kept in a hardware store apron around his waist and attached to his desk with fishing line so as not to get lost in the blizzard of papers there or walk away to another part of the office. I would leave a printout of my copy in his box. He would physically cut out the fifth or sixth paragraph of a story, and move it to the second paragraph, using the rubber cement. He’d put a piece of scrap paper in his typewriter and write a new lead for me, and glue that to the top. He’d write a dozen questions in the margins. He would mark all of my spelling and grammar mistakes. And like a surgeon, from the middle of sentences, cut what seemed like hundreds of unnecessary words from my copy. I’d get the frankenedit and have to go into my story and make all of those changes. I learned how to spell accommodate and recommend after fixing them for the fifth or sixth time. And I started to learn how to get to the point faster and to anticipate the questions a reader would end up having about the holes in my story.
When the Portland Press Herald ran a story about Harry’s death last year, the photo they ran of him in the old American Journal newsroom in 1999 showed me in the background, fitting proof of his influence on me.
Twenty years after Harry took a chance on me, I’d add only a few key things to the basic approach that he taught me if I could go back in time and counsel myself about what lay ahead as a journalist and a manager of newsrooms.
1. Write about important shit. I think the biggest responsibility of an editor, especially after years of shrinking newsrooms, is to decide what not to cover – to focus his or her staff on what’s important in any given day or week or month or year. We should be working in one part of the room on how to use technology and partnerships to aggregate and curate hyperlocal and commodity news – and anything else not deemed part of our core mission. And everyone else should be investigating, writing and visualizing for our readers the stories they can’t and won’t get on their own or from anyone else. Stories that expose wrongdoing, or shed new light on our collective human experience, or even offer a solution.
2. Don’t be an asshole or tolerate assholes. I’ve done both, and still need reminding that all it does is stifle the creativity and potential of the people who work for you and with you.
3. Be transparent about your work and awesome at making corrections. This would have been great advice 20 years ago, too, but today it is an essential part of doing business. “Digital first” isn’t just a switch in preference from reading something on paper to reading it on a screen. It’s a fundamental transformation of the relationship between consumers and brands, from providing a product to providing a service. Journalists are human beings with biases and world views shaped by what they’ve been exposed to in their lives. It’s why we need to make diversity a top-priority issue in newsrooms, and also why we must emphasize transparency about where we’re coming from and what our process is like. That includes admitting mistakes when we make them, correcting them quickly, and with absolutely full and prominent disclosure of what we said that was wrong, and where and how we fixed it.
4. Put the reader first in approaching technology and collaborations. Like tech companies that put millions into user experience and product before thinking about monetization, we need a reader-first revolution in newsrooms that pursues and presents good journalism using whatever platform and partner (be it blogger, citizen, nonprofit or legacy competitor) gets the job done. Don’t be penny wise and pound foolish as the industry wrestles with the great unbundling of advertising and content.