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Five years

One of my favorite memories of working at the Rocky Mountain News came just weeks into my first tenure there. (I worked at the Rocky between September 2004 and July 2005, and again between August 2008 and February 2009, when it was shut down.)

I was a general assignment reporter tasked with riding on a campaign bus with then Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar. It was the fall of 2004 and he was running for the U.S. Senate against Pete Coors. The bus took off from somewhere in downtown Denver in the late afternoon and did a small tour of the city that included a stop at his daughter’s volleyball game at North High School and, for reasons that I don’t remember, a stop at a bowling alley. My job was to take notes and pass them on to political reporter Lynn Bartels to add color to a piece she was writing about the Senate race.

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I would do it all over again

At the end of the movie The Day After Tomorrow — the pseudo-science catastrophe movie in which nature unleashes another ice age onto the planet in the matter of days — there’s a moment in which one of the young survivors contemplates her future. She’s a high school student who, up until the start of the movie, had been living toward the goal of going to a college that was now buried up to its ivy in ice.

“How am I supposed to adjust, Sam? Everything I’ve ever cared about, everything I’ve worked for has all been preparation for a future that no longer exists. I know you always thought I took the competition too seriously. You were right. It was all for nothing.”

I find myself at the moment sympathizing with her. Much of the last 15 years of my life has been spent in or leading to an enterprise that I may no longer be able to participate in. The newspaper I picked up from my doorstep this morning will be the last my employer prints. The last after almost 150 years. The newspaper industry is reeling. I am in the process of applying for a job outside of the industry, and even if I don’t get this job, odds are that the copy I edited last night will be the last I read that ever makes it onto newsprint.

I wouldn’t be human, I suppose, if I didn’t wonder where I would be, who I would be, if I had chosen a path different from newspaper journalism, if I had followed my father’s advice and gone into accounting or engineering or medicine. The thing I keep coming back to, though, is that I wouldn’t be where I am, who I am, without newspapers and no matter how much it hurts right now to see my newspaper close its doors I can say with honesty that given the chance to do things over, I wouldn’t change a single thing.

I would still join my high school newspaper, still spend endless hours working or goofing around in “the pub.”

I would still choose to major in English at Davidson College, where I absorbed all I could from professors who taught me new ways to love this language and love reading.

I would still work for college communications, where I wrote “hometowners” about fellow students, sometimes even getting a byline in the clippings parents would send back to the office and always laughing at the antics of my boss and mentor.

I would still go to the University of North Carolina for journalism school, where I met and grew to love the hilarious bunch of smart, snarky and jaded twenty-somethings who made up my master’s class and didn’t know half the time why they even went to J-school and where I met and grew to love the hilarious bunch of smart, snarky and marginally less jaded undergrads on the staff of The Daily Tar Heel who taught me everything I know about newspaper journalism and everything I love about it too.

I would still intern at the Palm Beach Post and the Chicago Tribune.

I would still go work for the Rocky Mountain News, where I met and fell in love my with dear hubby.

I would still go back to work for the Chicago Tribune, where I made some of my best and dearest friends in the business and got to see a legendary copy editor hang it up after 40 years in the business, where I got to be a tiny part of the legendary history of a grand newspaper city and drink beer and eat the world’s best burgers after deadline at the Billy Goat Tavern.

And I would still come back to the Rocky, where I got to cover a national nominating convention and the election of the first African-American president and where I got to save a columnist from an error on my very last day and cried tears when it was all over.

I want my Rocky, or on newspapers, futile gestures and poetry

In my study of literature, I always veered toward prose. I love reading poetry, but I never had a mind to delve into it too deeply, neither was I particularly good at such analysis — at least as far as term papers were concerned. I love merely enjoying the language, and my professors never thought much about what I had to say on the subject. Among my favorite poets is Dylan Thomas. His “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Goodnight” is my favorite poem. The surface sentiment of the title may sound a bit cliche to our cynical ears, but I can’t help but be moved every time I read the poem from start to finish. In the last couple of days, I have found new reason to find comfort in it.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

As my newspaper sits on the block with nary a bidder stepping up to invest in its future, the closing of the paper seems all the more inevitable. And yet, this weekend some of my co-workers got together and decided we would not go gentle into that good night. The future of the Rocky Mountain News is at stake and we have a stake in that future, so we’re fighting. Maybe it will come to nothing, but it may buy us a another month of employment, another day. We’ll take what we can get. For a publication that is in its 150th year, it’s the least we can do. We’ve joked about the fact that our fight is, in essence, a stupid futile gesture. But even as we acknowledge as much, we believe journalism has never been a futile gesture. (So did the founding fathers, who enshrined the important role of the press in the First Amendment to our Constitution. )

The money guys may not be moved by our little project (www.iwantmyrocky.com), but someone else with deep pockets out there might be. If nothing else, the noise makes us feel better.

It brings to mind another Thomas poem, “In my Craft or Sullen Art.”

Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.

Maybe nobody will miss newspapers except for the sad sacks like me who still work for them, but when my grandchildren ask me what they are, I’ll have a story.

“And I would have gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for you pesky kids”

Viewed from one perspective, this hasn’t been a good week for newspapers. My own employer was put up for sale, a token gesture by the corporate overlords who really just want to put the thing out of its misery. My previous employer, the Chicago Tribune, declared bankruptcy — days after laying off a dozen longtime editorial staffers, now “creditors,” who can expect their hard-earned severance as soon as their esteemed governor, Rod Blagojevich, admits guilt in all corruption charges levied against him yesterday, which is to say, when hell freezes over. The New York Times is having “cash flow” problems. The Miami Herald is up for sale. Everywhere you turn, the people who provide news are hard up.

And yet, this will be a great week for newspapers, especially newspapers in Chicago. Even with the axe hanging over their heads, journalists at both the Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times (who have convicted felon Conrad Black to blame for their troubles) rose to the occasion when the aforementioned governor was charged with political crimes that set a new low in political malfeasance — quite the feat in Illinois. (Even the dead people who cast ballots for the late Richard J. Daley of Chicago are spinning in their graves.) Both papers offered up-to-the-minute news and reactions online, both printed afternoon extras and I am sure both kept employees working late into the night so this morning editions’ could be replete with detail and analysis. Both papers may be losing money, but their journalistic fervor is in tact.

Newsroom employees make sport of complaining about “the suits upstairs,” but if newspapers are failing it isn’t because the newsrooms aren’t doing their jobs. Among the many accusations levied against Blagojevich is one concerning the Tribune. Angered by relentless news coverage and an unforgiving editorial board who rightly demanded more from their elected leader, the good governor, according to charges against him, sought to hold back help on the Tribune’s parent company as it made moves to sell the Chicago Cubs baseball team and its historic ballpark, Wrigley Field. Is there a better testament to work of the Tribune reporters and editors than that? Can we imagine what emboldened politicians and corrupt officials in Illinois and elsewhere might do without committed watchdogs on their trail? Can we, as citizens, afford to live without newspapers? Obviously no, and yet, such a future may yet come to be.

Many readers say they get their news from Yahoo or Google, but the last time I checked neither of those Internet sites employs journalists. Their “news” is merely an aggregation of links to content generated by other news organizations, most of them print publications. The newspaper may be dead, according to some small-thinking business soothsayers, but our need for news is not. It may be easy for newsroom people like me to blame “the suits” for their inability to sell what we work so hard to make the best product it can be. But faced with a difficult new business environment, they failed to answer the challenge, choosing simply to make the newsrooms do “more with less.” Now, having little left to cut, except their losses, they are giving up.

We in the newsrooms are still fighting. Yesterday, the Tribune and Sun-Times proved, once again, why the fight matters. To them, I say, thanks.

5 things, in no particular order

1. Dad was right, or how the violinist on the Titanic felt

Once, when I was about 9 or 10 years old, I was at the house of a friend of my mom’s. My mom’s friend and several other mothers were in the kitchen complaining about pediatricians. I’m not sure what I was doing, but I remember overhearing their conversation.

“They never listen,” the moms kept saying.

“All they ever tell you is, ‘Give him some Robitussin.'”

“My kid is sick, and I didn’t bring him here for you to tell me something I’ve already done or I already know.”

I remember thinking at the time that I could grow up to be a pediatrician (I loved mine — a rotund man with big, bushy eyebrows), and when I became one, I would always remember these mothers and be a better doctor. A lot of people may remember what dreams they had as children, or what they wanted to be when they grew up. I don’t, but I look back on this memory from time to time and wish I really had wanted to be a doctor. Truth is I never really knew what it was I wanted to be.

My father was never one to romanticize work. He started hounding me about a five-year plan when I was about 13. Accountants always have jobs, he would say. Doctors, engineers, accountants—what else is there? Nothing. He wanted me to be happy, yes, but happiness to him meant security. When other parents were telling their children to follow their dreams, to do what made them happy, dad was telling me that accountants always have jobs, that if I didn’t have a plan for a career right then and there, I would spend my life bouncing from job to job with no stability. He offered people he knew as examples to back up his point.

In college, I majored in English — the only subject that ever inspired me. Upon my graduation, dad told me how proud he was even as he wondered what I would end up doing with my life. As a student, I dreamed of being a writer (still do), and journalism was my practical solution to the question of a regular paycheck. That solution has proven fickle, though. So while hubby and I work on Plans C through Z as the fate of our newspaper (the entire industry, really) hangs in the balance, I find myself in a bit of a philosophical crisis. Was dad right all this time? Would my life be easier now if I’d spent my college years learning to crunch numbers rather than immersing myself in Shakespeare and Louisa May Alcott? At this perilous moment for newspaper journalists across the country, I’m inclined to say that maybe he was right. Just nobody go and tell him I said that.

2. The Librarian is a poor man’s Indy, and yet I love it.

Noah Wyle spent a decade at ER’s County General, and he still looks like he did on that first year, when Dr. Benton was kicking his ass up and down the hospital. That boyish cuteness makes him perfect for the role of Flynn Carter, the Librarian — imagine a more bookish Henry Jones Jr. minus the swagger, the hat and the whip. With the circular glasses he sports now and then, he looks like a grown-up version of Harry Potter.

The TV movies (the third premiered on TNT this weekend) are the perfect balance of action-adventure cheese and fun that you enjoy more than you expect because it’s on TV and it’s free. Also, there is Bob Newhart and Jane Curtin — National Treasure can’t say the same.

3. If Pushing Daisies was canceled, but I refuse to acknowledge it, did it really happen?

I have two episodes on my DVR, ready to watch. I just can’t bring myself to, knowing that I have no more Daisies to look forward to. I’ve seen too many episodes of Dawson’s Creek, One Tree Hill and The Real World to judge anyone’s TV watching habits, but it’s hard to live in a land in which The Hills and According to Jim are allowed to go on (and on and on and on) and a gem like Daisies has to be cut short.

Upon announcement of the Daisies cancelation, Television Without Pity put together a list of 10 shows that were canceled way too soon. Some of my all-time faves were among them:
Arrested Development: Hilarity, narrated by Ron Howard. Who wouldn’t love that and give it a ten-season order? Dare we hope a movie is on its way?
Deadwood: Fucking brilliance.
Pushing Daisies: Sigh. Too soon.
Veronica Mars: A high school show that even hubby grew to love? Will such a creature ever exist again?
Everwood: Loved, loved, loved. Yes, it should have been allowed to go on, but having been given warning that the end was nigh, the creators ended it perfectly.

4. For the No. 1 pick in the 2009 NBA draft, (insert Oklahoma Thunder or equally awful team here) take Stephen Curry, Davidson College.

According to Chad Ford, over on ESPN, this may happen. It probably won’t, but the fact that it could amazes me. A lottery pick? From Davidson?

LeBron believes:

5. Happy Dia de las Velitas, everyone!

Yesterday was the Dia de las Velitas in Colombia and in Boise, Idaho, where my mom celebrates with a few hundred of her closest friends. (It started out as her small way to show people one of Colombia’s richest holiday traditions, but the people kept coming and they kept bringing their friends.) I don’t have a lot of memories of this day from my Colombian childhood, but I know that mom loves it. I also remember my grandfather Nono, who got drunk for the very last time on the Dia de las Velitas back in 1995. A few weeks later his one good kidney would fail and a few months later he was gone, to that great big fritanga in the sky, where he could drink whisky and eat arepas like every day was the Dia de las Velitas. To learn more about the holiday (not just what it means to me), go to Wiki.

Was I tempting fate? A parable

This week, I was making plans to go up to the mountains to ski. My little sister is in town, and she’s never been skiing before. It got me thinking about when I used to ski on a regular basis, as a child growing up in Watertown, New York. It got me thinking about how much my life had changed between then and the last time I went skiing, three years ago, and how much my life had changed between three years ago and now. I wondered what might change after this next trip.

Turns out, change comes swiftly and mercilessly: Mere hours after my writing, the newspaper that I work for, that my husband works for, was put up for sale. In this economy, at this difficult time for our industry, the announcement was a veritable death knell for a 150-year-old institution, the longest running business in Colorado.

These are tough times. I know my husband and I will survive. We might end up in another city, doing something else entirely, but we will survive. About our industry, I am less sure. This story will tell you why.

Once upon a time, there was a little girl with lemonade stand. She made lemonade, poured it into paper cups and sold it to people who drank it happily. All was well. She made money and business was steady.

Still she wondered if she could make more money. Lemonade was expensive to make – was there a way to cut costs? Her solution was to pour a little less lemonade into her cups. Some customers noticed and grumbled, but business was steady and she got to keep a few extra dollars. So the next week she poured a little bit less. Same result. Some customers noticed and grumbled, but business was steady and she got to keep a few extra dollars.

Eventually, the things began to change. Other drink stands were popping up on her street. Some sold lemonade. Some sold other things. Suddenly, business was not as robust as it used to be. The little girl started to panic. So she did what she had always done: pour even less lemonade into her cups. She was still making money but less than before and with fewer and fewer customers. Some left for other stands where the drinks were cheaper or free, not as good perhaps, but free. Some left because, even if hers was the best lemonade on the block, they were getting less and less of it.

The little girl didn’t know what to do. She just kept pouring less lemonade until one day, she was selling empty paper cups.

When she finally closed her lemonade stand, her customers gone for good, she went to ask her father what she did wrong.

Her father, a newspaper publisher who had just laid off another dozen journalists to cut costs, didn’t know what to tell her.

Looking back on another memorable Election Day

While I was in graduate school, at the University of North Carolina, I worked for the college paper, The Daily Tar Heel, as head of the copy desk. At a large university, student news is a mix of the serious and the silly. My absolute weirdest day in the newsroom was the day of the student body president election, which involved a little of both. Of the seven or eight candidates on the initial ballot, the top two vote-getters, let’s call them Matt and Lily since those were their names, were set for a run off.

In the initial election, Lily had won the most votes and seemed poised to take the run off too. Her boyfriend Alistair, though, was about to throw a wrench into her well-laid plans. (And while we’re on the subject, doesn’t Alistair sound like the name of someone bound to make trouble?) Alistair, who wasn’t even a student (he had graduated the year before), was hanging out at the library checking his e-mail during the voting period when he supposedly started talking to people around him and asking them to vote for Lily. According to the rules, neither the candidates nor their staff were allowed to campaign within 50 feet of a polling site, which in this case meant a computer terminal.

The student-run Board of Elections got wind of this and, later, of violations by Matt’s campaign, though none this serious. The run-off results, which had Lily winning by seven votes, were not certified that night, which left us at the paper to try to figure out what the hell happened. (It should go without saying that we blew deadline that night.) Eventually, the results were nullified, and a new run off was scheduled. Matt won easily. Lily may or may not have broken up with Alistair.

I don’t share this story on national Election Day to compare the hijinks of university politics to those at the presidential level. I do so only to point out that any active democracy is frought with weirdness, and one of the few things that a journalist can enjoy from time to time is to find herself in the middle of it.

That said, please go out and vote. And no matter what happens or how long it takes, stay in that line until your vote is counted.

Book sale day, or one of the best reasons to work for a newspaper

There are good things and bad things about working at a newspaper, both of which are very difficult to explain to anyone who hasn’t. This is the main reason, I think, that Hollywood gets the journalism profession, particularly print journalism, so wrong so often in TV and film. “The Media” seems so omnipresent in our lives that it’s easy to think we know everything about how it works, but “The Media” is Anderson Cooper, not me copy-editing a story about a meeting of the local teachers’ union. Newspapers operate in a universe all their own, a mostly unchanging daily routine of minute details and endless jargon. It can be exciting and also exceptionally boring.

The best days to be a newspaper person, in my view, are Election Day (lots of breaking news and free pizza) and the day of the annual book sale. I can’t say if the latter is something that happens at every newspaper, but it’s a ritual I came to love at the ones that have employed me.

Over the course of the year, various authors and publishing houses send copies of new books in for review, and on book sale day, employees are allowed to browse through them all and buy them for a few dollars each depending on their size. Most are books you’ve never heard of, books that only you will read, but there are also hidden gems, soon-to-be best-sellers and tomes you might never have heard of otherwise. And really, if a book is only $3, it’s worth buying, right? (Warning: This philosophy may force you to buy many, many, many bookshelves and make moving a huge pain.)

There are strategies to book sale day. You can go early for the best selection, but morning is also when prices are at their highest. A previous employer of mine marked everything down after 4 p.m. to all you could fit in a box for $10.

Unfortunately for me this year (but fortunately for my lack of space at home), I missed the memo announcing the book sale and didn’t realize it was going on until I showed up for a night shift and saw the women in charge of it starting to pack up. Without much time to work with I only found four, but for $12 total, a pretty good haul.

All sound very interesting. One might even get read by the end of the year (my list is long). None top the best book sale find of all time, though: Madame Secretary by Madelaine Albright. A political memoir worth its weight (and it’s a heavy one) in frustrating days on the job.