This post was originally published on June 19, 2017.
I suppose I could count my career from my occasional dabblings in junior high or high school newspapers, or from the point where I switched majors to news editorial and started working for the University of Tennessee student paper. But for my own purposes, I count from my internship at the Union City (Tenn.) Daily Messenger, which began this month in the sunny year of 1997.
It doesn’t feel like 20 years ago, and sometimes I feel like I catch glimpses of the greenest cub reporter to step into an old-fashioned newsroom. Many of the tales I could tell from those days belong over drinks in a bar, not in this blog. But I can tell this one: I learned more from the editor of the Daily Messenger in six months than I could have learned in years of study.
His name was David Critchlow, and last I heard, he’s still running the show. They had never had an intern before, and they had no desk for me, so they set up a work station in the corner of the conference room. Full of the confidence borne of two whole semesters of journalism school [insert laugh track], I dutifully typed up obituaries and weddings (loooooooong weddings; in the deep south, wedding announcements are not three lines and a picture, folks) until I started getting assignments.
After I turned in my stories, Critchlow walked into the conference room, read my lead back to me, and snored.
The number of snores reflected how boring, basic and summary my leads were, and I learned how to improve them. By the end of the summer, I had my own city beat, gotten Critchlow down to one snore per lead, covered Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Downey Jr. (sort of) and had a part-time stringer job as I finished my last semester of school. I graduated in December 1997, got married (the first time) a week later in Memphis, and five days after the wedding, I reported to my first newsroom job in La Salle, Ill.
Two and a half years later, I was hired by the News-Democrat, reporting to work in June 2000. The Boy was all of 18 months old; his father left in 2003. I was a single mom while chasing stories all over the metro-east until Jim and I moved in together in 2012, and married two years later.
Now the Boy is graduated and college-bound, Jim is halfway through his own degree, my resume is up to six pages long (which is really egregious), and I’m still downing the coffee with one hand and typing with the other every day. Standoffs and fires, murder trials and city council meetings, marching union workers and political protests and school test score analyses. I’ve interviewed presidents future and past, politicians without number, young kids and visiting celebrities.
I’ve interviewed a bookstore owner who couldn’t read until he was nearly 20 years old, and seen crime photos that made a juror faint. I’ve stood beneath a glass dome representing science and religion together, in a boat with volunteers testing for illegal dumping on the river, and by the side of the road watching them pull the pieces of the bodies out of cars.
I’ve frozen my tail off in an observatory with Neil DeGrasse Tyson talking about communing with the stars through science, stood watch behind the yellow tape at a collapsed culvert that killed a child, and watched an unassuming, ordinary man who just won a gold medal in karate kick the everloving hell out of a practice dummy. I’ve played good cop and bad cop, taken verbal abuse without counting and been happy never to duck bullets. (Except that once sort of but it doesn’t count.)
I’ve met the most amazing journalists the profession has ever known, learned from them and been proud to stand with them. I’ve done the best I could for my fellow journalists here in St. Louis through SPJ, and been honored to work with some of the top ethicists in the nation to rewrite the Code of Ethics in the hopes that our “ethics evangelism” will help us all remember our calling when the heat is on.
It’s one hell of a privilege, this life.
Was the summer of 1997 really 20 years ago? I already have socks older than some of my co-workers; soon my career will be older than some of my fellow journalists. Eh, what’s that, sonny? I can’t hear ye…
I wish I had something more profound to say about this milestone than, “Holy Walter Cronkite, I’m old.” Maybe that will come, as I work on my Occasional Research Project of Doom (on the fictional portrayal of journalists) and I am asked to speak more and more often to new journalists and budding writers about the work that I do.
For now, I’m proud to be doing a job I believe in, that I know makes a difference in the world, and a job that needs doing, whatever the costs may be.
But I think Critchlow would probably make me restructure that sentence.