Newspapers: the job that chews you up and spits you out; or trying to remember the good in the midst of a lot of bad

I wouldn’t exactly say my parents encouraged me to go into journalism, but when I decided that would be my major in college, they didn’t fight it – too much anyhow.

“It’s a pretty tough job, you know,” my dad said.

And he was right. Fourteen years later I can definitely understand how some who have left the field can say that newspapers chew you up and spit you out and never look back. It is indeed true in many cases, including mine.

Both of my parents reminded me journalism probably wouldn’t be a lucrative career unless I went to a big publication somewhere, which they knew was unlikely since I was a mama’s girl who hated being far away from home so much I picked a college about an hour and a half from where I grew up.

These warnings came 20 years ago. I can’t imagine what the warnings would have been had I announced I was going into journalism in 2019.

“You know you will have to pick a side – conservative or liberal – and only cover the news from that angle, right?” my dad would have said.

“Run as far away from  journalism as you can, okay honey?” My mom would have implored.

Even by the end of my college career, a degree in hand, it was clear my being in journalism might be a challenge for my family when Dad commented that the BS initials for “BS in Mass Communications with an Emphasis in Journalism”, which was what final degree was in, was fitting for more than the words “Bachelor of Science” when it came to the term “journalism.”

By the time I’d graduated, I already had a full-time job at the smalltown newspaper near where I’d grown up. My last semester of college I commuted, taking classes mainly in the morning and then going into work at the paper, working until midnight some nights, then getting back up the next morning, driving the 90 minutes to school (60 minutes if I really gunned it … um…which I didn’t because I’m a good, law-abiding citizen. The previous sentence was added for Mom), and starting it all over again. I survived on fast food and coca-cola and chocolate from the vending machine in the basement of the paper, near the pressroom. I also survived on very little sleep. It’s no wonder my thyroid died years later and I started to pack on weight on like a pregnant manatee.

How I ended up working at three newspapers in our small county of about 60,000, in the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania throughout my journalism career is a long story. I met my husband at one of the papers. Shortly after we married we cut ties with the first paper I had worked at. That story is a bit long but I’ll summarize it with this: boss with a lazy eye yelling at me (or the wall, I’m not sure which) that my husband and I had neglected our “professional responsibilities” by driving one day down to my grandmother’s funeral 600 miles away in North Carolina, staying one day, driving one day back and getting stranded in a snowstorm in a suburb of Philly, therefore delaying our return by one day.

“You had the responsibility to be here when you said you would be here. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, I do,” I told him.

I understood he was a horrible man yelling at a person who had just buried her grandmother. I walked out of his office to the front desk, picked up the phone to call my husband at the satellite office he worked at for the paper and told  him “I’m quitting.”

“I am too,” he said.

A couple of weeks later the editor who had tortured us with constant yelling and berating received two two-week notice letters on his desk. I started job searching and my husband started working at the competition, which was actually the first paper he had worked at but was now under a different editor than he had worked for before.

I finished my career at the same regional paper my husband ended his career at about a month ago, though I walked away almost seven years before him.

In many cases when you leave a newspaper your co-workers don’t celebrate. They don’t feel sad either. You aren’t given a cake or a party. Sometimes you get a card and they wish you luck, but honestly, after so many years working with the public, there is little left inside a person to feel true emotions, even when a long time coworker finally escapes.

My husband worked at the paper 16 years, and a few years beyond if you count the years he worked there right after high school. On his last day, he received a card on his desk, signed by his co-workers. No cake, or well wishes.

He did, however, receive a kind farewell, complete with gifts and cake and streamers, from the coworkers at his part-time switchboard job at the local hospital, where he had worked off and on for seven years.

What was not surprising about his departure was the snide comments written on the newspaper’s Facebook page about him when he departed because one thing I’ve learned working at smalltown newspapers is there is no shortage of people who want to tell you that you suck.

I have less than fond memories of working at newspapers, mixed in with a few positive ones. I remember once, as a new reporter, after misidentifying someone in a story, apologizing to the person I had misidentified and being told my apology wasn’t accepted and that I didn’t, I quote, “deserve to breathe anymore.” I remember writing a lifestyle column and having someone scribble their dislike of it all over the newspaper with a black marker, which they had folded over to make sure my column was on top and shoved in the front mail slot with the words “No one cares about your stupid teddy bear or your stupid kid.” To make sure I saw it my “kind” co-workers propped it up on my computer so it would be at face level when I sat down. I tried to pretend I didn’t care, but I went home later that day and cried and wished I had listened to the career test I’d taken in high school which listed journalism as the top job I should never take.

These were the same co-workers that didn’t know I had come in early and was sitting at my desk on the other side of the partition when they called me a liar for calling in sick for morning sickness when I was pregnant with my first child. I almost went over to their desk and puked on them to show them how real the sickness was. I didn’t have morning sickness when pregnant. I had “all day sickness.” I still wish I had puked on them in some ways, though the relationship with them did improve somewhat in the future.

Not long after the note was left on my desk about the column, the publisher called me into his office and told me to stop writing about my kid because no one cared. I stopped writing the column altogether and tried not to look anyone in the community in the eye because I didn’t know who was sitting at home with too much time on their hands, hating me for writing what I thought were funny stories about my kid and his and my childhood. I honestly thought they might like a break from the dismal news that usually appeared in the paper. Apparently, not.

I was walking in Walmart one day with my son in the cart and a woman stopped me and said: “Oh, is this the little boy you write about in the paper?”

I thought she might be mocking me so I was afraid to admit it, but when I did she said, “I just loved your column. It always made me think about the good times I had with my children when they were growing up.”

She asked me why I wasn’t writing it anymore so I told her what my publisher had told me. She told me he was wrong. As the years went by I still had women stop me, most of them with adult children, and tell me how much they missed my column. I always told them ‘thank you’ but that I’d never write the column again. It had been made clear to me what I had to say was “stupid” and “unimportant.”

There is a long list of the cons of my years in newspapers – from being yelled at about mistakes in obits that I didn’t make (we copied them from the funeral homes), from being told more than once to go back where I came from (I had lived in the county my whole life so this one always puzzled me), to being threatened by a convicted murderer’s family (that all worked out, but it was scary at the time); to being told I deserved to die for a misquote; to spending nights crying myself to sleep after I’d had to write about a fatal car accident or a story about two county sheriff’s deputies murdered; that time I was cheated out of benefits by my boss because I had to cut my hours when our daycare provider got busted for not having a daycare license; those times I provided an idea, only to be pushed aside and then have a man come in with the same idea and hear the man congratulated for his amazing idea; and, of course, the many times I got yelled at for writing information provided to us by the police because the person arrested insisted they were innocent.

Throw into those cons that night a drunk guy threatened me because I accurately quoted him at a local school board meeting during the public comment section.

“If you…if you print what I say .. I’ll..I’ll….” he slurred into the phone.

“You’ll what?” I asked.

“I’ll..just …you better not print what I say,” he said.

Mixed into the negative were a few positives – nice people met, friendships formed, appreciation expressed for stories written, a husband met, skills learned (like the ability to compartmentalize emotions, shoving them inside until I could have a proper cry later in the darkness of the night before falling asleep.

I learned how to work fast, how to be semi-organized and you would think I would have grown a thicker skin, and in some ways I did, but in other ways, I simply decided people were better off to be avoided because eventually, they’d find a way to tell you that you suck.

Someone once asked me if I miss working at newspapers. I told them, “Sure. Yes. The same way I would miss a bullet in my brain.”

“Would you ever go back into newspapers full time?” someone might ask me one day.

My answer would be simple: “Not even if I was offered a million dollars.” Okay – maybe only IF I was offered a million dollars.

I hate to sound so negative about newspapers  because my husband recently started a new job at a newspaper that I worked at (and have the least negative memories of) and there are aspects of small-town newspapers I wouldn’t mind participating in again – like maybe writing a lifestyle column, although that could bring me hate mail over any tails of teddy bears I might share again.

Newspapers were good to me over the years – gave me a job that was never the same from day to day; helped me learn a little bit about a lot of things; helped me hone my writing skills (yeah, I know – keep honing); led me to a husband and from that to two amazing children; and helped me meet some amazingly kind people.

But I still carry the teeth marks and I can’t imagine ever placing myself back in that lions’ den, especially now with so many lions ready to eat journalists alive.

 

 

 

Dying ways of life and why we fight to hold on to them

When local farmer Scott Walrath recently told me farmers are stupidly in love with farming, I totally got it, maybe more than others who aren’t farmers would. For a long time I was in love with print journalism and now it, and farming, are two dying ways of life. I say ways of life because that is what both are. They are not occupations. They are something you live and breathe and that runs in your blood, dark like the ink in a press. .

DSC_8896DSC_5712-Edit_1In farming there is never a day off, always a cow to help birth or equipment to fix, or fields to work. In print journalism my brain was always working and thinking of the next story. Even if I was not at the office I seemed to always have my ears open to a tip or a feature story idea. Every person I met or place I visited had the potential of a news story or art for the front page. Art, in newspaper lingo, is essentially a main photo to anchor the front page and grab the readers attention so hopefully they will buy the paper.

More and more today, though, people aren’t buying the newspaper and even if they were, the paper to produce the newspaper is so expensive many papers are either raising prices or laying off employees.

New tarrifs on newsprint coming into the United States have raised prices more than 50 percent in some cases. The increase in expenses is leading some papers to drop the size of their papers down as they try to balance the decrease in demand, the rising prices and the difficulty with employing a staff. Small, privately owned newspapers, much like small, family owned farms, are being hit the hardest by the changes.

45bc5-lisar-howelerlisar-howeler58c50-lisar-howeler2ccopyrightlisar-howeler2ccopyrightI find myself trying hard not to think about a world without a physical newspaper to hold in my hand, one where scrolling on a computer or phone replaces the turning of the page. One where we no longer close our eyes and smell the ink, for me the smell of stories yet to be told. Similarly my brain often fights to silence the thoughts and frightening visions of empty barns dotting rural Pennsylvania’s landscapes of open fields, filled with corn or wheat or simply lush green.

Ah, those dying ways of life that a few of us still fight for, maybe because we are stupid, maybe because we are stuck in the “good ole’ days” or maybe because it runs in our blood and we can’t imagine doing anything else.

Hotheads, homicidal lunatics, forgotten souls and gun toting rednecks: Or the 13 years I worked as a small town newspaper reporter Part I

The back door to the office was made of metal and when his fists hit the door that night they sounded like gunshots. Back then the door was never locked so in a few moments the door to the newsroom was open and in stomped a man I can only describe looking like a cross between the Grinch and Ebeneezer Scrooge.

He was holding a small pamphlet and waving it wildly in front of him.

“Look at this crap!” He shouted, now standing next to the editor’s desk, which he slapped the pamphlet down on with force. He didn’t say, “crap,” honestly, but to protect sensitive ears from the harsher word he used, we will say he did. “Just look at this! I found this ‘bull crap’ on the windshield of my car when I came out of church! This anti-abortion crap on my windshield! I’m in Mass! I don’t need to have some political agenda shoved down my throat while in Mass! What the hell?! You need to write something about these religious fanatics!”

He stomped back out again , cursing down the hallway to the door and out into the night. The door slammed shut and silence followed. The editor, sitting at his desk, hadn’t said a word to the visitor and had barely looked up from his desk. He and the reporters around me continued to type away as if nothing had happened.

I’d only been employed by this paper for about a week, after working a few years with it’s competitor paper 15 miles away, and it was the first time I’d watched someone simply walk into a newsroom, rant about a random issue and walk back out again. The keys of the computers clicked around me and since no one was offering an explanation of what that particular circus side show had been about, I finally asked.

“Oh, that’s Andy. He does that all the time,” the editor said. “He’s harmless. We just let him go off for awhile and then he leaves. Happens all the time.”

Andy was also the former mayor of the village next to where the paper was located, though actually three municipalities blend together where we live, so to call it a separate town can be confusing to visitors. Two of the “towns” are actually called boroughs and are in Pennsylvania and Andy’s “town” is really a village and located in New York State. 

To this day, I remain confused what “religious fanatics” he was talking about since he’d been in Mass at the local Catholic Church when this happened and I’d imagined it was the people sitting in the pews next to him who had put the pamphlets on his windshield, considering the Catholic Church does have a pro-life stance. I mentioned this to my co-workers who agreed with my logic but said Andy didn’t always subscribe to “logic,” and that it was possible he’d been sipping from his private stash before he had stomped by, as he has had done a few times before village board meetings.  

“Harmless Andy” was only one of many interesting characters I encountered while working for three of the four small town newspapers in the county during my 13 year career as a reporter. One of those other characters was a fellow reporter named Lon, who sat at a cluttered desk across from me, often talked to himself in the third person and spent the majority of his shift swearing at his computer.

He was Vietnam vet who we were told had been a sniper with the Green Berets and sometimes suffered from flash backs. One evening I was alone with him and another reporter and we were typing our stories for that evening’s paper (later the paper fell in with the modern newspaper trend of being a morning newspaper). All we could hear were the sound of the computer keys clicking until Lon stretched open a paper clip, looked at me and said “did you know there are 100 ways you can kill a man with a paper clip?”

I wasn’t exactly sure how to respond. I looked at the other reporter and we locked eyes briefly, with him giving me a wide eyed warning that seemed to suggest the question should remain rhetorical. I didn’t listen.  I cleared my throat. “Ummmm… no. I -uh – didn’t know that.” I said slowly.

Lon was standing at that point, grinned at me and put the paper clip back on the top of the desk.

“One of the ways involves shoving it straight up his nose into his brain,” he said and stood there with his upper lip turned up on the edges like The Joker. He just stared at me for a few moments with that creepy grin, his gray eyes, which I imagine were once steely blue, focused on me, but not really seeing me, as if he’d been mentally transported somewhere else.

He was a tall, lanky man with sunken eyes and cheeks and reminded me of a mummy unwrapped from its ancient bandages. He hunched his shoulders a little, dropped his head down slightly and said “I gotta take a crap.”

He turned abruptly and headed toward the men’s bathroom behind my desk. But then he stopped, turned abruptly again and said “did you know when a man dies he craps himself? Just completely loses control of his bowels.”

He didn’t wait for a response. He just turned on his heel and shuffled into the bathroom.

When the door closed I slowly looked at the other reporter. He shrugged. “Eh, it’s Lon. He says stuff like that all the time. He’s harmless.”

And he was harmless, never hurting anyone physically, except himself by smoking a couple packs of cigarettes a day. He lived alone in a tiny apartment, spent most of his life at the paper, and eventually was forced into retirement as he became more and more agitated at sources and forgetful with the facts of stories. Municipal officials started asking the editor not to send him to meetings anymore. I’ll never forget the day the editor told him I’d be taking over the coverage of a municipality he’d been covering for probably 30 years. His expression was a mix of pissed off and dejected and I felt like I’d just kicked a puppy in some ways, even though the decision hadn’t been mine. 

I wish I could say I kept in touch with Lon after he retired, but I didn’t. I visited him once in his small apartment on the top floor of an assisted living building. The stench of cigarettes filled my nose and gave me a headache and he declined to let me come in, saying it was too dirty and smokey inside. We stood in the fluorescent lit hallway and talked with the apartment door part way open to a dark room with an old couch and I think maybe a table and chair.

He was hooked up to oxygen and I didn’t think he could look anymore dead than he already had when we were working together but he did, his skin now even more of ashen gray than before. He thanked me for coming, said none of his other former co-workers ever visited or called, and with a pleading look in his eyes asked me to stop again. 

I never did. 

I don’t know why. Maybe it was that life got busy after I had my son, and then I  left newspapers all together and never wanted to look back. Maybe it was that it was hard to watch a man slowly waste away before my eyes. Whatever the reasons, I was wrong, I was selfish and I will forever regret it. 

He had no family, only a ex-wife he told us hated him and I heard maybe a step daughter. He was one of the forgotten ones – a forgotten newspaper reporter, a forgotten veteran, a forgotten soul.  

The day I saw his obit I cried and was filled with remorse, shame and regret. The write up was brief, maybe a paragraph, to the point, didn’t speak much about who he really was as a person, didn’t name any survivors, and said there would be no services at his request. In some ways it was like he had never really existed. 

His spirit faded away like the smoke on the end of the cigarettes he had smoked and I had forgotten  him, just like everyone else. It’s something I’ve truly never forgiven myself for and not sure I ever well.