Recently, a group of writers at Red Ventures – the company that employs me – asked me and some colleagues with newspaper experience to be part of a panel discussion about journalism and marketing copywriting. There is very little I love more than talking about myself, so I jumped at the chance.
They gave panelists the questions before the event, and I scripted my answers so I wouldn’t forget anything I really wanted to say in the heat of the moment (or in case they started playing the your-speech-has-gone-on-too-long-now-music as they do at the Oscars).
As I got to the end, I started thinking, ‘This might make a good blog post – the (partial) story of Arthur.’ Some of the answers here might be familiar to veteran Rants ‘N Raves readers, and I like to flatter myself that that’s really a thing. Anyway, here goes. Some questions – but not so much answers – have been edited for clarity and brevity:
When did you know you wanted to be a journalist?
At a very early age. It’s probably no surprise that superheroes played a big part in my career choice. See, I was a big Superman fan growing up – those were the first comic books my mom bought me. Anyway, Clark Kent worked at a newspaper as a reporter. From that time on, a newspaper career was the only thing I ever really wanted.
By the way, I often blame my mom for buying me Superman comics first and sentencing me to a life of journalism poverty. If only she’d gotten Batman instead – I think I was really much more cut out for the billionaire playboy gig …
Where did you go to school? What newspaper(s) did you write for?
I graduated from THE University of North Carolina in … well, nevermind when. Since then, I worked at a number of small papers across the state:
- I spent 13 years at the Jacksonville (NC) Daily News, which was about 20,000 circulation or so at the time. (The truth of the matter is that I spent much too long there, but I was having too much fun – some idiot put me and my best friend at the time in charge – to leave.)
- I worked 4 years at the Gaston Gazette – circulation around 50,000 at the time, the best I remember. Gastonia was and is The Hellmouth of Weird.
- Then I was editor of the Henderson Daily (almost – we didn’t publish on Mondays) Dispatch for three years, which was near Raleigh but oh-so-far away.
- I escaped newspapers but not journalism in 2000, when I returned from a vacation in the mountains and gave my two week notice at Henderson so that I could become a senior editor at a North Carolina business magazine in Charlotte with the ridiculously backward name of Business North Carolina. I stayed there nine years until they kicked me out – I got laid off like just about everyone else in journalism.
The truth is, I fell out of love with journalism (and especially the people who ran it) long before it fell out of love with me.
Describe how you got into the newspaper industry.
It must have been divine intervention. When I graduated from the University of the People, I had no clips, no experience, not even time at a student newspaper. But I managed to break out of my well-documented introvertism (I know it’s not a word – but I like it) briefly – I’m an INFJ – to talk my way into a reporter job at what had to be a very desperate Jacksonville newspaper. Here’s how desperate: Six months or so later later, I was city editor – the No. 2 position in that newsroom.
Which section did you write for?
I spent nearly all of my career on the news side, but I was the sports editor in Gastonia for a couple of years. The editor asked me to take over that section to clean up some problems (I won’t go into them) that had cropped up.
That meant I covered home Carolina Panthers games their first two years in existence – the first year of which they played at Clemson – and I attended an ACC Basketball Tournament the year dook sucked and Coach K had his “backache” – it was also the year that Dean Smith and Rick Barnes went nose-to-nose (not a winning strategy when it comes to Dean’s nose). Sadly, Randolph blanking Childress kept the Heels from winning the title that year.
Describe the story you’re most proud of.
OK, this is difficult because I spent so little time in newspapers as a reporter. Newspaper-wise, I guess I’m most proud of a series of articles I did covering the court-martial of Pfc. Robert Garwood – the last POW to return from Vietnam.
He was charged with desertion and collaborating with the enemy, among other things guarding fellow POWs and on one occasion striking one. He was convicted of communicating with the enemy and assaulting a POW (after hearing the guy’s testimony, I’m not sure I blamed Garwood). Ralph Macchio later played Garwood in a made-for-TV movie.
In addition to my coverage for the Jacksonville paper, I got a byline in one of the London tabloids for writing about the case. Another factoid: A book on the case was written by Duncan Groom, who later wrote … Forrest Gump.
But the story I’m most proud of during my overall journalism career came when I was at the business magazine. It was a profile of Jim Blaine, the CEO of State Employees Credit Union, the man most hated by the banks. He’d been a banker himself until he had a conversion experience – not on the road to Damascus but on the road to Fayetteville.
It was a cover story and the cover art itself was my idea – a photo of him with devil horns drawn on as though bankers had defaced it. He absolutely loved it; so did I.
Through all that, the accomplishment I’m MOST proud of during my time at newspapers is meeting my wife.
Describe the most interesting story you wrote.
I’ll answer first by identifying some of the most interesting people I interviewed: wrestling empresario Vince McMahon, Governors Jim Hunt and Jim Martin, a slew of state lawmakers (before the idiots took over), Burley Mitchell (who later became chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court), Shaquille O’Neal (in a group interview – Shaq was incredibly soft-spoken), a ton of Carolina Panthers, and tennis star John McEnroe (as you might guess, the biggest asshole ever).
The most interesting story I ever wrote might have been for the magazine – a profile of Dr. Johnnetta Cole, at the time the president of Bennett College, an HBCU for women in Greensboro. She saved the college by putting together an unlikely coalition of Bill Clinton, Robert Dole, Oprah, and others. Interestingly enough, Dr. Cole also once accepted a $20 million check from Bill Cosby to help save another women’s HBCU, Spelman College in Atlanta.
When I worked in newspapers, the most interesting story probably was a series at Gastonia – we set up an investigative team similar to the one in the movie Spotlight, except that we had two weeks to conduct our research, do our interviews and churn out the stories where they had years. And we weren’t that good. The story was about the coming water wars – it was ahead of its time then and still is.
How did you end up at Red Ventures?
After being laid off by the magazine, I spent nearly two years freelancing – it was fun but stressful because of the uncertainty from month to month. So I applied first for a contract writer job at RV – bailed when I heard the pay. Then a recruiter called me back and asked if I wanted to interview for a contract editor’s job. I did, and I talked to a couple of folks there and took an editing test – all told, I spent a little more than an hour here that day.
I got the job. After two three-month contracts on a project that I’m not sure ever saw the light of day, RV hired a handful of us to stay as permanent employees. So I never really had to go through the standard RV interview process – literally a half-day of interviews!
What was it like to transition from reporting to marketing?
As you might expect, the big change was switching from ostensibly neutral to unabashedly biased writing. The big advantages – I knew how to write quickly and crank out a lot of stuff in a day. I also was used to researching and sourcing articles.
What is your biggest obstacle with working in marketing?
Fully believing in the product I’m pushing. I’ve been lucky in that the two main businesses I’ve worked for here, I did embrace. Keep in mind that I’ve written/edited at one time or another for nearly every business at RV. That and writing too much – as fascinating as my words are, people don’t want to read as many of them as I want to write. And – this is going to sound arrogant but why stop now? – not being able to accept good enough work as good enough.
How did your journalism background help and hurt you in terms of writing for a marketing company?
It helped me in being able to switch gears quickly. And the attention to detail I picked up at the magazine has served me well. Along the way, I also picked up skills as a manager – I like to think I know how to develop and nurture writers and treat them well.
How would you sum up your switch from journalism to marketing?
(OK, the above wasn’t actually a question for the panel, but it gives me a chance to answer with one of my favorite song lyrics – from Return of the Grievous Angel by Gram Parsons:
‘Twenty thousand roads I went down, down, down
And they all lead me straight back home to you.’
That means I took a long, winding path to get to a destination I never saw coming. And I wouldn’t change nothing …