“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” _ The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
The above quote, at the end of the John Ford masterpiece, says a lot. In the movie, a reporter says it to Jimmy Stewart’s character, who had gained fame and power because everyone, initially including himself, believed he had shot the outlaw of the title. In reality, John Wayne’s not-so-highly regarded character had done the deed, and even when Stewart tried to set the record straight, the newspaper reporter of the day wanted nothing to do with it.
Nowadays, I think the quote speaks much about the newspaper – or for that matter, journalism – business itself. Bear with me, I’ll explain (though sometimes what passes as my explanations serve more to muddy the waters than clear them). We’ll have to see where this one goes.
I’ve said it before: I grew up loving newspapers. That’s where Clark Kent worked. That’s where I wanted to work. That’s where I WOULD work. I worked on the student newspaper. I went to J-school. I held out after graduation until I got a newspaper job. OK, a little known fact here. I actually turned down one offer at a twice-a-week paper in the N.C. mountains. I’d reluctantly moved back to my parents’ home in SoBo by this time, and while I desperately wanted out, I wanted the daily juice more.
I finally got it. I got hired by a newspaper in Jacksonville, N.C., called The Daily News. Here’s the funny part: Steve Williams, the guy who hired me, left about a month later, so he never got to see whether his judgment call paid off. I’d like to think it did. I stayed there 14 years, probably too long for my career.
But I had a ball. I learned a lot about the business and myself and the other people in it. There was the paranoid boss (and I won’t identify him any further than that) who once screamed: “Stop Looking at Me” to a couple of us in the newsroom one Friday night. Then there was my friend and mentor Elliott Potter. He and I got the keys to The Daily News at an obscenely young age and – together with my buddy Robert Holland and a cast of offbeat but talented reporters, photographers and editors – ran with it. Again, I’d like to think we knocked it out of the park most days, as we added a Sunday edition, switched to morning and incorporated color in as many places as possible.
I’ve written about those days several times. Here’s two of them: Tales from a Reporter’s Notebook and More Tales from a Reporter’s (and Editor’s) Notebook. If you’re interested. Which you might not be.
The point is, I had a great time there. And then moved on to a paper in Gastonia. I had a good time there and met a ton of more offbeat but talented reporters and editors and photographers and so on, including a couple of co-workers from N.C. State whom I liked – and respected – a great deal. And then I moved on to become the editor of a daily paper in Henderson. I had a pretty good time there. Except now I had to hire the offbeat but talented workers. Sometimes it worked. There was my offbeat – to say the least – and talented – to really say the least – friend Nancy Simpson. But what I found – and I think I wasn’t alone in this – was that the applicants were becoming more offbeat and less talented.
But in the middle of 2000, I got a job offer outside newspapers but still inside journalism. I became an editor/writer at Business North Carolina magazine. It was a different kind of writing – a lot of long-form pieces. New techniques of storytelling. Mixed in with more graphics and some short pieces and lots of other different stuff. It recharged me, because I’d been beaten down a little over the years. I’ll admit it.
Long-term, though, I grew more and more disenchanted with the journalism biz. Seemed like – and this could have been exclusive to me but I doubt it – more and more stories were launched with an agenda. I call it the Fox News-ization of the journalism biz. It was becoming more labor than love. In the end, though, the decision on whether to leave and what I would do if I did was taken out of my hands. I got laid off. For business reasons.
I stilled lived by my pen – or keyboard, as it were. But as I started trying to reinvent myself, I knew one thing: It wasn’t going back to newspapers, for sure. And probably not to journalism in any form.
As it happened, I landed in something altogether different. I don’t even exactly know how to describe it. I’m a copy editor in name, but in reality it’s much more than that. You’ll have to trust me on this – much of what I do is fairly proprietary. But it is fun. And we’re adding people. Hand over fist. And the people we’e adding are offbeat AND way talented (they push me past where I thought my limits were just to stay even – I hope – with them).
My life used to be black and white. I loved newspapers and thought journalism was the only honorable profession. I don’t think so anymore. I see plenty of good, solid work. But I see agendas everywhere. And while I have the filters to see through them, I worry that a lot of people don’t. Journalism has become more of let’s identify our audience and give it what it wants – in large part in order to survive. It’s hard to envision it changing. It’s hard to envision a career in it.
Which brings me back to the legend part. My wife posed a question on Facebook last night because a friend of ours who left newspapers a number of years ago for PR is now going back to newspapers. For the past year or so, as he’s faced some difficulties personally, he has seemed more and more drawn back to those days of yore. We’ve seen others like him. Karen addressed these questions to current and former newspaper people: Would you get out of the biz if you could and would you go back if you could? Few have said they wanted to leave; most who have left said they’d go back if the money and prospects were better.
On one level, I get it. I loved most of my days in the business. I applaud those who still do and are delivering quality work every day of the week – or in some cases now three days a week. My hat is off to those who think they still would enjoy it more than anything.
But here’s my takeaway: The legend of newspaper work has overtaken the fact. Even Clark Kent has seen the light and turned to blogging. I guess this time Art Imitates (My) Life. At least I didn’t say Art Imitates Arthur.