The Eye Opening Story Assignment

I loved being a newspaper guy.

It was vastly different than radio.  I found it fascinating that I could report the same exact news story on both media outlets and yet, all feedback was from the written word, never from a broadcast.  It was about 50-50 with sports, but somehow, if it was news, it had to be written down to be official.

Of course times are changing, with print newspapers disappearing from the earth at a frightening pace.  I was lucky in my time there since so many people actually read what I wrote.

I earned my first death threat from writing about a college football coach who pushed the boundaries of NCAA rules.  It was pretty funny overall, but not for the guy who worshipped the coach.  The unhappy reader first wrote me a letter and told me he was going to kill me.  And then he followed up with a phone call.

At that point, I offered that death threats over the phone are probably a bad idea, since calls were put into phone records.  There was a moment of silence and then, an “Oh. I’m sorry.  You just really shouldn’t have written that stuff about a coach that I love, who did a really good job as a coach.”

He then provided his name, and apologized again.  I explained why I wrote what I wrote, he grudgingly agreed the coach pushed the rules around, and requested I try not to be so mean in the future.  I agreed.

Another time, a guy walked in wanting to throw punches based on how I criticized the umpires at a baseball tournament.  I stood by my words, as did the managing editor.

I had two really good managing editors, who alway backed me up.  Even when I made mistakes or pushed the existing boundaries of journalism at the time.  The best journalism is presenting facts and allowing your audience to make their own conclusions.  My opinion made it in every now and then beyond opinion columns or op/ed pieces.

My first managing editor taught me all I know of proper journalism.  He needs to teach a great number of sitting journalists out there these days who don’t seem to observe any of the objective rules or ideals of reporting.  That aside, he also gave me an assignment I hated.  At least I thought I did.

The paper was doing a special section on weddings.  One of those things that is build as a special place to sell specific ads.  To me, it had zero journalistic value.  I had pictures of horrible things to take with my camera.  Fires, car accidents, vandalism and maybe a ribbon cutting or two for a new business.

I had no time for fluff pieces for a giant advertising section!

The editorial staff even came up with a standing joke for a lot of out work, that we were not writers, we were in fact, “ad surrounders” – all our stuff was to fill in around the furniture sale ad in the corner.

My short straw draw for the wedding issue was to find a couple that had been married for 50 plus years and find out more about them.  How had they done it?

Ooh boy.  Heavy stuff.

Of course I was exceptionally wrong.  It turns out, this is the stuff of journalism.  Real stories about real people.  They were awesome.  They were kind.  They allowed me into their home, offered me a beverage and then they opened their beautiful souls and told me their story of life and love.

I can admit it now.  I cried a little.

They showed me pictures of the town, and how they met.  They told me of love and loss along the way and that it wasn’t easy, yet they didn’t think it was supposed to be.  They learned how to listen to each other and be there for each other, and how they now couldn’t imagine living life any other way.

I learned history of the city I was covering for the news.  My community.  I learned about how they enjoyed the community and the people in it.  If I was completely tuned in, I would have taken some of their advice sooner.  But the real journalist in me thought he had it all figure out.

The interview with them became the centerpiece for the wedding section, and the gracious couple thanked me.  And I thanked them.  I find myself still being grateful for that day.  A day learning about why it was I was writing things down in the first place.  To take my experience learning about humans and sharing it with the world.

Best assignment I ever had.