Within one hour of starting work at the Augusta Herald newspaper, I was on the scene as authorities recovered a body from the canal. It was then that I discovered that corpses are not always dressed nicely and displayed in boxes.
That was in July 1979 — 42 years, eight presidents, and five newspapers ago. A long time to be chasing deadlines, making and losing friends, tap-tapping on keyboards, and watching the endless newsreel of events unspool in the communities where I’ve lived.
Mind you, my career in journalism has not always been in newspapers. For a considerable time — after the New York Times closed the Gwinnett Daily News — I was a newspaperman without a newspaper. So, I started a public relations agency and we did pretty well working with TV networks and national news outlets.
Thinking that I had retired from all that, I moved back more than a decade ago to my boyhood home of Carrollton. Then thinking that I might want something to occupy my time, the folks at the Times-Georgian were good enough to let me write. Then they let me write some more, and pretty soon I had another full-time job.
And now, that job is over. And this is my second — and final — retirement from newspapers.
As I discovered on my first day on the job, working in the news business is an education. Both on the grim realities of life and on the power of the human spirit to effect change. I’ve seen people on the worst days of their lives and on their best.
There are a lot of opinions about journalism these days. As you can imagine, I don’t agree with a lot of them. If you’ve ever seen a bunch of journalists try to agree on where to have lunch, you’d be pretty skeptical that they could decide on a nefarious group agenda.
By the way, if you think the “opinion journalism” that is practiced on news networks is anything like real reporting, then you are very much mistaken.
Working in the press is not a glorious occupation. With rare exceptions, no one notices what you are doing.
Reporters, editors, and photographers go to work each day and do routine things and get paid and put their kids through college. It’s a business and a job, most days, and not really much different from the job you do.
But some days it is different. You get to witness things and have experiences that you might never have in any other profession. You get to talk to presidents (I’ve spoken to four), and you are sometimes brought into the room where things happen, and have a front seat to history in the making.
In the past 42 years, the business has changed a lot. And I mean a lot. When I began, there were roomfuls of writers and editors and ad reps, all building a news product that reached thousands of people. Now, there are much fewer people doubling up to cover for those who have left the business.
People complain about paywalls and believe that news should be free. Well, it could be free if all people wanted was a firehose of information with no context. But that’s not what people want.
Reporting is a creative process. It should also be a contextualizing process. If the county commission buys five new cars with over $200,000 of your tax money, you probably would want to know why so much and why so many. You might get that information if you had time to go to a county commission meeting. But you don’t have time; you’d rather somebody else go, like a reporter, maybe, so you can get that information in a condensed form.
It’s worth paying for, and the people who produce it should be working to make it worth paying for. That’s what they do, by and large, and folks should remember it’s being done with fewer resources, time, and people.
I am suddenly left with the peculiar feeling that I am among the last of my kind. My first news editor was a gruff man who stubbed out articles, pounding away at a Royal typewriter with his two index fingers, taking time for a choice expletive or two. There were no cell phones and we had to hunt payphones to call in stories. We wrote on notepads, sometimes standing in rainstorms, watching our notes bleed into a blur.
That’s the generation I come from, and I am among the last representatives of that species of reporters. I hold fast to the old religion of the trade: I believe that the story a reporter is writing should be the center of their universe. I believe subjects and verbs should agree. I believe that sports writing is the highest expression of pure journalism.
When I consider the fact that I am among the last of my kind, I wonder about how well I represent that team. I have worked with some of the best journalists and photographers, men and women who have gone on to stellar careers. I know, deep down, that I don’t have their talents, which has only led me to try harder to live up to their standards.
But I do feel comfortable in the company of these ghosts of the past. When I visit what we call the back shop, and the press is running as fast as it can, and the vibration of the machinery rattles my ankles, I get a distinct feeling of what journalism is and what it means.
This newspaper, like all newspapers, tells the daily story of the life of this community. It records the lives of its residents, from birth to death, with all the tragedies and triumphs experienced in between. It is a day-by-day history in solid form. It is printed on paper that is clipped to become an artifact and relic of life itself; clippings of children and grandchildren that are taped on refrigerators, or sent to far-off relatives, to live forever.
I have not become famous, nor have I become all I wanted to be when I was a young reporter starting out. But I am content. I have fulfilled the mission as well as I could and now I leave it to others to push forward the endless mission.