Last week, I was asked to speak to the American Association of University Women about the meandering path that brought me to Last Best News. What follows is a condensed, and possibly improved, version of those remarks.
To begin at the beginning, a long, long time ago, in a place far, far away, I was born.
That beginning is more relevant than it may sound, because even before I really knew how to write letters properly, I was already self-publishing little family newsletters, commentaries and magazines, sometimes using little toy printing presses that my brother and I had.
So it must have seemed inevitable that I would eventually wind up in a newspaper office somewhere. But it took a while. I worked on my high school paper, then a college paper, then there was the Army, and I traveled in Europe for a year. Finally, I finished college, and my wife and I worked in Austin, Texas, before I cajoled my way into my first newspaper job, at age 28.
But if I started late, I started right. My first job was as a reporter at the Palestine Herald-Press, and no one could have asked for a better training ground. My managing editor was an old pro who knew where every body in town was buried. My editor was patient and literate. My publisher was absolutely fearless.
I remember once that one of my sources was in the office complaining about a quote of his that we had used. He said it was out of date; we thought it was still relevant. The publisher happened to walk by and overheard what was going on. Then he stopped and told the guy, “We may pull that quote out and use it again in your obituary.” Which he would have done.
Palestine, Texas, also was the perfect training ground for a new reporter learning to cover a beat. It was in East Texas, in the shadow of the Piney Woods, and it was insular, conservative, suspicious and often racist.
It was yellow-dog Democrat country in those days, with most elections settled as soon as the Democratic primary was over. When a serious crime happened, the first question we often got from readers was, “What color was he?” We declined to answer.
I got in trouble with the county hospital administrator right away when he told county commissioners that one reason the hospital was crowded was that white patients didn’t want to be near black patients. He asked that I not print that in the paper, and of course I did, and we never got along after that.
I worked in Palestine a couple of years, then a couple of years at the Bryan-College Station Eagle, then back to Palestine as the editor, then back to Bryan-College Station as the editor. By that time, the Eagle had been bought by a third-rate newspaper chain, Worrell Enterprises, that was steadily beating it into the ground.
I didn’t last long. One day, the new publisher ordered me to make life harder for a veteran employee whose only fault was that he had survived there long enough to be making a decent wage. I told the publisher, “You can have my salary,” and walked out.
I landed a teaching job at Texas A&M University, and when the English department was hit with yet another round of budget cuts, hired on at the Billings Gazette. I worked a couple of years on the night shift of the region desk, where I got to know Ed Kemmick, who had the same job. In those days, we were putting out four editions a night, sometimes designing and remaking 20 pages apiece in the course of an evening shift.
It was a brutal job, and after a couple of years, I asked for, and was given, a demotion to reporter. Not too long after, Ed requested the same demotion, and went on to become the Gazette’s star reporter and columnist.
By that time, I was gone. I didn’t like the way the newspaper business was going—national circulation already had essentially been flat for a generation—and the big newspaper corporations didn’t seem to have much interest in fixing the problems.
So I got a business plan, found some investors and launched The Billings Outpost on Oct. 16, 1997. We had some good years, and some bad years and, finally, a very bad year. I finally decided to throw in the towel with the last issue of January, 2016.
On Feb. 1, Kemmick and I joined forces, doubling the size of his staff and, we hope, helping to launch a new era in Montana journalism. And we aren’t the only ones. John Adams, formerly the capital bureau chief for the Great Falls Tribune, launched his investigative news site, the Montana Free Press, not long ago, and Martin Kidston, formerly of the Missoulian, has started the Missoula Current.
Where this will all go is hard to say. I still have newspaper ink in my blood, going back to those tiny toy presses of my childhood. I started my newspaper career working on a manual typewriter, with typesetters in the back shop transforming my stories into type. Now I never catch the whiff of ink.
I also worry about where the Internet is leading news coverage. Chris Cilliza had a story for the Washington Post the other day in which he divided news coverage into three baskets: the what, the so what and the now what.
The “what” tells you what happened: A fire injured two people on the South Side yesterday. The “so what” tells you why that matters: It’s the third fire in that neighborhood in a month, and authorities suspect arson in all three. The “now what” tells you what to expect next: The fire department is asking for a budget increase to deal with its increased workload.
The way Cilliza sees it, the “what” is now practically becoming common carrier material. Everybody knows what Donald Trump said yesterday. The news requires understanding why he said it and what the implications are for the country.
In Cilliza’s view, we need to worry more about the “so what” and the “now what.” He may be right for the country as a whole, but my concern in local markets is that as the market for news becomes more and more constricted, the “what” may get lost in the shuffle—the sort of day-to-day coverage that tells people what is going on and gives them a role to play in the democratic way of life.
Ed and I hope to break some news stories that all of you will care about, but we can’t go to the City Council meetings, the county commissioner meetings, the school board meetings the way newspaper reporters once did. That can hurt both reporters, in terms of truly understanding what is going on, and it can hurt readers, who may miss stories that matter to them.
But we will do our best. I think back to Palestine, Texas, when we had a huge controversy—there was always a controversy in Palestine—when a private hospital came to town to compete with the county-owned hospital. Everybody had an opinion, most of them loud.
I remember going to a public hearing at which speaker after speaker denounced the opposing side—and denounced the newspaper for being unfair and biased. It was pretty depressing, until it finally occurred to me that no matter how much those people might complain about our coverage, they were referring to it again and again to form their own opinions.
In some odd way, they needed us. And, I think, people still need journalism. If it’s possible to make a living at it, we hope to find it.