For the Love of the Work
Who knows where the time goes: Where the heck did the last 50 years go? I’m marking a half-century in the newspaper racket and wondering how a life of thousands of deadlines went by so fast. On the other hand, I have no idea how else I would have spent my life. What else was I equipped for? Maybe teaching, certainly an honorable, equally low-paying profession.
Looking back, I feel lucky. It’s been fascinating, being so close to events that have shaped our lives, and then playing town crier. Since 1957, I’ve written thousands of news stories, countless obituaries and travel stories, plus hundreds and hundreds of columns since I took over for Tommy Kleveland at the News-Press in 1977.
Somehow I survived 46 years at the News-Press and avoided being fired. Since July, 2006, I’ve enjoyed a happy existence at The Santa Barbara Independent. I love it here, but then I loved it at the News-Press until the meltdown, despite many ups and downs over the years.
What does it take to become a newspaper reporter and stick with it? “You have to have the bug,” a former managing editor of The New York Times told me once. Daily journalism is not for everyone. You come in in the morning, tackle a story, make phone calls, do research, go out on the beat, deal with editors, then sweat out the story, trying to be fair to all and get all sides.
You get up the next morning and do the same thing, and the next day and the next and the next year and so on. It is not brain surgery, but the pressure is taxing and you have to love the work.
At some point in my early life on the South Side of Chicago, I caught the bug. No one else in the family had my love of reading or were writers, although my mother had studied art and had a gift for language. She warned me against the “deeze, doze, and dems” talk that corrupted the South Side chat.
Mother used a huge old Remington typewriter to write the PTA newsletter for my elementary school. Still, it surprised me when my high school freshman English teacher looked at my essays and suggested I write for the school paper. I did, eventually, writing sports. Then, at the University of Illinois, my buddy from the college paper lured me to work for the Daily Illini, which had never occurred to me.
I was majoring in economics, the so-called “dismal science,” for which I soon realized I was totally unfitted. After graduation, I was hired by Western Union as a young executive, for which I was also unqualified. A group of us young hirees were sent to New York to corporate headquarters, where in wild surprise, we noticed that all the top dogs were elderly men whose shaky fingers trailed cigarette ashes down their ties. In a few years they’d be gone and the coast would be clear for us to skyrocket to the top.
But I soon quit. Corporate life was stifling. Then Uncle Sam sent me greetings. I spent two years in the Army in Panama. When the time to return home approached, I panicked. What, I wondered, would I do?
The only thing I could think of was to write to the U of I journalism department to see if they had any jobs around Chicago. Soon a letter arrived. A reporting job was available in a suburb near Park Forest, where my parents had moved.
I think I started at about $65 a week. I cut my reporting teeth covering the corrupt city council of Chicago Heights, and when an editor went on vacation at a co-owned paper, I filled in. Two years later I packed my wife and baby Barclay into our unpaid-for 1957 Ford and headed West, with only a few hundred dollars and no job, but armed with the naive optimism of youth.
I knocked on doors from Morro Bay to the Mexican border. As our dollars were running out, I was hired by the San Clemente Sun-Post as editor, thanks to that week or two I served as fill-in editor back in Illinois. But after less than a year, Santa Barbara and its beauty beckoned. I wrote to News-Press editor Paul Veblen; I still have his letter of reply, inviting me to drop in for an interview. I was hired. The only job opening was on the copy desk, where I helped edit the entry that won NP owner-publisher Tom Storke a Pulitzer.
After a year as an editor, I talked city editor John Ball into moving me over to the reporting side. Covering everything from the courts, police, and City Hall to the Goleta water wars, then becoming a columnist, was life-changing.
Today, thanks to Independent editor-in-chief Marianne Partridge, I’m still pounding the keyboard, one print column a week and two online columns twice a week. I still enjoy the life. I guess I still have the bug.