— Compared to some of the old-timers in The Free Press newsroom, I’m still a baby with my mere 25 years as a reporter and editor at The Free Press, which is celebrating 125 years as a daily paper.
But I’m a baby who grew up here.
After being a regional reporter for a couple of years, I was tricked into entering middle management, becoming news editor at age 25. (The boss promised I could have my own closet-size office with a window that faced a brick wall.)
I mistakenly thought the job meant fixing mistakes in news stories. And over the years, I’ve definitely seen a few, such as the preview stories about “pubic” meetings instead of “public” meetings. Or the time the headline about a “homecoming queen” was trimmed too closely on the page slick so the “n” became an “r,” reading “homecoming queer.” Or the time someone slipped the words “or nuclear devices” into a brief about illegal fishing methods.
My boss forgot to tell me that being a news editor — no matter what your age — consists of catching mistakes and mothering reporters. That means nagging them to plan better, write stories faster, assign photos and quit swearing like sailors (and no, holding the phone receiver against your stomach does not block the sound from your caller as you holler across the newsroom).
I don’t have to worry about getting a middle manager award (because there’s so many of those, right?). I think I blew it the time I apologized to a reporter for messing something up, and he sarcastically asked his admittedly perfectionist boss if that’s the first time I’d ever made a mistake. I said, “No, I hired you.”
For the most part, all of us get along surprisingly well for a room of independent spirits. The job has been filled with passionate arguing, guessing, thoughtful decision-making, stress — and excitement.
I have gotten reporters out of bed to cover fires, sent them into threatening weather and asked them to talk to loved ones of crime victims. I’ve witnessed a staff member who lost part of his town to a tornado take to the mangled streets to capture the aftermath on roll after roll of film. So many hard things I asked them to do, and they always came through.
Years ago, we had to face our own pain when one of our own took his life in a newsroom office on a Saturday morning. I like to think he was comforted knowing that his newsroom family would figure out how to handle it.
And despite them being skeptics, cynics and critics in newsroom conversations, reporters are amazingly caring and nice to the public. We often end up with other departments’ calls. More than one reporter has delivered a lost paper to a subscriber. One time I heard one of our crustier reporters on the phone with an elderly reader gently explaining that “Everyone’s newspaper has the same bingo numbers. It’s the cards that are all different.”
Being a manager has been an enlightening experience in so many ways. I figured after more than two decades that I’d seen most everything as an editor and had the job down. But just when you figured you’ve done it all, a new challenge surfaces.
One afternoon the janitor popped his head into my office after cleaning the men’s restroom across the hall (the same restroom I entered years ago to kick out a drunk “source.”) I don’t speak Spanish, so our conversation is limited, but this much I figured out. The toilet was plugged, he wasn’t happy, and I was “the boss” and should do something about it.
Maybe I need to learn to delegate more.
The Free Press is celebrating its 125th anniversary with a five-part special section that will be published Sunday.