The day-to-day joy of writing full-time for a living was not lost on me. I truly loved writing columns and found it fascinating to edit national columnists’ work from all sorts of political perspectives. As editorial writers, our job was to take the bulk column writing from the nationally syndicated writers and pare it down slightly to fit the column-inch space our newspaper provided on the daily opinion page. Our newspaper published perspectives from Cal Thomas, Ann Coulter, George Will, Molly Ivins and several other political or social scions trying to get their point across about the American scene. We didn’t have to edit much, but taking out even 100 words from a column is tortuous work because it is important not to diminish the meaning or leave out some critical thought during the process.
It was easier to edit a rational conservative such as George Will than it was to condense the extreme screeds of Ann Coulter. Will often used baseball or other analogies to explain his positions, while Coulter just bellowed at whatever she did not like, and that was everything. Cal Thomas was as predictable as could be. He always took the stance that things were better in the old days and America was going to hell because of godless liberals. Then there was Molly Ivins, the liberal columnist from Texas whose jibes were lively and typically filled with colorful imagery.
I’d spend time reading each column through and tried to genuinely respect the intention of the writer. That’s hard when you disagree with nearly every word written down. Then it was sent over to a copy editor for grammatical checks and into the newspaper it went. As a kid, I always hated when my mother served us fried liver and lima beans. That’s what those conservative columns tasted like in my mind. The Bush II debacle was just beginning in America, and despite that rather obvious theft of power in the state of Florida, there was considerable tribal crowing going on from the Right about the mandate they’d received in the Bush election. That triumphal call to arms empowered conservative columnists to blame every wrong on “the libs,” and swallowing that brand of content while trying to do a fair and equitable job was not always fun. Plus, back then I did not fully realize that I have ADHD. But sometimes it caught up with me.
The real hard lesson came the day that I dashed off an editorial written in the voice of the newspaper that I had not thought out all that well. Later that day, I received a call from my boss, one of the greatest managers I’ve ever known, a guy named Dave Beery. He was one of the most rational, considerate, and intelligent men I’d met thus far in my career. I took his advice seriously.
“Hey,” he told me in a calm yet serious tone. “You’re getting an inter-office envelope today. I want you to look it through, and if you have any questions, let me know. I think it’s best if I don’t coddle this for you. Just read through what the Publisher had to say about that column you wrote and take it to heart.”
I opened the envelope to find a column I’d written (and published) marked up in red. Hardly a word in the 200-word column was left untouched. For a moment, I was crestfallen. It’s hard to see your work chopped up like that. Dave was right, however. A real journalistic pro needs to take every word seriously, and I had not done that. It went out as the voice of the newspaper, and I had to be accountable for that.
Hard lessons learned
I learned a hard lesson that day.
It reminded me of those running races where I wasn’t quite mentally prepared for competition. All it takes is a slip in concentration or even a second’s loss of will and boom! You’re out of the mix. So I slowed things down a bit and took into account that it was easy to slack off if you’re all hopped up on writing and start thinking you can do no wrong. That was the farthest thing from the truth.
I’m pretty sure some of the other full-time journalists wondered what I was about and why I’d been installed in the position, not having come up through the ranks as most editorial writers did. Our weekly meetings in which the other editorial writers convened by phone to discuss assignments taught me even more lessons about respecting points of view. My naturally competitive personality was not always appreciated, I’m sure. I also felt that the reporters on staff in our local office took a much drier view of what newspaper columns should be rather than some of my lighter attempts at entertainment. Such is the life of every writer. One has to learn their limits.
It was all going to change quite quickly anyway. Just six months after starting the job, the President of the company called me up one day with a proposition. “Listen,” he told me. “We’ve known each other a number of years, and you did some great marketing work for us back when you were a contractor. We need some new ideas in marketing. We want you to come to the Arlington Office as the community relations manager.”
“Does it come with a raise?” I was immediately bold enough to ask.
“We’ll see where it falls on the grading scale. But probably yes.”
That was that. After my short stint as an editorial writer in the eventful period when history passed the year 2000 mark (remember Y2K?), I was heading back to the marketing side of the business. Indeed, I received a $10,000 raise and my wife was ecstatic about that. For once after many years of flailing around in the corporate landscape, I’d played my cards somewhat right and was being welcomed into a business world where perhaps my talents were needed and appreciated.
10 That Do It Right
That was a heady time. The Daily Herald had just been awarded a prestigious recognition as One of Ten That Do It Right by Editor&Publisher Magazine. The publication reached 90 communities with a paid circulation of nearly 140,000. At the time, it was the third-largest newspaper in Illinois behind the juggernaut Chicago Tribune and its weird little tabloid-size blue-collar newspaper the Sun-Times. Everything in the business was about competition for revenue and circulation. Little did anyone know that the entire media business––and all other realms––were on the verge of being transformed by a new information channel that would take over the world. The Internet.
The surprise and shock of dealing with online competition reminded me of the time that our Luther College track team was faced with the spectacle of a runner that the previous year had been nothing special but arrived during our senior year in a form so quick that no one knew what to make of him. A guy that the previous season wasn’t breaking 4:10 in the 1500 meters turned into a sub-3:55 runner who was also capable all the way up to 5000 meters and down to 800 meters. Talk about changing the nature of competition! That’s how it felt to newspapers all over the nation when the Internet came to town. What is this fast animal we’re encountering?
The question was the same for everyone in the news game: How do we compete with that?