I started my professional journalism career 40 years ago. I don’t recall the exact date I started work, but it was in August and I’m pretty sure the anniversary is sometime this week.
I don’t know what that means, other than that I’m getting old and I’ve seen and survived a lot. But we like round numbers, so I’ll blog some about the changes I’ve seen in journalism and the news business over the past four decades.
I started writing sports part-time for the Evening Sentinel in Shenandoah, Iowa. My boss then, the Sentinel’s young sports editor, was Chuck Offenburger. How the media have changed since I started is illustrated by the fact that Chuck is now an Internet entrepreneur, following a long career as a reporter and beloved columnist for the Des Moines Register. His Offenburger.com website is must reading if you love Iowa. I’m delighted to see that Chuck’s lymphoma is so much in remission that he could ride on Ragbrai this year. I do not understand his love for bikes, but I’m glad to see he’s riding again, and I will always be grateful to him for letting me sneak my foot into the door of the news business. We’re hoping to connect this weekend while I’m in Iowa for a wedding. Update: Offenburger had a great time at lunch Sunday, where our friend Daniel P. Finney took the photo above.
While individual stories ranging from the Iowa caucuses to sexual abuse by priests to girls basketball to an iconic photograph have dominated my attention for stretches of months or years, when you look back from the distance of 40 years, you remember more of the people, the travel and the trends than the particular stories. The trends have been technology, disruption and opportunity.
When I started at the Sentinel, we were making the transition from linotype to cold type, produced by a gigantic computer that spat out stories on strips of photographic paper. Journalists didn’t actually operate the computers, though. I typed my stories on a typewriter, sitting at a roll-top desk. After an editor put some editing marks on the paper, a typesetter set the type, just as linotype operators had done for generations of earlier journalists, only without melting lead. On a college field trip the next year, I visited the Abilene Reporter-News and got to see their linotype machines in operation and smell molten lead for the first (and last) time in a newspaper office.
As a student at Texas Christian University, we produced our campus newspaper, the Daily Skiff, using typewriters and cold type, but our Journalism Department chair, Lew Fay, talked about wanting to buy computers that we would write and edit on.
I first worked on computers (huge, slow terminals of a mainframe computer) as a copy editor for the Des Moines Register in 1977. As a reporter and editor over the next 15 years, I worked on at least three subsequent generations of new computers and started working on the early “portable” computers (like the first portable phones, they were portable only in the sense that they worked in the field if you could stand to lug them around). And, oh, yes, I first started working with reporters armed with mobile devices — beepers at first and later those huge phones.
My understanding of the value of this technology grew slowly. Obviously it was easier and faster to edit on computers. Even those first cumbersome portable computers made reporting in the field better than dictating. And when you had to dictate, even a big, clunky cell phone that dropped calls now and then was better than looking for a pay phone. But those were changes of process and convenience that didn’t fundamentally change journalism.
In the 1990s, I began to see technology really change journalism. Reporters who learned to use spreadsheets, databases and mapping programs were able to find stories that were beyond the reach of old-school reporters. Reporters who learned to search the web (before Google made it easier) were able to find answers that eluded other reporters.
Working with colleagues in the United States and South Africa on a journalism training site called No Train, No Gain, I quickly saw the global reach of digital media. I would email a handout from one of my workshops to webmaster Dolf Els in South Africa, and Dolf would post it on NTNG. I got emails from journalists and journalism professors around the world, telling me they were using my material in their newsrooms and classrooms, or asking me for permission to translate my handouts into their languages. As an obscure reporter in Omaha, Neb., I suddenly had a worldwide network of colleagues.
In the past decade, technology has changed journalism even more profoundly. The old print and broadcast silos have faded away, as journalists have to excel on multiple platforms. As a print journalist, I occasionally wrote columns along with my reporting or editing duties. But my efforts to become a full-time columnist never succeeded (as you can see from this lengthy post, fitting into a column might have been a challenge anyway). Blogging gave me the opportunity to develop a voice in the news business independent of a print audience, schedule or space restrictions. Without editors to polish my copy or ask tough questions, I had to hold myself to high standards (and occasionally to humble corrections).
Social media helped me reach a greater audience and forced me to get to the point in 140 characters. Social media and blogging together helped me learn how to engage a community and gave me quick feedback on how well I was doing.
Most of the developments of technology have surprised me with the challenges and opportunities they have presented. So I won’t pretend to see what’s around the next corner. But I’m grateful for the ways technology has shaped my career so far. I hope I can master its coming waves of challenges and opportunities.
The Internet did not bring disruption to my journalism career. The newspaper business has been in turmoil as long as I can remember. Long before digital disruption, I felt and saw the impact of ownership consolidation of newspapers and the deaths of afternoon newspapers. I learned early and often what a tough, even brutal, business this can be.
When I was a student at TCU, the Fort Worth Press folded twice. The Sentinel, the family newspaper I broke in with in 1971, was bought by a chain in the 1980s and folded in the 1990s. The Columbus Citizen-Journal, the newspaper I had carried as a youth in Ohio in the 1960s, folded in the 1980s. In each of those cases, I saw disruption from a distance. But I saw plenty up close: When I worked at the Des Moines Register in 1982, the company closed our afternoon newspaper, the Des Moines Tribune, putting 55 colleagues out of work. Less than three years later, we learned the Cowles family, which built it into a revered statewide institution, was selling the newspaper to Gannett. The sale led to the closure of Hometown, a fledgling regional project I had helped launch. (The Register’s sale also led to an opportunity, but I’ll get to that shortly.)
The trend away from afternoon newspapers disrupted my career two more times. I left Des Moines to join the Kansas City Times, and in 1990, my company again decided to “merge” the afternoon and morning newspapers. The Kansas City Star, the afternoon paper, had the company name and the longer history, so it became the morning newspaper. The Times was the only newspaper to actually die while I worked for it. A couple years later, when I was editor of the Minot Daily News, we converted from afternoon to morning publication.
Since I left Kansas City, the Star has changed hands three times, going from Capital Cities/ABC to Disney to Knight-Ridder to McClatchy. The Minot paper also changed hands after I left, being sold by the Buckner News Alliance to Ogden Newspapers. In fact, it’s pretty clear that the preparation to sell the newspaper cost me my job in 1992. In the year or so before the sale, the newspaper fired the editor, ad manager, production manager and business manager. In each case, they clearly hired someone for less or eliminated the position, making the bottom line look better for the sale.
That wasn’t the only time disruption in my career got very personal. Once a publisher’s wife offered my job to another journalist in town (I was able to put that fire out, but left within six months). Another time I became a potential witness against my bosses in a threatened lawsuit. Yet another time, a boss gave my job to a younger colleague, actually citing age as the reason. (Over the long haul, though, I have to say that I have probably benefited more than I’ve been hurt by discrimination. White males clearly have held most of the power in the news business throughout my career, and that potential lawsuit against an employer drove home to me that women and minorities faced tougher roads. I can’t swear that my swift rise as a young journalist didn’t on occasion reflect some of the age discrimination I would later experience.)
Of course, digital disruption has been a heavy recent theme of my career. The Newspaper Next project, an attempt to explain disruption and prod development of new business models, dominated my time at the American Press Institute from 2005 to 2008. My short tenures at Gazette Communications and TBD and my current job at Journal Register Co. are rooted in efforts to develop a successful business model for digital journalism. I have escaped the downsizing that has cost many good colleagues and friends their jobs in this time of upheaval. But at least three times the newsrooms I was in cut their staffs. Once, when I was editor in Cedar Rapids, I had to decide who stayed and who got cut. And I had to tell 14 good, hard-working journalists that we no longer had jobs for them.
I have often said my career has been a series of amazing opportunities, some of them disguised as disappointments. I have been fortunate that the disappointments were few and short-lived. The opportunities started 40 years ago this month.
I may not have had that opportunity if a classmate had not died. My junior year at Shenandoah High School, a classmate (I can’t call him a friend, I was new to school and didn’t know him very well) was shooting photos of area high school games for the Sentinel. Dennis Lloyd, the photographer, disappeared one night after shooting a basketball game. As I recall, he was missing for more than a week before his Volkswagen bug was found in the river under a bridge. Apparently he fell asleep on the way home. The anxiety of the search for Dennis and the tragedy of his death affected our town and our class profoundly. I presume if Dennis were alive, Offenburger would have kept writing stories about the Corner Conference himself, illustrating them with Dennis’ outstanding photos. But by August, Chuck was looking for someone to write and shoot photos, covering sports at the smaller schools around Shenandoah. His notice in the Sentinel ran while I was on a canoe trip. But my mother showed it to me when I got home. I called Chuck, interviewed and got the job. My photos were nowhere near as good as those Dennis shot the year before, but I was learning to write, and my career was under way.
The opportunities that followed have been extraordinary. Chuck played key roles in two more: He took a job with the Register the March after I started, leaving me as sports editor of a daily newspaper before my high school graduation (let’s not go into what that did to my grades). And five years later, he encouraged Dave Witke, the managing editor of the Des Moines Register, to hire me, the first of several wonderful opportunities at the Register. Just working with Dave was one of the best opportunities the Register presented. I have cited him often as the best editor I ever worked for, and in dozens of leadership seminars and workshops, I have taught lessons I learned from Dave. We’re planning to meet for lunch today while I’m visiting in Des Moines.
As I mentioned before, the disruption of the pending sale to Gannett led to another opportunity. When word of the sale moved on the wire, Rick Tapscott, national/mid-America editor at the Kansas City Times, asked a former Register reporter working at the Star, Barb Musfeldt, whether the Register might have someone who would get a good editor for an opening on his staff. She dropped my name and I ended up taking the job. (As a side note, Rick and Barb later married, as close as I’ve ever come to playing matchmaker.) As if that weren’t opportunity enough, Rick moved on to the Washington Post a couple years later and I got his job.
In Minot, I had the opportunity to work – sort of, and briefly – with my wife, Mimi. She was a columnist for the Shawnee Journal Herald when we were in Kansas City, and the publisher of the Daily News brought her on as a freelance columnist and feature writer (a nepotism policy prevented her from being an employee, and I think we both preferred me not being her boss anyway). It was a treat for our career paths to cross briefly. This post includes enough boasting that I should disclose this: My firing brought a mild ripple of support from the community, but when the publisher also dropped Mimi’s column, that prompted outrage (and quick offers from four North Dakota editors wanting to run the column). We know – and the readers of Minot knew – who’s the best writer in our family.
After I was fired in Minot, I wondered whether I would get another job in journalism. The deaths of afternoon papers left the job market glutted. For jobs I was qualified for, candidates with less baggage than me were abundant. For jobs I was overqualified for, I seldom got a call. But Mike Finney, executive editor of the Omaha World-Herald, and George Edmonson, managing editor, were looking for a senior reporter and they decided to give me a chance. That gave me the opportunity to rehabilitate my career and tell a lot of fun and important stories.
In an interesting twist, the next opportunity came from Rick Tapscott again, luring me back to the Register 13 years after he lured me away. (Rick’s going to be at that lunch along with Dave Witke and some other friends today, too.) After a long hitch at the Post, Rick had taken a job as metro editor of the Register and he recruited me to be his religion reporter. I asked to be writing coach, too. The Register’s editors agreed, and that gave a great boost to my training career.
My family stayed in Omaha, so I commuted weekly to Des Moines for that job. A change in my family situation and surgery for colon cancer made me want to give up that commute. Larry King, then the executive editor of the World-Herald, gave me another opportunity, bringing me back as national correspondent and writing coach. Larry agreed that I could do training for outside clients on my vacation time (and occasionally some work time, if a journalism group wanted me to speak but couldn’t pay). Larry also nominated me for the American Press Institute’s Train the Trainer program.
That led to my next extraordinary opportunity, three years on the staff of API, thanks to Drew Davis, the president there, and Carol Ann Riordan, the vice president (now acting president after Drew’s retirement). The work was wonderful, the colleagues were wonderful and my job involved networking with CEO’s, publishers, editors and other executives throughout the news business. And I got to learn about disruptive innovation through the Newspaper Next project.
After I was fired in Minot, and couldn’t get another job leading another newsroom, I presumed that was my one brief shot at being a top editor. But Dave Storey, publisher of The Gazette, gave me another shot 15-plus years later (no doubt in large part due to the high profile API had given me and to my perspective on disruptive innovation). With our community facing a historic flood on my third day on the job, I bonded quickly with Dave and the news staff. He was a great team-builder and friend, and I appreciate that opportunity, even if we didn’t work together as long as we had planned.
David Perlmutter, director of the University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communication, gave me another opportunity while I was in Iowa, inviting me to team-teach a class there. (Earlier Iowa teaching opportunities had been at Central College and Kirkwood Community College). More recently, I am indebted to Denise Li at Georgetown University and Amy Eisman at American University for other teaching opportunities.
Twitter and blogging combined to provide another opportunity. Somehow the combination of my blog and my Twitter feed brought me to the attention of Jim Brady, former executive editor of washingtonpost.com. A blog post prompted Jim to send me a Twitter direct message. I replied and we networked digitally, though we had never met. So when I read in October 2009 that Jim was starting a local news website in Washington, I felt comfortable sending him a DM saying I’d like a piece of that action and he was interested in adding me to the team he was recruiting. Short-lived though that opportunity was, it was a career highlight.
I don’t know whether it was the blog or Twitter or something else that brought me to the attention of John Paton, CEO of JRC. But he emailed me last year, asking for feedback on the Ben Franklin Project. He liked my feedback and followed some of my advice. We exchanged occasional emails, and he reached out right after Brady left TBD. Eventually that led to my most recent opportunity.
It would be easy to whine about some of the disruption I’ve seen over the past 40 years, and I’m sure I have indulged in whining now and then. But the opportunities have been so much greater than the disruptions that I can’t whine for long. I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate, and I know it.
This post is already so long that I won’t dwell long on the travel. I am sure my willingness to take on new jobs and new cities is probably rooted in my childhood as the son of an Air Force chaplain. My childhood memories come from four homes before we reached Shenandoah: England, Utah, Japan and Ohio. I actually exceeded that pace in my career, at times taxing the patience of Mimi and my three sons. I appreciate how they hung in there with me.
Beyond our frequent moves, stories in my reporting jobs in Omaha and Des Moines presented some great travel opportunities. My own training efforts and my API job provided more travel opportunities. My career has taken me to 43 states (New Mexico next month will make 44), eight Canadian provinces (thanks in large part to Bryan Cantley, who invited me there more than 10 times for three different organizations), Venezuela, Mexico, Germany, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Ecuador and Siberia (all shown on the map below). I couldn’t be more grateful for the travel opportunities, and I can’t wait to see what interesting places lie ahead.
I’ve already named some of the people who have enriched my career, but I could name dozens, if not hundreds, more:
- Editors whose support and guidance improved both the stories they worked on and many that followed.
- The amazing team we assembled at TBD.
- The Gazette journalists with whom I covered the 2008 flood, rivaled only by 9/11 as the biggest story of my career.
- My new JRC colleagues, whose work I admired from afar and whom I am just getting to know and like.
- Other current and former colleagues whose friendship and camaraderie I cherish. (Register colleagues Ken Fuson and Beth Flansburg will also be joining that lunch today. I already had breakfast with Tom O’Donnell, a colleague from the Register and Hometown, and hope to connect Sunday with Daniel P. Finney, with whom I worked in both Des Moines and Omaha. And I hope to connect with more Omaha friends before flying back to Washington next week.)
- TCU faculty and students, past and present.
- Faculty colleagues and students at universities where I’ve taught, either as adjunct faculty or as a visitor.
- Friends I’ve made on the journalism training circuit (clients and peers).
- Allies (and some people pursuing other paths) in the struggle to develop new models for the news business.
- International journalists who have connected with me across barriers of distance, culture and language, and inspired me with their commitment to truth and journalism in countries where both carry risks I’ve never faced.
I won’t name them all — that would be boring reading, and I would invariably leave some out.
So I’ll just close here: The most treasured experience over the past 40 years has been to share it with so many wonderful people. When the business knocked me down, my friends helped pick me up. When we succeeded, the triumph meant more because I celebrated with them. And day after day, it has just been fun to work with my countless friends in the news business.
I’m ready for another 40, if I hold up that long.