I left the Omaha World-Herald for the second time 10 years ago. After sharing some lessons earlier this year from my much shorter time at the Cedar Rapids Gazette, I started reflecting on my time at the World-Herald and what I learned there.
I spent longer at the World-Herald than anywhere else in my career, 10 years, four months in two hitches of roughly five years each, 1993 to 1998, and 2000 to 2005. I was a reporter the whole time, though I was also a writing coach the second time around.
Here are some lessons I learned in my two tenures in Omaha (or lessons I had already learned that were underscored or relearned):
Get back to work
As I’ve noted before, I was fired as editor of the Minot Daily News in 1992. In terms of getting my career back on track, it didn’t matter a lot whether I was fired because I screwed up (I didn’t) or fired because the company was cutting costs to prepare for a sale (it was). I was without a job and without a paycheck and the newspaper job market was tight (newspapers were in much better shape than today, but closings of afternoon newspapers had resulted in lost jobs and it felt like a bleak time). Even though I was willing to take a step back to resume working, many employers were reluctant to hire me for a downward move. And no one was interested in me for a step forward. In my late 30s, my career was in jeopardy, and I was exploring jobs outside journalism as well as some newspaper jobs.
After five months with no job offers, I suddenly got four offers in January 1993. All were substantial pay cuts from Minot. The World-Herald job involved a 36 percent cut (more if you counted my bonuses in Minot) and it was far better than two of the offers. Another newspaper offered $1,000 a year more than the World-Herald, but I didn’t like that situation as much as the one in Omaha, and I suspected cost of living in the communities was different enough to wipe out that difference and probably more.
The Omaha job was a huge setback for my career, in pay and stature, from my job in Minot and earlier jobs I had held. But it was a huge step forward from unemployment. We needed a paycheck, and getting my career back on track required getting back to work somewhere.
I did a good job at the World-Herald and developed a good reputation. I enjoyed my work there, and every other job I’ve had since. I got my career back on track and that was the most important thing about my Omaha experience.
Pay is by no means the most important way to measure career success, but it’s an easy one to quantify. By the time I left my second hitch in Omaha, I took a job that paid 18 percent more in base pay than the editor’s job I had lost 12 years earlier (after adjusting for inflation), and that didn’t count substantial opportunities in the new job to make extra money above the base. And eventually, my inflation-adjusted base pay reached more than 90 percent more than that editor’s pay in Minot, and more than 2 1/2 times the pay I accepted to start at the World-Herald. None of that would have been likely to happen if I hadn’t accepted that step back and started working again.
I thought I knew a lot about reporting and writing when I reached the World-Herald. I had about 20 years reporting and editing experience, most of it at more highly regarded papers: the Des Moines Register and Kansas City Star and Times. I was hired to a senior reporting position and brought a lot of experience and confidence to the job.
But I didn’t stop learning. I arrived at the World-Herald as the World Wide Web was being developed, and I quickly learned how to use the Internet to find sources and information, produce better stories and network with colleagues who could help me improve.
I taught myself some basics of data journalism, and when the World-Herald hired an excellent, experienced data journalist, Carol Napolitano, I worked directly with her on some stories and learned more about accessing and analyzing data and finding the stories hidden there. I never became the best on our staff at using data skills, but I was able to use data to find and tell page-one stories. And I knew enough about the power of data to collaborate with a more-skilled colleague when a story required more than my own skills.
Most of my learning was through experience, but I also took courses in page design, web design and creative writing at Creighton University.
I thought I was damn good when I came to Omaha, and the World-Herald did, too. But I learned more about reporting and writing in my decade there than I had learned in the first two decades of my career.
And I especially learned to never stop learning.
Be a mentor
My editors paired me frequently with less-experienced reporters on some enterprise projects. I worked with Judith Nygren on a series on rape, with Julie Anderson on a project on a cement plant that was burning toxic waste as fuel and with Matt Kelley on covering the merger of the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads. An implied – or sometimes stated – purpose of the pairings was that the editors wanted the younger reporters to learn from me. I think and hope that they did, but I also learned from them.
Whether you’re a good mentor or not, working with a younger reporter helps a veteran reporter in multiple ways:
- When you explain to a colleague how you do something, you have to think about it and analyze how and why you do what you do. That helps you become more deliberate and consistent in doing what you analyzed and explained. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that I started offering coaching services a few years after starting in Omaha. I was doing some informal coaching and thinking more about what I did and why, and that analysis became the basis for my first workshops.
- Learning goes both ways. All three of the reporters mentioned above (and others I worked with on one-shot stories) had great ideas in our brainstorming discussions and were resourceful reporters, and I learned from all of them. Julie understood the workings of environmental regulation much better than I did. Matt had excellent sources who could fill us in on UP, which was not very media-friendly (despite being right across the street from us). Judith had some excellent ideas about organizing all the material we gathered about rape, and all our interviews with survivors, into actual stories that made sense.
- Veteran reporters can fall into bad habits and we can coast at times. Pairing with a younger reporter (and fear of being the weaker half of the pair) can make sure that you use good habits and stay intense in your own work. You can and should be competitive and collegial at the same time. It elevates your game.
As an experienced reporter, I wasn’t looking for a mentor to teach me the basics (though, as noted, I did have plenty still to learn). But the World-Herald newsroom was filled with veteran journalists who helped me learn a great deal about Omaha and the World-Herald newsroom: Mike Kelly, Dave Kotok, Jim Flanery, Mary McGrath, Julia McCord, Bob Dorr, Dave Hendee, Cindy Gonzalez and others that I am certainly overlooking at the moment. In addition, Carol Napolitano, Paul Goodsell and Joe Kolman had stronger data skills than I did and helped me develop those skills.
Partner with photojournalists
Some of my best stories (and those that received the best play) came through collaboration with the World-Herald’s outstanding photo staff. The late Bill Batson‘s photos of Afghan teachers attracted readers to some of my best stories. Jeff Bundy, in addition to taking great photos, was like an extra reporter on a weather disaster or crime story, always feeding me tidbits he heard from the police. Phil Johnson, Kiley Christian Cruse, Jeff Beiermann, Kent Sievers and other photo colleagues had a gift for finding and capturing the right image that would be the visual essence of the story I was trying to tell in words.
I came to the World-Herald years after the retirement and death of Earle “Buddy” Bunker, but I felt like we became collaborators of a sort when I told the story of the people in his famous 1943 “Homecoming” photo. That story assignment started with Buddy’s photos, and included a sidebar about him. I felt like I got to work with the great photojournalist, even though I never met him.
Work fast and customize your work
The World-Herald, amazingly, still has an evening edition. Having endured the deaths of afternoon papers in Des Moines and Kansas City, I was a little leery of the World-Herald situation, but one staff produced all editions. We had separate, competing (but heavily duplicating) staffs in Des Moines and Kansas City. The World-Herald put out its editions all with the same staff. It required separate shifts of editors and police reporters, but didn’t duplicate in reporting beats.
So if I got a story that broke in the morning, I had to turn it around quickly for the evening edition. Then I might (depending on the story) customize it for as many as four different morning editions: the bulldog edition, which circulated out in central and western Nebraska, the Iowa edition, an eastern Nebraska edition that included Lincoln and the “sunrise” edition, which circulated in the Omaha metro area.
For a breaking story, we had to update frequently. For a story with multiple local angles, I’d localize for every relevant edition.
It was great experience for the digital age, which was starting during my first hitch in Omaha. You need to constantly update breaking stories for digital audiences and adding links to enhance my work for digital audiences, or focusing on niche audiences, seemed only natural after customizing work for Iowa and Nebraska audiences.
Excel on breaking news
I didn’t want to cover a police beat or any breaking news beat full-time, but I loved covering breaking news, and always wanted to have a piece of the action on a big story. When editors looked my way on a big story, I was always ready to hit the road or to start working the phones.
Editors sent me out to cover floods, tornadoes, a murder in small-town Nebraska, a bank robbery that included five murders, an ice storm that caused power outages throughout central Nebraska and many more breaking stories. In other cases, I would hustle to get a quick story by phone while someone else was rushing to the scene. Or I would play “rewrite,” crafting a single story from reports by colleagues.
My work on 9/11 illustrated how my editors relied on me in breaking news situations. We learned almost right away that a former Nebraska football star who usually worked in the World Trade Center had visited for the Saturday football game and stuck around a few days to visit family. I tracked him down by phone for a quick story for the evening edition. I also played rewrite for the p.m., pulling together the local front-page story from reports by several colleagues. Then for the morning paper, I tracked down experts in airport security, for a story that said Congress had been warned how vulnerable we were to an attack from the air.
Become an expert
If you’re on a beat, expertise is essential and the area you need to master is obvious. As a general assignment reporter, I still found it important to develop areas of expertise. I became our abortion reporter in my first hitch at the World-Herald. It wasn’t a full-time beat, but a topic that was often in the news, falling to police, politics or health reporters, depending on what was happening.
Editors wanted more consistent coverage, and I took it over, developing excellent sources at both extremes of the issue and producing a wide range of stories on issues and breaking news and even persuading women to tell me stories of abortions and difficult pregnancies that they decided to carry to term.
I covered dozens of stories dealing with sexual assault and domestic violence, becoming the editors’ go-to reporter on those topics.
In my second hitch at the World-Herald, I developed expertise on Omaha’s connections to Afghanistan and spent considerable time covering that relationship following the 9/11 attacks.
My expertise in these areas let me propose and deliver strong stories, so I was less at the mercy of my editors’ assignments, which invariably ranged from outstanding to lame. If an assignment was outstanding, I’d grab it and put a story from a mini-beat on hold (or juggle them both). If an assignment was lame, I always (or often) had a better story in the works and was able to deflect the assignments I didn’t want to other reporters (or kill them entirely).
Make the story yours
Conspiracy theorists on the right like to talk about the “liberal media,” as though we’re all getting marching orders to slant the news toward the liberal viewpoints of our corporate overlords. Well, lots of corporate overlords — most of them probably — are conservative, and the only time in my career that I was aware of marching orders to do a story with a political bent, the story would have leaned to the right (if I had done it as directed).
Fairly early in my time at the World-Herald, I got an assignment from on high that the publisher wanted a project on how government mandates were choking communities and businesses in the state. The topic was newsworthy: Then-Gov. Ben Nelson (a fairly conservative Democrat) complained frequently about the cost to the state of unfunded federal mandates, and schools and local governments complained about mandates from the federal and state governments.
But I didn’t want to get sucked into the publisher’s political agenda or Ben Nelson’s. My proposal to my editors was for a more complete story than the publisher was suggesting, and they agreed. I spent a month or two visiting York, Neb., regularly, examining the full impact of government on life in a single community: mandates, yes, but also looking at how government programs helped and protected people in town, how government subsidies helped the community and how much people paid in taxes.
I was able to deliver a project that pleased the publisher and my editors and one I was proud of (and that got good response from readers).
Postscript: The World-Herald has since been sold to Warren Buffett, an Omaha billionaire whose liberal political leanings are well-known. He has said he won’t interfere with the news coverage or editorial direction of his newspapers. I have not heard any contradiction of that from newsroom staffers. I presume the editorial page still leans conservative.
In a much different way, with no politics involved, I’ve already told how I made the Homecoming-photo story my own, taking it a different direction when the original assignment didn’t work out.
Verify what even the experts say
One of the most notable mistakes I made in my time at the World-Herald was a sidebar that was part of the York government project. Some expert (probably in the city government) told me about a government requirement for backflow prevention (I don’t remember the details, but it was a costly requirement for home and commercial plumbing).
I learned about the requirement from an expert and interviewed a few other contractors and state officials who knew way more about backflow and its regulations than I did. And I’m not sure I would have been smart enough to spot their error even if I had read the regulations and asked people to explain what I didn’t understand.
But the experts were all wrong. Several years later, a colleague did a story on how state officials and plumbing contractors throughout Nebraska had misunderstood the backflow regulations and were requiring and doing work that the federal law didn’t actually demand.
Would I have figured out the contradiction if I had read the actual federal regulation? I don’t know, but I wish I’d read it. Or contacted a few more experts outside of Nebraska. I wish I’d done enough verification and research to debunk that notion myself.
Work well with your editors
I think I developed good relations with my immediate editors and I had a lot of good ones in 10 years: Cate Folsom, Jeff Gauger, Bob Glissmann, Anne Henderson, Mike Holmes, Jim Rasmussen, Mike Reilly, Deb Shanahan, Robert Smith and Joanne Stewart. (I hope I haven’t left any out and apologize if I have). My editors steered good stories my way, made my stories better and let me pursue a lot of my own ideas (which was really contrary to the World-Herald’s top-down, assignment-driven culture).
In some cases, I had more experience as an editor than my editors did, and I’m sure I wasn’t an easy reporter to supervise. But I respected them and I think they respected me. I challenged them and they challenged me. We were able to have candid conversations about assignments, story ideas, writing and editing of stories, timelines of projects and suggestions and dictates from editors higher up the ladder.
You need an editor who will call bullshit on you and one you can call bullshit on. You need an ally and an advocate when the editors are making plans and you’re not in the room. I had plenty of conflict with my editors, but they were allies and advocates who usually helped me do my job better and won our share of battles in those meetings of editors.
Go after the big story
One of my biggest frustrations at the World-Herald was a strong reluctance to chase national stories or stretch ourselves in any way. For many years, the World-Herald had been a really bad newspaper. It began improving before I joined it and had become a pretty good newspaper (from what I can tell, it still is). But the years of being bad developed an inferiority complex that surfaced at times in odd ways, such as not entering some of our best work in national contests and not chasing national stories. We longed to be in the big leagues, but lacked the courage to swing for the fences or take the extra base.
In my previous jobs at metro newspapers, the Des Moines Register and Kansas City Star and Times, we prided ourselves in finding the local angle in big national or regional stories. I ran the national/regional operation in Kansas City, and we told the important stories for our readers, wherever they were. In some national stories, we didn’t duplicate the wire services at all, because we were finding local and state angles no one else would provide. In other cases, we’d go head to head with the wire services and national newspapers, winning our share of those battles.
Early in my time at the World-Herald, I went to Chicago to cover two big crime stories that involved Nebraskans. In both cases, I soundly kicked the asses of the Chicago media. I broke developments before Chicago reporters and wrote a comprehensive, juicy overview in one story (about lawyers) that I learned was shared by fax (this was 1993) among law offices across the city. In both of those cases, the editors were eager to send me to Chicago, because the Nebraska angle was clear right away.
Even with that background, the editors balked when I suggested we cover the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building. Oklahoma and Nebraska were close enough and connected enough, I said right away, that the story would have lots of local angles. I was sure we would have victims with Nebraska ties, Nebraskans helping in relief and rescue efforts and lots of stories no one else would be doing. And on the days when we didn’t turn up a local story, we could crank out the main story.
The editors wouldn’t send me. They didn’t see any local angle immediately, and we were not a confident enough newsroom to just send a good reporter after a good story (an almost instinctive reaction in the Des Moines and Kansas City newsrooms). My Omaha editors specifically said they didn’t want to just “duplicate the wires.” I said I wouldn’t do that. I’d work on local stories that the wires wouldn’t be doing, and I’d beat the wires on some stories. But they wouldn’t send me. At least not right away.
A few days after the blast, the first local angle surfaced: When Timothy McVeigh rented the truck that he used for the bomb, he gave an Omaha address. That was enough of an angle to send photojournalist Phil Johnson and me on the road to Junction City, Kan., where the truck had been rented. But there we were just going to be duplicating the wires and playing catch-up (when we might have been able to break the Omaha angle if we’d been working the story from the first).
As Phil and I drove to Junction City, we heard on the radio that Terry Nichols, who was being sought as an accomplice to McVeigh, had surrendered to the FBI in Herington, Kan., a half-hour south of Junction City. We changed plans and headed to Herington, figuring we could check out Junction City the next day.
Of course, Herington was crawling with reporters, exactly the “duplicate the wires” scenario my editors didn’t want. So Phil and I did something investigative reporters always encourage: We zigged when the others were zagging. Nichols was in the sheriff’s office being interviewed by the FBI. The crowd of reporters (and quite a few townspeople) gathered outside the sheriff’s office would all get the same story and photos, and we could get that from the wires.
So Phil and I wandered around town to learn who Nichols was. We found the real estate agent and insurance agent who had recently sold him a home. Neither had been interviewed by other reporters yet (unlike the Nichols neighbors we had interviewed). We learned from the pair a fascinating fact (which we reported before any other media, to my knowledge) that revealed the depth of Nichols’ government hatred: The mortgage for his house was held up for a while because he claimed not to have a Social Security number (that wasn’t true). He told them he didn’t believe in Social Security or in registering with the government. Anyway, we didn’t have a Nebraska angle that day, but we did beat the competition on an important angle to the national story. While we got a story out of the next day’s visit to Junction City, it wasn’t much.
But by then, a story had surfaced that a man matching McVeigh’s description had been seen in an Omaha federal building a few weeks earlier, asking for the offices of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (a federal agency demonized by white supremacists). That report apparently was untrue, but it was enough to prompt my editors to send me down to Oklahoma City, nearly a week after the blast.
It was tougher by then to develop relationships with local officials, who were weary of dealing with the horde of reporters who had descended on the community. And my editors let me stay only a few days. But I did get some local angles: Interviews with people from our area who had flown down to Oklahoma City to help as Red Cross and Salvation Army volunteers and with a former Nebraskan who had an appointment later that morning at the federal building and narrowly missed being killed.
I returned to Omaha after a few days, and urged my editors to let me continue covering the local angles to the bombing story. They said no, and I moved on to other stories.
When I was doing some workshops in Oklahoma City in 2001, I visited the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum (a moving experience) and bought a book about the victims. As I read about their lives, I found several Nebraska angles, touching and tragic stories that we should have told in 1995 and the years since. I told some of them, even though they were old, using the peg of the approaching McVeigh execution.
In two cases where Omaha had huge connections to international stories, my editors shot down proposals for me to go abroad and tell the full story with on-the-ground reporting.
When Omaha, which had a large Sudanese refugee community, learned that we were going to get a large number of the Lost Boys of Sudan, I proposed going over to Kenya, where they were living in a refugee camp, and telling their story there and as they moved to Omaha and transitioned to life in our community. My editors said no. The Boston Globe did the story I suggested and won a national award for it. Kiley Christian Cruse and I won a local award for the stories we did after they arrived in Omaha.
Similarly, editors turned down my repeated proposals to go to Afghanistan to report on the extensive Omaha connections there, including the work of the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Center for Afghanistan Studies.
I’ve managed budgets and I know travel, especially international travel, can be expensive. But I also know that travel is a tiny part of a metro newspaper’s editorial budget. You can and should be willing to send reporters and photojournalists after the important and interesting stories for your community. And you need to find ways to get it done.
To be fair, my editors did send me many places around the country pursuing mostly local stories. I recall reporting trips to 16 states outside our coverage area, plus a trip to Canada, covering stories of interest to our region. And our sports writers and photojournalists traveled en masse wherever the Nebraska football team went.
But our editors’ reluctance to pursue some of the big stories was a consistent frustration to me and some other reporters. A newsroom needs to tell the important stories for its community, and it needs to be bold enough to give its journalists the chance to do their best work.
Disappointments may be lucky breaks
Twice during my time at the World-Herald, I applied for other newsroom jobs. I didn’t get either of them. In both cases, I’m sure I would have done better than the person who got the job. In one case, the top editors handled the situation clumsily, compounding my disappointment unnecessarily.
Those setbacks, which both happened in my first hitch at the World-Herald, did not prompt my move to the Des Moines Register in 1998. Rick Tapscott, who had hired me 13 years earlier for the Kansas City Times, had become the Register’s metro editor and recruited me to be the religion writer and writing coach. I wasn’t looking for a job. But those two job decisions by the World-Herald made it easier to leave when Rick started courting me.
As frustrated as I was at the time, I am pleased in retrospect that neither of those jobs worked out. The Register move included writing coach duties, which accelerated my move into newsroom training, which has been a deeply rewarding part of my career that may not have happened otherwise.
One of the World-Herald jobs I wanted was an executive position for which I think I was ideally suited. But I wasn’t as well suited for working closely with the executive who would have been my boss. Looking back from more distance, I can see that job being miserable at the least and probably ending badly, however well I would have done the job.
The other job I didn’t get would have been a position where I think I would have excelled and been quite comfortable. I doubt if I would have learned and grown as much in the years since if I’d been in a comfortable job. I’m pleased with the way my career has moved into training and digital news. As I’ve blogged and said, you need to embrace discomfort to succeed in digital journalism.
As pissed off as I was at the time, I’m glad now that neither job worked out.
Enjoy your job
Newsrooms can be grumpy places and the World-Herald often was. I think I was one of the happier campers. Getting fired in Minot, looking for a job for six months, enduring the deaths of two afternoon newspapers and some other difficult experiences brought me to Omaha with a positive outlook.
Journalism is fun work, and I was determined to enjoy my job and stop letting my bosses or colleagues make me miserable.
I remember going to lunch with several colleagues not long after I arrived, and they spent a lot of time griping about the offense du jour (I don’t remember what it was). Someone said something like, “Don’t you wish you’d known all this before you accepted the job.” I laughed and said I had been through much worse than they were complaining about. I didn’t fault them for griping; that’s newsroom culture. But I didn’t join the griping.
I note in this post some differences I had with my editors. I voiced my opinions, sometimes passionately, sometimes angrily, about those issues. But then I put the matters behind me and turned my attention to the stories at hand.
I worked at better newspapers in Des Moines and Kansas City, but I sometimes wallowed in whatever complaint was consuming the newsroom. My outlook improved in Omaha (and since), because I finally learned to enjoy my work and not to dwell on disappointments.
Work around limitations
The World-Herald was slow to recognize, let alone embrace, digital technology. The publisher thought the Internet was a fad and feared that employees would spend their days looking at pornography if we had Internet access at our desks (really). We didn’t have email or Internet access at all at our desks in my first hitch there, from 1993 to 1998. At some point, you could get onto the web on a computer in the library, but someone else might be using it.
I started using the web a lot in 1995. It was valuable for finding sources, data and answers to questions. I would still call sources, but I’d email them, too, and I learned that many responded quicker to emails. So I worked frequently at home, where I had Excel on my computer (we didn’t at work) to work with data and where I had web and email access on my home computer.
Sometimes I’d do my online work at home in the early morning or the evening. Sometimes I’d work from home for a day or come home for an hour or two. But I refused to let the company hold me back just because the boss had decided to lag behind.
Don’t burn bridges
When I took the job with the Des Moines Register in 1998, our family stayed in Omaha (complicated story that involved our sons’ education). I had an apartment in Des Moines and commuted weekly from our home in Omaha.
I had burned a bridge earlier in my career for a valid reason, but it had a price, and I made a point of keeping good relationships this time. Whatever frustrations I had in my first five years at the World-Herald, I was grateful for getting my career back on track and grateful for the experience and the relationships. I was leaving for a better job at more pay with an editor I greatly admired, a job that included a column and writing coach duties, neither of which I had at the World-Herald. I could eagerly embrace the opportunity in Des Moines and still part as friends with my editors and colleagues in Omaha.
I stayed in touch, playing basketball on weekends with my World-Herald friends and speaking at the National Writers Workshop that the World-Herald hosted (I had advocated that we host it and started the planning for it as a staff member).
After nearly two years in Des Moines, things had changed with our sons’ education situation and with my health. Mimi applied for some jobs in Des Moines and we looked at some housing options between Des Moines and Omaha, considering keeping our jobs in both cities. But I decided the best thing for the family would be for me to return to work in Omaha, if I could.
I called Larry King, then the executive editor of the World-Herald and we had lunch on a weekend when I was home in Omaha. Because I had proven my value in my first hitch in Omaha and had not burned the bridge, I got an offer to come back in 2000 at a higher pay level than it would have taken to keep me there in 1998. I got the writing coach duties they wouldn’t give me in 1998. I got nearly everything I wanted, and I gladly returned.
Everyone needs a good editor
I’ve told this story a couple times on this blog already (including yesterday). But it belongs here, too (skip past if you’ve read it before):
When I wrote a drought story for the World-Herald many years ago, copy editor Sue Truax messaged me asking politely if I meant that a particular Nebraska city was encouraging water conservation, rather than consumption.
My first thought, of course, was that the damn city desk had been screwing with my story again and must have introduced that error. I confidently looked up my draft of the story and damned if it wasn’t there. I wrote that the city was encouraging water consumption. Talk about a buried lead!
It was a humbling reminder that, however good you think you are, your story could benefit from a fresh view through someone else’s eyes. And, as newsrooms have cut back on copy editors, I’ve wondered how many consumption/conservation errors slip through into publication.
Training helps you and your newsroom
My editors sent me (and my colleagues) to many excellent training opportunities while I was in Omaha: an Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Miami, National Writers Workshops in St. Louis, Des Moines, Minneapolis and Colorado Springs, an American Press Institute Train the Trainer seminar in Reston, Va. They wouldn’t send me to a Nieman Narrative conference, but gave me company time to go on my own dime.
In the second hitch in Omaha, I led several staff workshops. I also brought in some outside trainers to work with our staff. Training not only elevated our skills, it improved staff morale. It told the newsroom that doing better journalism was worth an investment of the company’s money and time.
Help your newsroom get better
In both Des Moines and Kansas City, I had worked in newsrooms that were about the same size as the World-Herald’s, but notably better. My editors brought me in with the clearly stated intention of helping the newsroom improve.
I hope and think the training and mentoring discussed here helped the newsroom improve. I also led the newsroom in addressing diversity issues (neither the newsroom nor our content reflected the diversity of the community; I hope we helped improve that).
We used to bring in a college professor for the summer as an “intern coach.” When that position was cut from the budget, I served as part-time intern coach for a summer or two.
When the executive editor wanted the staff to evaluate him and the managing editor (as we were starting staff evaluations), he turned to me to lead that process.
I also coordinated nominations and judging for the staff’s monthly excellence contests.
As I said, the World-Herald was already improving when I got there. I think I helped continue that improvement. That helped me return to Omaha and also helped me have a fulfilling time there.
Develop your career beyond your job
I came back from a National Writers’ Workshop in the Twin Cities in 1997 (my third straight year going to a Midwestern NWW). I was not just instructed and inspired to do better work, but I was thinking that I could help journalists as well as the speakers I had heard at the workshop.
I started developing workshops and a promotional flier and launched my training career.
As I moved to the Des Moines Register in 1998, then back to the World-Herald in 2000, my external training work grew. I am deeply grateful to my World-Herald bosses, who let me take paying gigs on vacation time. I told them about each gig, in case they wanted to head off potential conflicts; they might have vetoed training for the Des Moines Register or Lincoln Journal Star, which they regarded as competitors, but those situations never arose. The paying gigs became plentiful enough that I was earning several thousand dollars a year on top of my salary by the time I left.
As I noted in my post on side projects, the training work advanced my career as much as what I was doing for the World-Herald. But my editors never complained that they were getting short-changed. I was cranking out more front-page stories, especially on Sundays, than most reporters on the staff.
Serve your profession and your community
I fielded and accepted many requests to speak to grade-school, high school and university journalism classes, career days and such. Mostly I was just contributing to make Omaha a better community, but I enjoyed the classes.
A humbling moment came once when I spoke to a fifth-grade class. A student asked if I had interviewed anyone famous. I smiled and said, yes, I had interviewed Mikhail Gorbachev (that’s a pretty nice name to drop, I thought; that photo at the top of this post isn’t the only place I’ve posted pictures of Gorby and me). The students didn’t know who he was. I saved the moment by adding that I’d interviewed Tom Osborne, too. Nebraskans of all ages recognized the name of the Huskers’ most revered football coach.
I did some service to the community and industry by serving on the board of the Omaha Press Club, organizing workshops for the Press Club and helping bring a National Writers’ Workshop and the first APME NewsTrain program to Omaha.
The World-Herald also supported me in contributing to the industry through training at conferences. If a non-profit group asked me to speak but didn’t pay a fee, I was allowed to accept those engagements on company time. I also attended newsroom training conferences and helped run the No Train, No Gain website.
I arranged for the World-Herald to host visiting journalists from Uganda, Croatia and South Africa.
My service to journalism helped the World-Herald and also helped build my reputation in the profession, setting the stage for my 2005 move to the American Press Institute and a job in full-time training.
Lessons from my World-Herald stories
In earlier posts, I have reviewed several of my best World-Herald stories here, sharing lessons that I learned in doing the stories or lessons that the stories illustrated. Those posts: