I miss the newspaper business. I spent half my life there.
So when a story as big as Covid-19 shows up, I want to be in on the reporting.
I want to be leaning over a desk with three or four colleagues throwing around ideas for stories, places to go and people to speak with; I want to hear what they had learned about the heartbreak or scandal they found.
I was always in awe of my colleagues, reporters, editors and photographers, and remain so to this day. Their work changed lives.
One of the main characters in my Frank Nagler Mysteries (https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00P5WBOQC) is reporter Jimmy Dawson. He first appeared in an early draft of what eventually became the second published book in the series, A GAME CALLED DEAD. I wrote that draft in my early 20s, a decade before I got into the newspaper business. He is a character of imagination. Over time he has taken on the qualities of my colleagues and is one way I can show appreciation for their work.
Here’s a few on my favorite stories.
In 1981 I walked into the office of the Fairhaven, Mass. Advocate, a tiny weekly newspaper and knew I was home. We had one computer for the typesetter, so we cut and pasted press releases. It was basically a start-up, so we took on any topic that sparked our fancy. It was a fun introduction to covering towns, politics and life in a varied, lively place like Greater New Bedford.
We learned we had gotten under the skin of the editor of the big daily, New Bedford Standard-Times, and after they copied a promotional ad we had created, there as a summit meeting between our owner and the ST’s editor.
A friend at the ST was the reporter who broke the story of a bar rape that was made into a film that starred, Jodie Foster, “The Accused.”
Two years later I was the editor and general manager of a weekly newspaper in Skowhegan, Maine, The Somerset Reporter. When he hired me the owner gave me six months to turn around a paper that had been losing money for 20 years.
Two years later when I left to take a job at the Waterville, Maine Morning Sentinel, our circulation had increased by 50 percent and our income had doubled.
We had to do better: I had given my three full-timers, each a raise of $50 a week; for my office manager it meant that her take-home pay finally topped $100 a week.
We redesigned the paper, carved it into three sections — news, sports, and community – and tried to connect the paper back with its communities. The Somerset Reporter was founded in 1840. On its pages had appeared the Civil War, the opening of the great woods, fires and floods, log drives, the creation of industry, births and deaths and a showcase of decades of Central Maine life.
Scared me to death. I didn’t want to be the person who killed off such an important part of the region’s history.
The community section allowed us to showcase the chatty news and gossip that occurred in the dozen or so tiny towns we covered. In a town of 300, it would be big news when the head selectman and his daughter toured colleges in Boston.
We also experimented with such features as the star of the week for high school sports and a town of the week when we sent a reporter to one town for a couple of days. Those features later showed up at larger daily newspapers I worked at.
The impact of all this showed up in two ways.
First, the owner of a local insurance company whose family once owned vast acres of woodlands which set the family fortune in place, told me in my second year that he knew the paper had improved because it took two visits to the bathroom to read the whole thing.
Second, after we had covered the story of a schools superintendent who was accused of soliciting sex from teen-aged boys, and subsequently quit, the parent of the boy who was the first victim approached me at a restaurant and thanked me for our coverage.
At the Waterville Sentinel I found myself at one of the state’s premiere small newspapers, and I can say with pride that at one point we were the best newspaper in Maine. We covered our sprawling territory superbly. Our reporters took chances that turned into big stories, and our editors backed them up.
Too many stories: A 500-year flood that announced its presence in a police scanner call: “Downtown Farmington is under water;” two years of labor strife that centered on a nasty strike at local paper mills; the night when Martin Scorsese’s
Last Temptation of Christ” opened to religious protests while an earthquake stuck Waterville. A year later, one of the women we interviewed because her home had been damaged became a victim in a short killing spree.
A protest in Skowhegan about a play that we updated in a series of phone calls and jammed into the paper at deadline after the school board took a five minute break before the vote; the murder of a woman by her husband who shot her in front of witnesses at a local hospital (another on deadline story). He escaped jail because they were rebuilding his wing, and a year later was caught in Boston when he applied for a driver’s license under his own name. A jury convicted him in 45 minutes.
Then, at last, New Jersey. Twenty-one years at the Courier-News and Daily Record, learning to rise to the occasion of covering news in a fast-paced, no-holds-barred place.
It was here I was immersed in the non-profit world as agencies from Flemington to Dover and Morristown retooled to meet the needs of poor, underserved clients, the homeless, hungry and battered. Here I watched towns rebuild and move forward; walked through waist-deep water with a photographer during a tropical storm to reach people who chose to stay in their homes; wrote a story about 100 Randolph teen-agers getting busted in Vermont for underage drinking during an annual post-prom ritual.
There were stories that changed outcomes in communities. One night a man came into the Dover office where I was alone and said that something wrong was going on at a local Hispanic run non-profit. I directed him to the county and state agencies that oversaw the local group. And then wrote stories, including one about a meeting that took place in Spanish where I, as a non speaker, had the discussion translated to me live. Months later the management of the agency was replaced, a new charter was drawn up and the agency thrives today.
Another: I took a call from a doctor who had just left a meeting with the management of Dover General Hospital. He said they had announced the hospital was going to close. That led to a year’s-worth of stories by myself and two other reporters about the public outcry and an examination of state law that governed hospitals. In the end changes were made at Dover General, but it remained open, in part, the state said, because of the public outcry.
Then 9/11. Not so much the event and spending time in the Dover train station talking to fleeing survivors, or speaking with school officials who had to put in place a system to hold students until a parent or guardian could pick them up, knowing that some of those children would not see their parents again.
Not so much that, but the aftermath. Standing at the memorial placed by Morris County and absorbing the heavy silence, witnessing the grief expressed in tokens of life left on the memorial, silent cries, prayers, wishes; staring at the damaged steel columns that once could be seen in the sunny horizon to the east, carrying that sorrow.
Finally, Sgt. Ryan Doltz. A tip from a colleague from his hometown sent me to Mine Hill and into the silence that would build for weeks. Watching the town and larger community celebrate his life at a memorial service, and another at Arlington Memorial Cemetery where someone asked, after seeing the crowd of mourners gathered that day, if they were there to honor a general, only to be told it was a funeral for a Sergeant.
I wrote that story in the back seat of my F-150 parked off Route 95 in Maryland in a drenching rain storm with my computer plugged into the cigarette lighter. It was a highway exit in transition. Behind me were empty warehouses and next to me was an Arby’s and a Holiday Inn, from where I sent the story.
A few year later I wrote a story about a veterans service day at the Morristown Armory where the unit of Doltz and the three others killed in Iraq on that day was headquartered. I spoke with a Sergeant who was there to provide services, and who was fully aware what that building meant, a building filled with ghosts.
So today colleagues are still at it, even in a hugely diminished industry. They write stories that have helped a Roxbury family heal when Oklahoma authorities reopened a murder case and got a conviction, and others than bring clarity to the whirlwind that is Washington, D.C.
Read their stuff. You’ll be better for it.