Sunday, March 14, 2010


For the first time in 13 1/2 years, I am no longer a full-time newspaper journalist.

It all still feels a bit surreal. As our industry eroded, wave by wave, I came to adopt Bum Phillips' old saying: There's two kinds of journalists, them that's been laid off and them that's gonna be laid off.

There's already been too much time consumed and words wasted lamenting the losses, so I feel no need to add to that.

Instead, consider this a short memoir. It's one man's journey, consequential to no one, but preserved before the memories fade away.

I never planned on being a journalist. I always envisioned something different, like teaching or meteorology, maybe both. Then I discovered I was too ill-tempered for teaching obnoxious youths; further, I was completely uninterested in physics and chemistry, prereqs to weather-related studies.

It was as simple as this: As a junior with major-declaration time approaching, I did the math. I had always been a fair writer. I always enjoyed sports. Why not be a sportswriter?

As a senior, I landed an internship at my hometown paper, The Times News in Lehighton, Pa. Upper management loved a free worker.

My first assignment was a football game between my alma mater and a high school that was within a block of our campus; you can see how close they are on Google Maps (click the Satellite view; Moravian College's football field, then in the middle of renovations, is the tan blob to the left).

I was warned beforehand that covering high school football was a pain, and my experience concurred. Stats provided by the schools were too often unreliable and usually couldn't be obtained on tight, Friday night deadlines, so it was up to us to keep the stats. If you've never been a journalist, imagine charting what happened on every play, how much yardage it gained or lost, who carried, passed or caught, whether a first down resulted, whether a touchdown resulted (and what time this occurred at), whether a penalty resulted (and figuring out what the new down and distance was after the penalty was assessed) and, possibly, who made a big defensive play.

And don't forget, you have 30 seconds or so to write all this down between plays.

What disappointed me most was that everything I had learned about the tactical side of football - passing routes, blitz pickups, blocking angles - was of no use. There was no time to dissect what went right and what went wrong unless it was obvious to everyone watching the game (a middle defender blocking a kick, for instance).

But I learned as a I grew older; when play-by-play charting became an afterthought, I was able to jot notes about what had happened and a key moment that made it happen.

My second assignment was much closer to the office. I filed from there that night, my first experience inside of a newsroom. I was stunned at how I felt it was simply the place for me to be. I felt at home there. I heard intelligent discussions about sports, the jocular banter you'd expect in an all-male department, and, for the first time, the sense of contributing something that was part of a much larger scheme.

I learned much more than that, of course. Emmett McCall helped me understand solid design principles; it took me years to figure out how he could so quickly take a batch of stories that were to be on a page and whip up a stable design that would prevent bumping heds and the like. Rod Heckman gave me appreciation for statheads and folks with a quiet, solid work ethic. Steve Stallone, who left shortly thereafter to move to the Hazleton Standard-Speaker, taught me how to cover events like a pro. Ed Hedes, our boss, stuck up for me even when I didn't deserve such treatment.

We only had one major shift in personnel. When including the weeklies that we owned, colleagues like Scott Pagel (hockey) and Kate Huvane (field hockey) not only became good friends, but taught me the skill and artistry of the sports they knew best.

And along the way, we had a blast doing it. Beers in the media lot at Pocono Raceway (on a Friday afternoon no less! But shhhh...), mocking the characters of 'Days of Our Lives' with Kate, listening to the Notre Dame fight song every f---ing time Emmett's computer booted up.

I was privileged in that Ed was OK with most ideas I proposed. I could cover Philadelphia Eagles and Penn State angles at the NFL Draft; so, for two years, I went to New York. We had somehow lucked into a credential for the Orioles-Indians ALDS in '97, so I went. (I'll always remember being on the field standing next to Jayson Stark, Pedro Gomez (both before they ventured to ESPN) and a third person listen to a discussion with then-Indians GM John Hart about a potential salary cap in baseball. All this happened as Stark was on the Fanavision in the stadium, doing an interview for a segment for 'This Week In Baseball.') I covered the first interleague game between the Phillies and the Blue Jays.

And toward the end of stay at home, I covered the college signing of a local kid who was going to play offensive line for the University of Richmond. What a random choice, I thought. What exactly is there in Virginia that would draw someone there?

By that time, it had become clear that remaining in Lehighton would not be a wise move. There's only so many years you can spend in a hometown of 5,000 people; when I had the audacity to pick against my alma mater in our weekly Grid Picks, I often had people ask why I wasn't more supportive of them. The most ridiculous comment of that nature came when Lehighton faced Berwick at the end of one regular season; then, Berwick was the class of eastern Pennsylvania football and the Indians were no match.

My own stubbornness didn't help. I didn't see eye to eye with management - the ones who enjoyed the free labor - and though I still feel as if I was right in my resentment, I now understand there would have been better ways to handle it. The general manager, for instance, was the publisher's son and had come straight from an underling advertising position. He knew nothing of production, from editorial to editing to printing; once, when I worked as sports editor of a weekly that served the area where he resided, he once requested an extra page - on production day! - to ensure that I would have enough room to print his son's youth league results. Even the compliments were half-assed; when I took a photo of a high school baseball player named Geoff Kelowitz, his subsequent e-mail commended me for my "nice photo of the Kelowitz." I burned bridges with them and though I'm sorry I did, I'm not that sorry.

I looked for the first train out of town, somewhere within a range of southern New England to Northern Virginia. My first job offer was at a small placed called the Manassas Journal Messenger. One my final day, Bob Urban - our then-managing editor at the TN and a man I continue to greatly admire - reminded me, "If those Southerners give you any problems down there, you just remind them that they're still batting 0 for 1." I didn't know at the time that Manassas was hardly "The South," which starts at Fredericksburg.

I plunged myself into an area I didn't know. My first residence was a room rented from an eccentric, single older woman. My room had no cable and I was not one to hang out with her much; the only way to keep up with the world was at work. So I worked often.

At the JM, I was immediately taken by a different style of leadership. It felt more professional and less collegial than the TN, and I mean to infer nothing bad about the latter. Lehighton and Carbon County is/was a small region where people knew people; Manassas was part of suburbia, sprawling and always in flux. Both styles served their areas well, and neither was better than the other; they were just markedly different.

Perhaps what was more striking was the divergent backgrounds of the people who made up the newsroom. Our editor was from southern Georgia and graduated from Florida; a copy editor had gone to Lehigh, just across the river in Bethlehem from Moravian; our sports editor was from west of Richmond but had spent time at U.Va. and Arizona State.

Really, everything was different. I was within walking distance of multiple businesses that were open 24 hours a day; I can think of maybe two such businesses in all of Lehighton. The nearest Best Buy was in Allentown, a 25-minute drive; in Manassas, there was one that was less than a 25-minute walk. On one route to the office, I passed maybe 30 restaurants, far more than any route in Lehighton would produce. I now had to worry about traffic and the federal government.

There were many lonely nights in Manassas, wondering if I'd made the right move. None was worse than when a fire consumed the townhouse next to us, forcing us to relocate while the house was rebuilt. I stayed with a kind neighbor and his family while more permanent housing could be found; I read thick classics to pass the night hours away, since I didn't want to be any more of a bother than I already was, considering my odd work hours. (The misery then paid off later with a sweet long-term apartment in a gated community in McLean, near Tysons Corner.)

But I also increasingly found my stride within the community, the paper and as a writer. The first story I ever wrote that I was really proud of involved a deaf eighth-grader who played basketball. His sign language coach, a female, had also played basketball and served as his interpreter. "When he gets yelled at, I yell at him through sign language," she said.

Within six months of arriving, though, changes were afoot. Our papers were being combined with another one in the same county, lengthening my commute by a great degree. After a few months, it became too much and three of us, all in sports, rented a townhouse nearer to the office. Thus began the fun years of the Woodbridge frathouse.

With Keith McMillan, Kipp Hanley and I, we all enjoyed a place to rest our heads and commiserate privately about whatever was going wrong with work. We were all single at varying points, enjoying our jobs and, for the most part, each other.

This also coincided as the most fun I'd had working in sports. We had a superb team with excellent writers and reporters, all of whom had daily newspaper experience before coming here. We routinely won awards, all of us, and were the best sports section in the state for our size, by any measure. We had different specialties and varying abilities, all of which came together for a halcyon era, at least by the standards I'd had.

Lacy Lusk was a baseball encyclopedia and a thoughtful reporter. (Once, while putting together a friend's going-away page, I pasted the head of Osama bin Laden onto the body of then-Braves pitcher Tom Glavine. Lacy happened by and saw my work. He deadpanned, "bin Laden's a lefty. Who knew?") Keith was a superb writer, unafraid to take on subjects that others would shy away from. Kipp routinely found outstanding human interest stories, and Dave Utnik was as descriptive a writer as you'd find. Marcus Rosano, our desk guy, was steady, unflappable and always willing to listen to gripes, professional or otherwise. I always considered myself a utility player, with comparable - but not superior - skills to any of the above. We all had fun and we kicked ass doing it.

When our clan broke up, a new wave of faces replaced them. Keith and Lacy moved on to bigger things; Marcus moved on to better things. Guys like Byron Barboza, Chris Errington and Tom Lawson helped bring in a new era; I don't know that our quality slipped a great deal, but the era was different nonetheless. Byron sat next to me, and could often be heard arguing with Tom about the inane topic of the day. At least there was life among us.

I was finding my stride as a writer and as a designer. I found myself sitting down at a computer after an event and struggling with the lede, as we've all done; my only credo - "write something intelligent" - reverberated through my head, a cautionary tale against the easy, too-frequent AP ledes of a one-line setup before the nut graf. As a designer, I appreciated the fact that I could clear off my calendar and produce an excellent centerpiece, provided I could find the materials and the know-how to do it.

I was also fortunate to cover some incredible events, some of which I'd written about before (numbers 1, 2 and 5 happened during this era). I covered the Washington Redskins part-time for several years. I had one-on-one interviews with people I could have never imagined, like Ryan Howard and Jack Nicklaus.

A year and a half ago, things changed. We were told that we were a community newspaper and, as such, there was no reason to spend resources covering 'national' sports like the Redskins (though no one could ever tell me why, since I was told specifically it was not a resource, financial or competence issue). The specter of layoffs was also imminent, given what was going on across the industry and that some layoffs had already occurred at some of our company's papers. We didn't know when or what, but the sense that something would happen.

A year ago, it did. Our executive editor decided she wanted a universal desk, one in which a set of copy editors are responsible for the whole paper; there are no sports-only copy editors, for instance. I was placed on the desk; my days as a full-time writer were over. I continue to have deep feelings about this move; lest I burn any more bridges, I'll keep them to myself.

This move also set the stage for my eventual layoff. In the fall, we began hearing of plans for a consolidated copy desk, somewhere far (Richmond) or very far (Lynchburg) from where we currently were. The drumbeat grew louder, and sources inside and outside our building confirmed that a move was imminent. By January, we'd received unofficial word; by mid-February, we received official word. We could move to Lynchburg or be laid off.

I took the latter.

I'll walk into that office tomorrow as a contractor, unsure of what lies ahead.

But I took tonight to look back, to revisit the good and bad. The journey has been incredible and, were you to read this to me when I was in Bethlehem, unbelievable. I met people and went places and saw things that were simply beyond my comprehension then. For heaven's sake, I sat in the front row of the Hoosier Dome, watching Florida beat UCLA for the men's Division I basketball tournament.

It was a good run.