I landed my first newspaper job in 1977.
My mother said that since I was driving the family car and could get to a place of employment, it would be a good idea for me to get a job. And she said that the Prescott (Arizona) Courier had an opening.
I applied. For the next two years I wrote weekly columns and feature articles about Prescott High School students and events. I also spent time indexing articles from the Courier. As an indexer, I discovered that for a time in the early ’70s, the Courier had a regular page devoted to UFO sightings. The local culture was a blend of Space Age hippies and Barry Goldwater-supporting cowboys, not unlike the stew that exists here in Calaveras County.
Juggling a part-time job, full-time school, speech and debate team, Boy Scouts and my social life proved to be good practice for the adulthood to come. I hurried a lot. I did things I should not have done. I feel remorse, for example, for speeding down Gurley Street and forcing a Prescott police officer to pull out of a parking lot with his patrol unit lights on in an attempt to stop me and, I presume, give me a well-deserved ticket.
I, however, knew the neighborhood well enough to turn my grandmother’s beast of a primer gray Jeep pickup off of Gurley Street and through a maze of yards and dirt trails. I did not get a ticket that day. I made deadline, dropping off my stories at the Courier before heading to high school. I set a poor example for my younger brother, Evan, who was in the passenger seat and witnessed all this. He sensibly grew up to be a software engineer, thus earning more money and having fewer white-knuckle experiences than I did.
Anyway, newspaper reporters and editors are rewarded for results more than virtue. We get rewarded if the stories are filed on time, if they grab eyeballs and if they are factually correct. I’ve never been fired (demoted, but not fired).
Bill Drummond, the instructor for my J200 reporting bootcamp course at the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism, started the class by telling us that he planned to teach us how to get stories. If we wanted to learn ethics, he said, we could take a different course taught by his colleague Ben Bagdikian. One of Drummond’s first assignments for us was to cover an Oakland drug lord’s funeral. I learned a lot.
I did take Bagdikian’s ethics course, too. And I have tried to make ethical decisions. Amazingly, I’ve never been fired for it. In the news business, as in other businesses, there are often heated discussions among managers on what course of action to take. I’ve been on the losing side of some of those.
On the whole, being a reporter has been more enjoyable for me than being an editor. That’s because editors have a torrent of information, phone calls and demands converging on them. They get stuck at desks.
Reporters get to go out into the sunlight and meet people. That’s the best thing about the job, although many of those people were suffering some terrible anguish. I’ve covered such terrors as the Cleveland School shooting in Stockton (five children gunned down by Patrick Purdy, Jan. 17, 1989), the Oklahoma City bombing (April 19, 1995, I rode there on a military transport with a California-based K-9 team used to find corpses) and the Butte Fire that started Sept. 19, 2015, here in Calaveras County. And homicides. Lots of homicides. So many I don’t remember the names.
I’ve filed stories in the pouring rain from telephone booths with one of those primitive TRS-80 portable computers hooked to the phone with an acoustic coupler. I’ve dictated from notebooks to a rewrite man back at a main office. I’ve covered schools, the environment, crime, Stockton City Hall and Calaveras County government. I’ve been out in this beautiful landscape. I’ve had many days when I got home and I just didn’t want to talk.
I am no longer that 16-year-old speeding toward a future he couldn’t understand. I don’t speed any more. I finally learned to take my time, schedule appropriately and acknowledge that it is simply not possible to do it all. I still don’t understand the future, except that sometime in the next three or four decades, I will be dead.
And now it is time for me to stop. Friday will be my last day as editor at the Calaveras Enterprise. It may be my last day as a journalist. I can’t say for sure because I don’t know what I will do next. At least for now, I am retiring. It is my choice. I never managed to get fired. Ralph Alldredge, the owner of the Enterprise, asked me to stay. His leadership and commitment to community journalism has kept this paper alive at times when other business owners might have given up. I would not have wanted to spend the final two and a half years of my career anywhere else.
I also need to say that I have stayed as long as I have because of Publisher Bruce Kyse. His comradeship, support and counsel during the Butte Fire and other events made it possible for me to do quite a bit of reporting in addition to editing.
Finally, I want to say how grateful I am to all of the kind human beings who granted me interviews even in difficult times and also to those who read my stories and were kind enough to call me when I got something wrong or, even more importantly, when it was factually accurate but in some way caused someone grief. Many times there was nothing I could have done differently. But still, it was important for me to know the impact I had, for ill as well as for good.
Contact Dana M. Nichols at firstname.lastname@example.org.