August 13, 2010

Confessions of a recovering journalist

For my first 20-plus years in journalism, I operated as a reporter and editor for four different daily newspapers – one in Minnesota and three in Colorado. While the sizes and readership numbers varied, there were common threads: late nights, editors calling for copy ASAP, ink-stained pressmen (if you’re old enough, picture Al Jolson in a union suit) poking their heads into the newsroom to vent invectives if we were past deadline, and a reliable stream of stress that as I grew older seemed to pinch a particular muscle located behind my right shoulder blade.

To this day, some years removed from the newspaper business, that pinch behind the shoulder blade now flares up while driving on I-25, visiting the dentist, or in other stressful situations. An instrument of self-awareness, perhaps?

When the opportunity emerged to become editor at the biweekly Business Report in 2002, I envisioned an existence that would be, while not free from stress, perhaps less of a daily grind, as it were. What I found was late nights, reporters and freelancers (yes, even the best ones) pleading for more time to finish a story, pressmen calling for the #*%^&!@ EPS files (picture Al Jolson with e-mail), and the familiar pinch behind the shoulder blade.

But the transition from daily to biweekly had its unique challenges and rewards that made my four years at NCBR equal parts gratification, frustration and education.

All local, all the time

As business editor at the Fort Collins Coloradoan, I was obsessed – to a fault, my executive editor thought – with packing the business pages with local business news. Which meant that sometimes I was ticked when other section editors would claim my stories, thus leaving the business page looking, well, not so local. I figured my credibility was weakened if readers turned to the business page and saw it dominated by wire stories. It was a burr in my backside that helped to make up my mind to move across town to NCBR.

Thus one of the joys of landing at a business-focused newspaper. No more provincial jousting over what stories appeared in what sections. We were all for one, in a manner of speaking. And, what may not be obvious to all readers: There are no wire stories. All local, all the time.

Thus one of the challenges faced at NCBR, and one which is shared by most local weeklies and biweeklies across the country: Whatever the number of pages in the next edition – and if the sales staff is cranking, it could be a lot – you best be up to the task of finding enough local material to fill it. No escaping through the Associated Press hatch.

As I was making the decision to join NCBR, my predecessor Tom Hacker (funny thing, he would also be my successor) was trying to give me the final nudge. Tom, who had also worked the daily grind alongside me at the Coloradoan, told me that life at NCBR would “give you wings.” What he meant was that I would have the editorial latitude, time between issues, and actual news space to pursue journalism with a depth I couldn’t enjoy at a daily.

Scoop anxiety

While that insight proved to be mostly true, I never quite got over the anxiety of trying to identify a front page story that could survive the lag between when the paper was printed and mailed and when it reached readers every other Friday. Would it still be “breaking news” that beat the three local dailies to the scoop? It’s an anxiety-ridden wait until Friday morning, as we watch the dailies to make sure our story stands up. In my case, it was a privately seething editor when that didn’t happen. But I take pride in saying that NCBR, then and now, wins most of those sweepstakes and keeps the dailies guessing about what’ll be next on Page One.

For my part, the “daily” in daily newspaper provided a subtle benefit for a habitual procrastinator. At a daily, I might be able to drag my feet for a few hours, but at some point each day it was time to hunker down and type like a fool (lest you feel the wrath of the aforementioned Al Jolson). As procrastinators go, the biweekly format can be like a Dove Bar for a diabetic. Daily discipline – checklists, progress reports, incessant “notes to self” – all became essential nutrients to keep myself fortified for the next press day that was never too far off.

So now, four years into my second career (a recovering journalist, I’ve been called), I can’t declare one experience innately better than the other. Overall, the difference between daily and biweekly was hardly profound. While the internal mechanics of the formats are different, tenets of good journalism always hold true: a persistent curiosity, a passion for accuracy, and an allegiance to building trust with sources and readers. Not to mention the pain behind my shoulder blade.

Robert Baun was the editor for NCBR from 2002-2006. Today he’s a creative services manager at Wirestone LLC, a marketing company in Fort Collins.

For my first 20-plus years in journalism, I operated as a reporter and editor for four different daily newspapers – one in Minnesota and three in Colorado. While the sizes and readership numbers varied, there were common threads: late nights, editors calling for copy ASAP, ink-stained pressmen (if you’re old enough, picture Al Jolson in a union suit) poking their heads into the newsroom to vent invectives if we were past deadline, and a reliable stream of stress that as I grew older seemed to pinch a particular muscle located behind my right shoulder blade.

To this…

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