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Archive for February, 2013

Interviewing young writers who are looking for a job, especially their first job, can be heartbreaking in a good kind of way. The youth, the energy, the enthusiasm, the optimism. I always hear echoes of myself, especially in the too-honest answers, the ones where you know the writer probably slapped herself in the forehead after hanging up the phone. Mentally, as I hang up I’m sending out a message to them: Don’t worry, I’ve given that kind of answer too, I once was young; I won’t hold it against you. Many of them express such great confidence that they have yet to come close to their own limits (perhaps they are good actors too). And then you get one like today, who, when I asked what she thought she ultimately might like to do, answered slowly, “At this point I’m really (pause), really not sure.” Such wisdom for one so young. Just remember that answer. You’ll do well.

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The years away from a community newspaper made me forget how close a relationship a small paper has with death.

Most often it is formal. At times it is close and raw.

In the former category, death has its own email address at the News-Topic, and many other newspapers. The names of the dead flow in as regularly as church announcements and the fundraisers for the community calendar.

An obituary is like an English butler who enters to tell the host that death has arrived and is waiting in the foyer. It is part of the ritualized structure society imposes that makes death feel orderly, filing off the sharp edges. The names of family and loved ones pass in sequence. No child is ungrateful or estranged, no marriage troubled or blemished. Gray areas are brightened, smudges erased.

The order can be chipped away with a phone call from a grieving mother. She lives in another county and knows the day her son was murdered but not when the obituary ran, and she desperately wants a copy, the final record of his passage through the world. We page through the papers, day by day by day by day, find it and carefully cut it out and seal it in an envelope, imagining her seeing the paper’s name on the envelope, and the tremble in her hands as she realizes what it contains.

Sometimes we learn how death arrived, even if we don’t yet know the name of the dead. In the morning we get word that several hours earlier, as our reporters lay sleeping and our pressmen readied to print the coming day’s paper, a young man who perhaps was sleepy, perhaps tipsy, rounded a bend in the road too loosely; his tires slipped off the pavement, so he jerked the wheel back, and his car careened across the road sharply, pitched over an embankment and hit a tree. In the suddenly quiet darkness, he and the car grew slowly colder.

Those reports, from the Highway Patrol or a police or sheriff’s department, are like a note from death left on the desk. “Was in the neighborhood, took care of a few things. …” The reporter knows he’s not the first to learn where death had been, but he knows he is among the first.

Sometimes we’re close behind death. Hearing a report on police scanners, we rush off and, as a laden ambulance speeds off, arrive to see a crumpled mass of metal that 30 minutes earlier was a car barreling down the highway, but where a driver had been there now is only a tiny pool of blood on the Scotchguarded fabric of the seat.

Sometimes we arrive and the ambulance is still there, its crew standing in the darkness near a dimly lit, dilapidated mobile home. Standing outside the property line, still we can hear the anguished sobs of a man telling officers what happened. We see flashlights sweep a window from inside, where investigators inspect the bloody evidence. We shiver against the gathering frost, but perhaps also against the sense that on the other side of that window, death might be looking out.

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I recall once writing (although apparently it was before I migrated my blog to WordPress) that I was getting sick of the paywall debate and I wished someone would just pull the trigger and put up a hard paywall so we could get actual data and stop debating what might or might not happen. You know how people always say, “Be careful what you wish for …”? It seems I’m going to soon find out firsthand what a hard paywall does. As of April 1, actually.

While I have long been philosophically opposed to the idea of a paywall — with a possible exception made for metered paywalls — the early weeks of my tenure at the Lenoir News-Topic have weakened my resolve on the issue. I am told repeatedly that there is a noticeable drop in single-copy sales if the day’s big news goes up on the web before most people begin work. The circulation department reports that an increasing number of subscribers who refuse to renew their subscriptions say the reason is they can get it online for free.

Now, obviously we are not talking about a straight line. Even if you hold on to your circulation, it doesn’t mean larger advertisers won’t stop shifting more of their money out of newspapers, so you can hold or build circulation and wind up with less revenue. And although people are telling our circulation department that they won’t renew because they can get the news online, I’m not at all convinced they mean they are using our website. Our site, frankly, sucks. It sucks hard. It will give you a hickey if you use it too much. That is gradually being rectified, but the staff is so small that the progress is halting and low-priority.

But as of April 1, we’ll start to get answers. Maybe subscription renewals will climb, or at least level off. Maybe people will start to tell us all the things that are missing from our site, which will prompt a discussion on the resources needed to get that done every day. I somehow doubt people will say that. I think they will continue saying they are getting their news online for free, even though they will not be able to get our site for free.

But at least we’ll have our answer, the one I have wished for. I hope I won’t again be thinking I should have been more careful what I wished for.

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After Day 15 of my time as a small-town newspaper editor, I can confirm and amplify what I had always heard and believed: The smaller the staff, the more the paper reflects the editor’s personality. This paper will never be wholly Guy Lucas, unless Paxton cuts everything to the point that I’m the only one left, but I can look at it now, hold it alongside what it was before I got here and see my reflection. It also forces me to admit what I had believed before about papers this size and had hesitated to predict about myself: The stronger the editor’s personality and drive, the faster the change is visible. I wouldn’t say that unless former co-workers had not repeatedly teased me on Facebook, and I don’t say it to brag. Good or bad, who I am is out there, running full throttle and replacing my newsroom’s previous model of a swear jar with just swears. I yell, I exude, I cheer. When I can, I have a lot of fun. I hope it spills over and it’s not just me having fun, so that maybe especially with my new hires (one who started today, one still to be found) a little bug infects them, and they get the idea that being a little outrageous is what an editor ought to be.

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Catching up on some long-neglected reading, I just finished an interview with actor Frank Langella in the September issue of Esquire. At one point, writer Scott Raab asks Langella about his role as the vampire in the 1979 movie “Dracula,” saying, “Did you drag that around like a stone?” Langella answers that he didn’t in his head, but he acknowledges that the role probably cost him some other opportunities. That by itself is something we are used to thinking about actors, that one corny role or a movie that flops will hurt the actor’s career. Thinking of Langella’s career now — think particularly of “Frost/Nixon,” “The Box,” last year’s “Robot & Frank” — it seems crazy to think he lost roles in the early ’80s just because he played a vampire in 1979. You wonder how many of those producers or casting directors who passed him over would now, in hindsight, wish they had rethought it.

But then I thought of my own recent experience looking for a job. In the two months after I was laid off, I must have applied for nearly 40 jobs; none seemed like a stretch. I got just four phone interviews, three of which led to in-person interviews. But those four had two significant questions in common. The gist of the first was whether I was concerned that it had been nearly 12 years since I directly supervised reporters. My inner reaction roughly was, “What? Seriously?” The gist of the second was that my corporate job must have paid me significantly better than the job I was interviewing for, so how low could I go? My inner reaction wasn’t much different than it was to the first, because although it was a corporate job, it was still in news — the pay wasn’t as good as they assumed.

These publishers and editors were doing the same thing as those Hollywood producers — looking at the last thing I had done and extrapolating from that the entirety of what I then was capable of and expected. Given the common gravity with which the questions were asked all four times, I don’t think it’s a stretch to believe that a number of people who never even called me had the same questions, presumed the answers and wrote me off. In fact, during my almost 12 years in a corporate news division, I had seen some situations where publishers simply wrote off potential hires without so much as an interview because they assumed, based on where the editors had last worked, that the editors wanted more money than the publishers were willing to pay.

Now that I am back supervising reporters again, I can confidently say what I believed before: If you were ever any good at supervising reporters, then it’s like riding a bike. You just don’t forget how to do it. As for the pay, obviously I was always fully aware, as a longtime reporter and editor, that the industry’s standard pay is awful.

Now, as I am trying to make a new hire I am trying to be sure I am not repeating the mistakes of those who interviewed me.

How about you? Next time you are reviewing applications, assess what you are assessing. When you place an application in your “No” pile, why did you put it there?

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