This is one of a series of posts about jobs I’ve had during my time on this planet. You can read more posts by clicking the “jobs i’ve had” tag, and read a lengthier intro to the series in the first post.
“Hi, this is Russell Tanton. I’m a staff writer for the DeKalb Neighbor.”
“Oh, the one they throw on my lawn?”
“Yes, that’s the one.”
Neighbor Newspapers is a chain of a couple of dozen suburban weekly papers published by Times-Journal, Inc., a company run by a kind-hearted, wise, personable, racially tolerant man named Otis Brumby.
I first interviewed with the Marietta Daily Journal, the flagship daily for Times-Journal. The editor didn’t think I was ready for that job based on my college newspaper experience, and he was right. He was about to send me out the door when he noticed I’d laid out my clips portfolio in Quark. He asked me about it and we kept talking, and he decided I should interview with the guys who managed the weekly papers.
I nailed that, then interviewed with an old money guy who was editor of the Northside Neighbor. He was a perfect fit there since the Northside Neighbor spent a lot of time covering old money. That might not sound flattering, but he was cool. He gave the okay to hire me to write for Northside.
While I wasn’t looking forward to writing stories about debutante balls, I was comfortable with the idea of working for him and was excited to have a foot in the door to the journalism industry.
About the DeKalb Neighbor, and how I ended up there
It was an accident that I instead ended up as a staff writer at the DeKalb Neighbor. The day before I was going to start at the Northside Neighbor the corporate office called and asked me to fill in for a few days there. I ended up staying for nine months.
Most of the editorial departments at Neighbor papers have an editor and three writers: a news writer, a sports writer, and a features writer. I was filling in for the news writer at DeKalb, and that’s where I stayed during my time there. The editor had already given his notice, so I only worked for him for a week or so. The sports writer position was open at the time.
The paper actually printed as two editions: the North DeKalb Neighbor and the DeKalb Neighbor. They were the same damn paper, covering North and Central DeKalb. We caught a lot of flack from higher up if we wrote a South DeKalb story, and I don’t believe it was a coincidence that South DeKalb is a mostly-black area.
I think I wrote four stories the first week. Generally I was expected to write six to eight stories, though that expectation went up when there were special events (elections, festivals, monthly business edition, etc). I wrote thirteen one week, which is about the pace the daily writers were doing.
As much of a hard time as I have given newspapers and reporters on my various blogs sometimes, I am amazed with writers who keep that pace and manage not to put out two or three stories per week that aren’t complete crap. I certainly put out some crap during my time there along with some stories I’m proud of and a slew of forgettable-but-not-terrible stories.
My job generally became county government reporter with occasional forays into city government, business and features. I also got to do a little sports writing here and there. County government was where the action was at in DeKalb since Vernon Jones was CEO at the time. In retrospect, I should have done a better job paying attention to the city governments. Doraville in particular would have written half the paper for me some weeks if I’d been a little more attentive.
My first story was about something happening in Stone Mountain Village. It was a typical fluffy Neighbor front page article, but it was remarkable because the AJC ended up writing a similar story a couple of days later and blatantly ripped off the idea for their photo from the one our photographer took.
Speaking of the AJC…
It was hard to scoop the AJC and TV news. We had limited resources, a reputation as the paper that was thrown on people’s lawn, no one was around long enough to develop relationships with sources, and our stories often wouldn’t go to print until a week after we’d written them. But I managed to do so on a significant piece of news once in my nine months there.
My predecessor at the Neighbor had a standing monthly meeting with Vernon Jones, I’m assuming just to shoot the breeze and to try to get background for other stories. I continued this standing meeting for my first two or three months on the job, though by this time he wasn’t saying a whole lot that was interesting. He was already fending off bad publicity from several scandals.
Seemingly by chance one day — in politics it’s often difficult to determine how much actually can be attributed to chance — I ran into the new director of a DeKalb government agency while I was waiting to speak with Vernon. At the time, the agency was operating jointly with its City of Decatur equivalent. We struck up a conversation and I later went to meet him and the director of the Decatur agency, where they both graciously spent a couple of hours breaking down their operations to me.
A few months later, the DeKalb agency pulled a power play and voted to not continue its joint partnership with the Decatur agency. The director of the DeKalb agency leaked the story to me before anyone else.
Unless he decides to contact me and tell me as much, I will never know if this happened because I did a good job building that relationship or because I was inexperienced and naive and being played the entire time to get their story out. I know that the director of the Decatur agency struck me as a good, smart man and seemed devastated. When I reached him for comment by phone, he couldn’t keep his voice from cracking.
And I know I was offered part-time work writing press releases for the DeKalb agency later. I declined, saying I thought it would be a conflict of interest.
When he was a presidential candidate, Howard Dean came to town and filmed a segment for TV news inside the Maloof building. Vernon Jones was a Dean supporter.
I got to interview him for two minutes as he was walking to the elevator from his TV interview to meet with Vernon Jones. I had this whole elaborate list of questions that I thought were really smart when I was writing them, the answers to which made for a dreadful article full of the same boilerplate answers which appeared in a million other places.
The only question I asked which turned out to be of interest to the audience in our paper was “how do you know Vernon Jones?” My whole list of questions should have been locally-focused like that. How do you expect to court voters in Georgia who think you’re a latté-sipping weenie? Who else have you spoken with in Georgia, and DeKalb in particular? What do you hope to accomplish by speaking at the Jefferson Jackson dinner here? etc. etc. etc.
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here
One of my less proud moments was after Brookhaven was flooded by a bad storm, I wrote a story about a guy who lost everything. We walked through his basement, and the water line was up to the top of the wall. It stunk of mud and mildew. A whole room of artifacts he’d collected over decades was ruined, along with less personal but expensive items like appliances. I wrote a decent feature piece on him. That’s not the part the makes me a little sick to think about.
A month or two later, I was struggling for ideas for stories and the photographer and I were driving around trying to find something to cover. We didn’t do a whole lot of this, but I had a serious mental block that week. As we happened to drive through Brookhaven, I thought of calling the guy back for a follow-up story.
What I didn’t know is by then the media had apparently overstayed its welcome. I didn’t handle myself with the necessary sensitivity on the phone, and I could hear the rage just under the surface of his voice when he said he didn’t want to talk to me. I felt like a bottom feeder.
Other noteworthy moments and characters
This list really only scratches the surface. In good times and bad, newspapers never cease to at least be interesting places to work.
- There was a tow truck driver (he eventually earned the nickname Tow Truck Guy) who called me about once per week for months on end. He wouldn’t identify himself, but clearly had an axe to grind with the DeKalb County office which licensed drivers. He said there were a lot of drivers operating without a license. This may have been true, but also would have been difficult, dangerous and time-consuming to verify. More than our grist mill could process.
- The first sports writer hired after I started was in his 30s or maybe even his 40s and lived with his mom. He wasn’t right in the head. We all made uncomfortable jokes about how we thought he might come into work one day and shoot us all. After his first couple of days, we took bets on how long he’d last and my estimate ended up being closest. Most people’s temper tantrums are at least a little funny to watch if you’re not emotionally invested in them. His were just scary.
- The ad guys in our office were characters. One was from Kentucky, dipped Skoal all day and frequently extolled the virtues of Maker’s Mark whiskey. Another was like a cross between Mick Jagger and Ernest P. Worrell, wore suspenders, and was a little crazy. He was a crazy who was on our side, fortunately. The ad manager had settled down with a family at that point, but had a lot of war stories about his hellraising days (which I hear have picked back up).
- The second sports writer, who was promoted to the position from features writer after the first sports writer quit/was fired, kept a running journal of quotes in a notebook by his desk. Journalists and ad people say the darnedest, jaw-droppingly profane things. We still keep in touch.
- The features writer hired to fill his position was a huge Auburn fan. You’d think I’d better understand what people see in that place after spending some time with someone who went there, but I don’t.
- One of the photographers claimed he smoked pot in the governor’s mansion with Chip Carter.
- We would frequently consult with a two-foot tall, lifelike Bocephus doll.
The new managing editor and the Light Brigade
Around my fifth or sixth month in DeKalb, the editor of another Neighbor paper was promoted to managing editor of several Neighbor papers, including DeKalb. Not everyone at Times-Journal fits the banana republic archetype described in Citizen Brumby. In fact, I’d say most don’t. But some do, including him.
It only took him a month or two after his promotion to fire our editor, who just a few months earlier had been cited by the president of the company for her outstanding work. They tried to withhold unemployment benefits from her, and a state mediator got involved who determined Times-Journal and the managing editor were in the wrong for trying to do so.
After a few months, I walked out while the new editor he’d hired was at lunch, deciding it was better to leave on my terms than to sit around and wait to be fired.
Personnel drama like this was common at Times-Journal papers. So ended my short-lived career as a journalist.
Looking back at the work I did during my nine or so months there, I had a lot to learn about being a journalist. Like any profession, you have to practice, make a lot of mistakes, and miss a lot of opportunities before you can learn enough to rightfully call yourself a professional. With time and guidance from mentors who weren’t volcanic assholes*, I think I could have eventually been a decent reporter, but I wasn’t there yet.
I was bitter about this experience for a while, but given the current troubles of the journalism industry I think I was lucky to be nudged out. Even the best reporters are having trouble finding work, so I wouldn’t want to just be a decent one now.
* – Credit goes to Hollis Gillespie for that phrase. Atlanta Magazine hosed their blog archives after an otherwise good blog redesign, so I can’t give proper link credit. Here’s the Google cache version.