Former editor regains his affinity for newspapers

Published 4:32 pm Wednesday, September 9, 2009

By By DAVID O. LOOMIS Special to the Daily News
In the early 1990s, I got fed up with my job editing and managing an eastern North Carolina newspaper bureau, so I went to work for the Daily News. The move halved my salary.
But with a mortgage, a wife and two stepchildren, I was in no position to quibble about pay. And the whole free-lance angle was one of the things I liked about journalism: If you didn’t like your current rag, you could cross the street and go to work for the competition.
When I landed in Washington in May 1994, my plan was to work for 12 months, apply to journalism graduate school, get a master’s degree and use the new credential to re-enter the news game that had provided me a pretty good living for 20 years. On the side, I was going to acquire material for a great American novel about the daily newspaper business.
That plan was fairly close to what happened. (Except for the part about the great American novel. And the part about re-entering the news game.) But some of the best lessons I learned along the way were acquired during my year in Washington, before I entered grad school.
One lesson I relearned was that writing for a daily newspaper was about the most fun you could hope to have while getting paid for doing a job. For one thing, newsrooms attract colorful characters. One Daily News reporter, for example, admired all things Scottish. Occasionally, he would show up for work wearing a plaid kilt, fully accessorized, although he kept the sword in his pickup truck. He would use aliases, too.
For another thing, a news reporter’s press pass is a ticket to magic-carpet rides that other mortals only can imagine. Exhibit A: The feature story I wrote about Fountain Powerboats. To do descriptive justice to the story, I had to get behind the helm of one of the company’s biggest boats and let ’er fly downriver flat out. Eat your heart out former President George H.W. Bush, a paying Fountain customer.
Then there were the news sources. A Bath town manager went by “Bubs,” as he was listed in the phone directory. A Pantego crop duster was known as “Booger.” A Washington municipal worker went by “Mud Duck” (alternately, “Mudduck”). Then there was Bath native Wilton Smith who, according to former state Rep. Zeno Edwards, the former lawmaker and dentist from Washington, owned a necktie factory in Zebulon that proudly labeled every tie with the proprietor’s nickname. The nickname cannot be published in a family newspaper, but it was the adjectival form of a barnyard epithet.
Great stuff for a Southern novel. And great fun for a news guy burned out by the corporate news business. But the family owned Daily News was no milk run. It was capable of producing serious investigative journalism, as it did in 1991 when the 11,000-circulation daily won a Pulitzer Prize. The little paper won the profession’s biggest prize for reporting that the city’s water supply was contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals, a public health risk that, in the words of the Pulitzer committee, “the local government had neither disclosed nor corrected over a period of eight years.”
I didn’t win a Pulitzer, although I did land a North Carolina Press Association award for news-feature writing, based in part on my Fountain Powerboats story. It is this kind of newspapering that makes independent, family owned newspapers like the Daily News a bulwark of the news profession — and of the American republic. What other institution in our society has the time, interest, independence, money, manpower and responsibility to watchdog local public officials and powerful private interests?
This is a question that I pose each semester to my undergraduate journalism students when they ask why they should learn how to write like newspaper reporters. Good question, given the current downbeat news about the newspaper business. But even students who tune in only cable TV news or click only on Web logs are silent in response.
The answer is that no other institution or business model yet exists that can sustain the essential public service that newspapers have provided in this country since the 1830s. Cable news and online blogs largely recycle the in-depth reporting of the print media; online news sites merely aggregate print media news stories. Newspapers do the original long-form work. And as newspapers decline, nothing has yet emerged to fill their job.
From an academic perch, it will be interesting to watch the trials of the news business as it re-invents itself. But I still advise my students to get newspaper jobs as soon as they get their sheepskins. A few of them do. And they learn the lessons I relearned at the Daily News.
My students also are capable of doing first-rate investigative journalism. They have won top prizes in the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association’s public-service reporting competitions. I can’t promise them that newspapers will be there to employ them when they graduate. But at least they will know the good stuff from the not-so-good when they consume their news in the future.
Meanwhile, I am encouraged to learn that Betty Gray, one of the reporters who won a piece of the Daily News’ Pulitzer back in 1991, has returned to work at the paper on a part-time basis. I hope it’s a good portent for the Daily News — and for the daily news.
David Loomis was news editor at the Washington Daily News from May 1994 to June 1995, during which he won a North Carolina Press Association award for news-feature writing. He left to attend the graduate school of journalism and mass communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He won a Park Fellowship and graduated with a Ph.D. in 2002. He is a professor of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania in Indiana, Pa.