Former WDN editor: Newspapers are about people

Published 9:45 pm Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Special to the Daily News

In June 1968, I came home to Washington with a spanking-new degree from UNC, a fiancée with marriage plans and no job.
My parents had expressed concern when, in my second year in Chapel Hill, I had changed my major from journalism to psychology. “What kind of job can you get with a degree in psychology?” they asked.
They were right. The state’s Department of Human Services wasn’t hiring, and that AB in psychology didn’t carry much weight on job interviews. Then Ashley Futrell Sr. came to my rescue.
Of course, everybody in Washington knew everybody else back then, and our families were acquainted. The Daily News was in need of a sports editor, and I’d attended Washington High School, played a little football for Choppy Wagner and worked on the school newspaper, The Pamlicoan, so I covered all the bases. Mr. Futrell, hearing that I was home and looking for a job, called my brother and asked if I’d be interested, just to fill in until he could find someone more permanent.
Having no other job prospects, I agreed. I signed on, for the princely sum of $75 a week, figuring I’d work at the Daily News long enough to get my master’s degree in psychology from East Carolina and find a real job. That plan lasted about a year and a half.
What scuttled the plan was that I found I really enjoyed working at a newspaper. I enjoyed the night meetings, the Friday-night football games, talking to people in the community and putting all of that together to produce, five days a week, a package of information that people could actually read and use. I even enjoyed deadlines, that rush of adrenaline that comes when a story is only half written and the editor — plus the print-shop foreman, the press operator and a half-dozen other folks — are screaming for your copy.
I left the Daily News after about three years, moving on to become sports editor of the newspaper in Martinsville, Va., and, about five years after that, to The News &Observer. I spent 18 1/2 years at The N&O, in a variety of sports department roles but mostly as a primary beat reporter and columnist covering UNC and Duke. Since leaving The N&O, I’ve written for college publications, published my own UNC sports magazine, authored a book on the history of Tar Heel basketball, edited a weekly newspaper and written stories for various state, regional and national publications.
It was fun, for the most part. I’ve covered more football bowl games and ACC basketball tournaments than I can count, dozens of Final Fours and other national college championships and met a lot of interesting people. I didn’t get rich — newspaper reporters seldom do — but I’ve come a long way from the $75 a week that I made at the Daily News.
In retrospect, I should have paid Mr. Futrell and the other folks at the Daily News for the experience. Much of what I know about writing and newspapers I learned at the Daily News — from Mr. Futrell, then-Managing Editor Tom Spencer and Daily News co-workers like Rusty Walker, Mary Bell Toler, Vance Bell, Margie Gardner, Addie Laney, Robert Keys, Calvin Clark and others.
But it wasn’t all about writing and the business of newspapers. It was about people.
Once, in the early ’70s, I was faced with a sports story about the Washington High School tennis team. The team had been declared ineligible for the conference post-season tournament because Coach Wagner, who also was the WHS athletic director, had failed to submit some player eligibility documents to the conference. The story was mildly critical of Coach Wagner, and I feared it might upset Coach Wagner and his legion of admirers (I being one of them).
So, I went to Mr. Futrell.
“Have you got your facts right?” he asked.
I said I did.
“Is the story fair?” he asked.
I said I thought it was.
“Then go with it,” Mr. Futrell replied.
The story ran in the Daily News. There was no outcry. In fact, Coach Wagner himself said the story was accurate and fair.
In the 40 or so years since, I’ve occasionally had to write stories critical of people I admire or like, even some I’d count as friends. Writing those kinds of stories is never easy, but I’ve always used the test that Ashley Futrell taught me at the Daily News. Is it accurate? And is it fair?
Those are pretty good guidelines not just for a newspaperman, but for anyone. And I’ll always be grateful to Mr. Futrell and the Daily News for that.
Tom Harris lives with his wife, Rosemary, in Garner, where he is retired and spends as much time as possible fishing, working on a family genealogy or keeping up with his daughter, Caroline, a software editor and writer, and his son, Charles, a high-school teacher and coach in Pitt County.