Back in the day, we typed our stories in pre-margined columns on a coal black typewriter so oft used that our fingertips had rubbed the letters clean off the clackety keys. With the final ding of the returned carriage, we grabbed the top of the paper, ripped it from between bail rollers and platen, and flew to the copy desk.
Armed with Exacto knives and blue pencils, our ever-faithful copy editor scanned the columns, circled errors, sliced the lines which begged for edits and sent us back to the coal black typewriter.
Ahh. Those were the days.
At least, those were the days in the small-town newspaper office where I cut my journalism teeth. We rolled our own film, developed the same, and went home smelling like the wax that held our piecemealed columns to the dummy pages.
Sometimes, when we dreamt, we walked across stages to accept brass plaques with Best Feature, Best News Story, Best Photo from blurred Kentucky Press Association dignitaries. They were blurry. We, the writers, were not. This was, after all, our dream, not theirs. It was our story.
I can remember taking on features, two outlier city beats, and my own column. In my mind, I was big time in my small town. At least three bylines per edition. Hours and hours of looking, questioning, listening, writing. I was faithful, held fast to journalistic integrity, checked and double-checked direct quotations, stood by the words on the page.
Then, the break.
One of my outliers erupted in scandal. The even smaller town’s mayor had done something wrong –illegally wrong. The city council blew the whistle, the mayor confessed, and I wrote about that. In small towns, you know people. In even smaller towns, you sit at table with them. I knew this mayor. I was friends with his wife. I asked them both to read the copy before I turned it in. Perhaps not so very normal, but I was the journalist who would tell the truth of the matter while preserving the dignity of subjects and readers. A fine and difficult line on which to balance the words.
The mayor suffered a massive heart attack and died the day the story broke. I found out about it when I received the first phone call death threat at the office.
This was back in the nineties. The nineteen-nineties, in case anyone is wondering. The paper’s publisher at that time – not quite the cigar-chomping, grizzly-gruff old man of newspaper lore – ran interference between the metaphorical torch-and-pitchfork wielding public and me, the fresh-out-of-college idealist. An act of kindness I still remember.
The mayor’s wife called the office. She asked for me. She wanted to make sure I was okay. She wanted to tell me it wasn’t my writing. I had told the truth, she said. It was another act of profound kindness. The tears in my throat didn’t allow me to respond above a squeaking “I’m so, so sorry.” I handed the phone to a fellow reporter, pulled my spiral steno notebook from my bag, placed it beside the coal black typewriter, and walked through the oceans filling my eyes, across the layout room, down the steps past the darkroom, and out the back door into the alley where the reporters parked.
Oh, I came back the next day. I’d like to say I had stiffened my resolve to be the best journalist ever. I’d like to say I was brave enough to face the public. I’d like to say I eventually received a real-life award for journalistic integrity in the face of severe opposition.
I suppose there are lots of things I’d like to say, but the truth of the matter is that I struggled. I second-guessed all those things I had been so careful to observe before. My hands shook at the Pagemaker program that had replaced the coal black typewriter in the corner. Eventually, I stopped putting the words on the page and simply stored them in my head and in my heart. My life turned to other pursuits like marriage, children, support-role employment positions where my responsibility fell to managing the words of others.
Now, almost thirty years later, I still write copy. Some freelance. Some personal. Some messy. Some good enough to win those awards I once dreamt of.
And now, I pray every word is worthy; every word is proof of a good ministry.