By R. Michael Johnson
David Waggoner, the then-City Editor of the Bellefontaine Examiner, an afternoon daily newspaper in central Ohio, liked to look over his reading glasses when he was trying to make a point.
He would fix the index finger of his right hand pointing straight at you and look you straight in the eye. Even if you were seated 10 feet below him, he could manage to look over his glasses at you if the occasion was important enough.
“The story is what is important, not the reporter,” was one of his many, many words of wisdom.
That particular over-the-glasses comment came after I, as a very, very young reporter questioned yet again why a particular story of mine was bylined as “Staff Reports” instead of “By R. Michael Johnson.”
His theory was to save the bylines for stories which justified a byline – in his opinion. While I understood the reasons, it was still annoying to me – a reporter who was trying to get clips so I could eventually end up at the New York Times or the Chicago Tribune.
Over the years, I have written literally thousands of stories – some of them bylined, some of them not. But the biggest lesson learned here was not story selection and who should or should not get a byline. The lesson was that it should always be about the news – not the news reporter. In this business, it’s really easy to allow the former to overshadow the latter.
The one time I forgot this lesson eventually ended up costing me making any kind of a profit on a newspaper I owned and was trying to sell.
In 2006, I founded the Bloomfield Free Press in Bloomfield, Ind. It was a great little weekly paper – publishing every Wednesday with a massive local web presence. But over a period of a couple of years, I became the Bloomfield Free Press, and it became me. After a while, the reporter was overshadowing the story.
What this meant for the bottom line was that without me, there was no Bloomfield Free Press. All of the value in the property rested squarely on the proposition that I was the one running things. Without me, the paper was worthless – with the exception of the accounts receivable, circulation database and some news racks.
That one was a tough, humbling and expensive lesson to learn. David’s words ring just as true today as they did more than a quarter-century ago.
NEVER ARGUE WITH AN IDIOT
I was in the mall the other day when I saw a t-shirt that both made me chuckle and think, at the same time.
“Never argue with an idiot,” were the words at the top of the shirt.
“He will drag you down to his level and beat you with experience,” was the punch line.
When I founded the Bloomfield Free Press, I did so because the daily newspaper in Linton, Ind., had years before purchased the daily in Bloomfield and closed it – leaving all of eastern Greene County Indiana without any news vehicle.
Considering the fact that I had earlier battled a circulation war with the Linton paper and won, and one of the paper’s current managers had been fired by me in the past, the atmosphere was highly competitive.
For the first year, every time they struck below the belt, I took the blow and kept the high road. I allowed their sales people to lie to our customers. I watched as every time we reported a story, they would write one contradicting it and questioning our facts.
I even let their assistant editor do a full background check on me – thinking he was doing so on the sly. (Even though a background check on him would definitely not come out clean. Remember, I was once his boss.)
But after about 18 or so months, it just became tiring, so I started fighting back. While the bickering back and forth didn’t hurt business, I think readers of both newspapers eventually grew tired of it. Plus, it takes a lot of creativity to keep coming up with new ways to “argue with the idiot.”
In short, the high road is much smoother, although not always as entertaining.
IT MAY TAKE A WHILE, BUT YOU WILL BE VINDICATED
More than 20 years ago, I was preaching local news. And, nearly everyone thought I was nuts – especially the old guys in the business.
Back then – and even more today – you turn on the television and get 500 channels. CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, FoxNews, MSNBC, plus hundreds of channels which allow you to find out what is going on in Chicago, Buffalo, Los Angeles and even the aboriginal regions of the Australian Outback. Now, throw in the internet and the average person has literally an unlimited supply of news and views from around the globe at their fingertips.
But there is only one place you can find out why the fire truck went by your house at 2 o’clock this morning, or where you can see a picture of the third-grader who sold the most Girl Scout cookies. There is only one place where you can find out if your kindergarten teacher passed away, and find out why the cops were at your neighbor’s house last night.
That is our job. That’s what we do. That is our main reason for existence (taking making money through advertising out of the argument).
Although I was literally booed off the stage 22 years ago while making this point during a panel discussion with four other ‘journalists,’ I think the industry is finally starting to come around to my way of thinking.
I notice on a daily basis that now people are looking for editors or publishers who have a “solid understanding of community journalism,” or who “know what it means to be hyper-local.”
It took nearly my whole career, but it is good to be proven right, once in a while.
HAVE A THICK SKIN, BUT DON’T BE INPENETRABLE
Anyone who has been in the news business for more than a week has at least started to develop a thick skin.
In this business, you have to be ready to take your lumps and go on with life.
Remember, just because the guy willfully got drunk, beat his wife, smoked dope, wrecked his car and injured a nun and 20 orphans, it is your fault that people are angry with him because you put it in print or on the air.
I was once sued for libel by a convicted cocaine dealer. He filed the suit from the penitentiary – handwritten in pencil on legal paper.
It stated that I had libeled him through my reporting of his case. His entire argument was that I had injured his reputation by telling everyone that he was in jail for the next 50 years because he was becoming wealthy selling nose candy.
This was after he had been convicted, sentenced, was actually in prison and had lost his appeal. Naturally, the suit was dismissed on a summary judgment. We didn’t even bother hiring a lawyer for this one.
At first, it made me nervous. Then, it made me angry. Then, it made me laugh. That’s how it should be.
Had I not been a bit nervous at first, I could have ignored something that could have had some merit and deserved attention.
Naturally, I was at least a bit miffed, because I was going to have to trudge to the courthouse and do a song and dance in front of a judge, simply because some drug dealer wanted a couple of days out of prison at the taxpayers’ expense.
But in the end, laughing about it was the best course to take. It was comical – especially when one read the actual suit. Laughing let me let it go. I had bigger and better things with which to worry.
If you really want to develop a thick skin – one nearly thick enough to wear when fighting fire – write a weekly opinion column.
The late-syndicated columnist Lewis Grizzard once said that writing a newspaper column was akin to being married to a nymphomaniac – it was fun for the first three months, then it becomes a job.
And, it does become a real job, sometimes (writing, not the other thing), especially when you write about local issues such as politics. In that case, be ready for arrows, verbal and written hand grenades, and glares at the local grocery store.
Jimmy Hoffa is quoted as having once said, “You can shoot or stab a man and he might forgive you – if you had a good reason. But a slight – real or perceived – and that (expletive deleted) will hate you until the day he dies.”
There are still people out there who will undoubtedly attend my funeral – just to make sure it’s me in the coffin. That’s all right. That means I was doing my job.
Whenever I performed a readership survey throughout my career, I always considered it a success if the responses about my column came in with 50 percent thinking I should be sainted or at least be crowned king of all there is within eyesight, and the other 50 percent thinking I should be fired – using real flames.
Any more or less on each side and I was doing something wrong. Either I wasn’t covering the news the way it should be covered or I was being too aggressive and abrasive.
The lesson here is that although you have to develop a thick skin, don’t make it so thick that it grows over your ears and eyes. Sometimes, those that complain and protest have a valid point – listen to them and at least give their point of view some consideration.
These are just a few of the lessons that I have learned over the years. The way I see it, the day one quits learning should be the day they lower you into the grave.
Who knows after that?