One hazard of working at a small-town paper? Sometimes they put you in the paper to torture you. Here I am at the Old Fiddlers Reunion in Athens, two-stepping with an 82-year-old named G.W. Odom. Yes, he was a good dancer.
People often ask how I ended up a newspaper reporter.
Usually they want to know this because their kid is about to major in journalism, and they want some career advice or knowledge of the secret handshake.
I haven’t learned the handshake yet, but my advice to fledgling reporters is to be willing to start small.
My first job out of college was at the Athens Daily Review. When I tell people this, they get very excited and think I am talking about the college town Athens, Ga., home of the B-52s.
No friends, I am talking about Athens, Texas, home of the Black-Eyed Pea Cook-Off. (No, not those Black-Eyed Peas. The lowercase kind that you eat). I had an awesome editor who worked his way through college playing cards and sat next to a reporter who was so paranoid about someone (the police? the FBI?) finding and reading his notebooks that he would tear them into tiny shreds and throw them away in various trash cans around town.
There is no kind of strange like East Texas strange.
After working in Athens, I joined the staff of the nearby Tyler Morning Telegraph.
Let me tell you, East Texas has a different festival every weekend, and I covered every freaking one of them. I also covered courts and county government, which meant that I hung out at the courthouse all day running between various murder trials and the county commissioners’ court meetings.
Some of my favorite stories I covered in my first years out of J-school include a feature about a blind mechanic, a story about a guy who had a museum full of millions of McDonald’s toys and the arrest of white supremacist Bobby Frank Cherry, who was later convicted of murder for his roll in the 1963 Birmingham, Ala. church bombing that killed four little girls.
There are fantastic stories all around us. You don’t have to start at the New York Times to find them. If you work at smaller papers, you’ll crank out plenty of boring articles. No doubt about it. But you’ll also have the chance to write about the Bobby Frank Cherrys of the world. It’s great training ground.
It’s never been easy to find a job or internship in journalism, and it has gotten harder recently. Papers have cut staffs deeply and painfully. But if it’s been a dream of yours to join the ink-stained wretches of the world, don’t give up. I can’t recommend the newspaper life enough.