“From the time I learned to read I wanted to write.” Web Miller.
In the summer of my 15th year I was a bellboy and dish washer at a century old inn in Great Barrington, Mass. And my first time away from home proved a heady brew indeed.
That’s when I discovered a treasure trove in The Chalet’s dusty attic.
It was a box full of books. One of which would change my life forever.
“I Found No Peace” was Webb Miller’s 1936 account of his life as a United Press International reporter during the first turbulent decades of that tumultuous century.
In the course of his all too short career – Miller died in an auto accident during the London blackout – this “timid Pennsylvania farm boy” covered hangings in Chicago, accompanied Black Jack Pershing on the pursuit of Pancho Villa, tread the killing fields of countless wars and interviewed the likes of Hitler and Gandhi.
From the time I closed the stained orange covers on the yellowed pages of Miller’s life I never wanted to do anything but newspapering.
In 1976 I found a berth at the Gainesville Sun, first as higher education writer and then Tallahassee bureau chief before settling into a 30-year stint as editorial page editor.
(Fun fact: Did you know that both of the Sun’s Pulitzer Prizes were for editorial writing? And no, I didn’t win either of them.)
As editorial page editor I took to heart Meg Greenfield’s declaration: “We have a license to get into the daily argument of life,” the late Washington Post editorialist insisted.
With the Sun’s license I argued for unified local government and against endless city-county wars. For restoration of the Ocklawaha River and against turning Gainesville streets into urban stroads. For gun control and against the death penalty.
And every day of the week – 365 days a year – The Sun provided space for anyone who disagreed with its editorial positions to make their own case.
Because a one-sided argument is no argument at all.
It breaks my heart to see the Sun and other newspapers opt out of the “argument of daily life” by reducing or eliminating editorial and oped pages. The only other “public forum” out there is a social media jungle that is as deceptive as it is treacherous.
All that said, I never regretted a single mile of my life’s newspapering journey.
I only take this stroll down memory lane to make a couple of points.
First, that I found my destiny in a book. And if this 74-year old man has any useful advice for young people it is simply this: Read, read, read, read and read some more.
Believe me, you will find your life in there somewhere.
And the second thing is that I believe in newspapers. On paper or on-line, it makes no difference to me.
Listen, a newspaper is nothing short of a daily miracle. Each and every day we start from scratch and attempt, with varying degrees of success, to give readers some insight into the world around them. From what’s happening in our own neighborhoods to who is doing what to who in the great halls of power and why all of that matters.
Still, I honestly don’t know what I would tell a young person today who is considering a career in newspapers.
Because I had the best of it.
I came into the profession just after a couple of young reporters broke the Watergate story and gave journalism a good name.
I retired about a year after the New York Times sold The Sun. And just as newspapers around the country were consolidating, laying off staff, reducing content and growing slimmer by the day.
Or closing their doors altogether.
It’s not that there aren’t jobs in newspapering today. But the jobs that remain often do not provide young journalists with the security and wherewithal to support a family – or to even stay in any one place long enough to actually make a difference.
I understand the economic, political and social forces that are impacting the viability of newspapers. I point no fingers at villains and continue to hope that there are heroes out there who will find a way for young journalists to continue to do their jobs in the face of seemingly intractable odds.
Local news is particularly vulnerable in these uncertain times. The day when local newspapers would routinely field a city reporter, county reporter, police and courts reporter, environmental writer, sports staff, photographers and graphic artists and so on are likely gone for good.
The new local news environment is more likely to consist of one or two editors and a handful of reporters, all of them scrambling to keep up with whatever’s breaking at the moment. The Sun’s sterling reportage on deceptive election campaign ads is testament to what a few dedicated reporters can still get done.
Listen, I wish I had the answers. Perhaps the future of local news reporting lies in non-profits. Even so, I find it hard to imagine a Gainesville without the Gainesville Sun, and I hope that never comes to pass.
Because The Sun was never just my job. It was my life’s passion.
Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at www.floridavelocipede.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org