Sometimes I miss working in journalism. Not the high profile sniping that we read in the newspapers or the reports of political shenanigans, though that was often fun to write about. No. I miss the every-day conversations with people that led to intriguing stories about the lives of everyday people.
It’s been almost 20 years, but I still recall meeting the man who’s mind’s eye could still see his former surroundings of 50 years earlier on that Sunday morning that will live in infamy for the United States. It wasn’t the interview itself that I remember as much as the look in his eyes as he looked upward and seemed to replay the scenes in his mind’s eye as he recalled a quiet Sunday morning at Kaneohe Naval Air Station before all hell broke loose. I only wish I had my notes, a copy of the audio tape and a copy of the newspaper that reported his story on the 50th anniversary of Japan’s attack on US forces Dec. 7, 1941.
There were the two unsuccessful attempts to interview two other World War II veterans after my interview with the old farmer from Canby, California. Both were over the phone. Both were equally disappointing but understandable. One was with a man I knew who flew missions over Europe and adamantly refused to discuss or recall his story, the other was a man I’d never met, who hinted at his story but also refused to be interviewed. His reasons had little to do with his own desire to not relive what he did and saw during the war, but because he figured America wasn’t ready to hear his story about being a German U-Boat commander who’s first view of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty was through the crosshairs of the periscope on his German submarine.
Other people I’ll call every day folks I was able to interview or talk to over the years included the high school girl who as at a birthday party in East Germany when it was interrupted by the news that “the wall is down.” This foreign exchange student was actually quite articulate in her story, reporting that her whole life until that day was lived in a divided Germany, and that the person announcing the news at a birthday party full of teenagers was first thought to be nuts.
Then there was the other foreign exchange student who’s life as a white girl in South Africa included some interesting thoughts on apartheid. I also recall meeting a photographer for National Geographic magazine on assignment to Northeastern California. Some of his photos of local events and locations in rural Northeastern California later appeared in an edition of the magazine that I’ve long since misplaced. Aside from being at awe over his photographs, I found Joel Sartore to be very down to earth and easy to talk to.
I’ve been witness to horrific car crashes, massive forest fires, the rescue of a young couple and their baby after deciding that a winter shortcut across northern Nevada went woefully wrong, and police actions that left me wondering just how close to being in an all-out crossfire I could have been in had someone simply pulled a trigger. One of those photos I shot won me a National Newspaper Association award for spot news photography early in my career.
It makes me sad to see the state of American journalism where it is today. Publishers and editors have lost touch with the idea of local, community-based journalism and newspapers have died because both have lost track of what it takes to publish a perishable product that people truly want. I once joked that a publisher I once worked for would hurt himself picking up pennies while hundred dollar bills blew out the windows on a daily basis.
Sadly, it was a poor financial decision to choose journalism. My first newspaper job out of college paid me $250 per week before taxes. The most I ever made at a general circulation newspaper was $9 an hour. From what I understand today, local journalism paychecks haven’t changed much since I graduated journalism school in 1990. Nevertheless I’m thankful for my days as a print journalist. It afforded me access to locations I’d never have gone, the ability to see things I’d not otherwise have seen, allowed me to meet people I’d never have met, and allowed me to learn some valuable life lessons that stay with me today.