A Career in Journalism

A Career in Journalism

Could my adventures in journalism, 51 years and counting, been launched by a giant puffball (Calvatia gigantea). It’s as good an explanation as any.

My neighbor and fellow fifth grader, Willie Harmon, and I stumbled upon this phenomenal fungus in the “wilds” of suburban Long Island. It took all four hands to collect the shape-shifting specimen, which was larger than a microwave oven, but quite giggly. When we squeezed it a mushroom cloud of spores whooshed into our faces. We carried it home gingerly, in a crabwalk lockstep, to show our parents.

My mother knew a good story when it landed in her lap—She edited the newsletter for the school where she taught English. She alerted the weekly broadsheet, The Long-Islander, which sent a photographer.

Willie and I thought that this was, in the jargon of the late 1950s, “the most.” That week we were instant celebrities at Nathan Hale School. The power of the press has stuck with me ever since.

My parents subscribed to two daily newspapers: The New York Times in the morning and Newsday in the evening, as well as the Long-Islander. I went straight to the sports pages to see how Willie Mays was doing.

In the summers I delivered this august newspaper, in Madison, where my grandparents had a beach cottage, and I also helped my brothers peddle the bulky New York papers on Sundays. We pedaled in shifts unless my father was there with the station wagon.

I began to read the tabloid front pages, which often featured British sex scandals, a bathing beauty on page 3, and domestic traumas, such as the untimely death of soul singer Sam Cooke. There were more than half a dozen New York City dailies in the early 1960s, and Hartford had two, this one and the Hartford Times, which passed away in 1976.

I got bitten a time or two on my paper route by free-range dogs, which were rife circa 1960. One little nipper belonged to John Bailey, who was credited with helping John F. Kennedy capture the White House. My family was solidly Democratic, so I kept pedaling and let it go. It was only a beagle.

After those experiences I did my best to master English, although spelling remains an ongoing challenge. My mother had me in her eighth grade English class, a burden no parent should have to bear. Early on in my reporting career, I wrote a news story about garden clubbers “prooning” and “wedding” about the town green. The ladies were appalled.

It wasn’t until I graduated from college that journalism reappeared front and center. By then I could write a passable English sentence—declarative, interrogative, imperative, etc.—but that was about the extent of my talents.

My first newspaper job was as an ad salesman for a New Hampshire weekly, the weakest link in a chain; it had paltry ambitions and a longtime vacancy in its editor’s chair. Since I was pathetic at sales, they kicked me upstairs to edit this ailing journal. The Pittsfield News is no more, as are several other publications I have written for.

After six months up north, I decided that I had mastered the profession, and migrated to Connecticut, where with friends I helped launch a new weekly newspaper out of thin air: The Gazette of Old Lyme. My father, who worked in publishing, was aghast at my career path.

Soon, so were my partners and me. We couldn’t pay the bills even though none of us was drawing a salary. We lived off the circulation income and care packages from home. We persevered, however. Our printer lowered his fees—I think he found our frenzied machinations amusing. We eventually bought another nearby weekly that was on life support, and for a time we could boast that we were the smallest newspaper chain in the free world.

We sold them after nearly a decade of hand-to-mouth journalism. We had learned by doing and even showed a modest profit toward the end. I still have the maiden issue, which features a misspelled word in a page one headline.

So, what does it all add up to? I have freelanced for the past 41 years, and my opuses have been published in newspapers great and small from sea to shining sea. One made it to Europe. I also edited the East Haddam News in recent years, a fairly new weekly that has paid its bills from day one. I now write its nature column, Wild Things, and they pay me, which isn’t the case with many larger publications today.

Over the decades I have interviewed senators and hockey players, mayors and novelists, naturalists and Pulitzer Prize winners, a first lady, farmers, and just plain folks, such as a country doctor who would accept sacks of potatoes as payment for his house calls. Remember those?

I am not sure I changed anyone’s mind about anything. I have made a few people laugh, some others cry and angered more than a few. Before the advent of the Internet, I once received an anonymous typed letter from a reader who averred, in all caps, “YOU ARE A HORSE’S ASS! She or he was well within the margin of error.

I am most proud of bringing attention to people for whom attention should be paid, such as the woman who ran the neighborhood country store for decades and curated local history in the bargain. The school bus would stop there some afternoons to drop off children whom she would entertain until their parents could collect them. When the firehouse siren sounded at three in the morning, she would open the store and put the coffee on.

Newspapers have fallen on challenging times of late, which isn’t just troubling for them. It’s sad for the nation. They are not perfect, and many were slow to jump on the digital bandwagon, but I submit that they remain far superior to the shrill nonsense that is flooding social media and many digital platforms. They offer actual facts and more than one perspective, which demands that readers think a little.

But sadly, we have become lazy and biased news consumers of late. Too many of us just want to read or watch what reinforces what we already believe or foments the joys of being continually outraged. It’s not a recipe for a happy future. As President Abraham Lincoln warned in another time of severe partisanship: “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”