Archive for the ‘Meta’ Category

It worked.

Posted: October 9, 2011 in Meta, The biz, The job

One year ago this Saturday, I walked out of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for the last time as an employee. I quit. It had been three and a half years and it was time.

After a week off, which was busy enough it didn’t really count as a week off, I got in my car and drove to Pittsburgh. No job. No place of my own. Not even my wife – she stayed in Little Rock to keep working while I tried to find enough freelance work that we didn’t go immediately broke.

Our friend Brian generously let me use a spare room in his house. All I could tell him was it might be a couple months. But I really didn’t know. I had some freelance work lined up and was confident I could get more, hoping my little food site, Eatsburgh, could help me along doing some different types of work than I had done professionally. But I really didn’t know.

The Democrat-Gazette had laid off my wife, but not me, in May 2009. The next day, I sent an email to a man I didn’t know, the assistant managing editor for local news at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. We were going to be in Pittsburgh in a couple weeks for her cousin’s wedding. So I was going to have a suit with me already. Would he mind taking a look at some of my work and meeting with me?

Before that we toyed with the idea of moving to Pittsburgh. Tossed it around like a lazy game of Frisbee. She grew up not far away and every time we visited, I liked the city a little more. Dense, old, often overlooked but comfortable and fun. When she lost her job, that was the motivation we needed to get serious.

Editor said the P-G wasn’t hiring. I said I knew that but didn’t know anyone in journalism in Pittsburgh and thought it might be nice to get to know each other. If he could make time.

He did. Brought the city editor with him and promised me half an hour. That became two hours. He introduced me to the executive editor. We all sort of hit it off.

And we stayed in touch. By email, mostly, but if I wrote a new story I thought they should see, I sent it along. If I came to town and hadn’t talked to them in a while, I’d drop off a fresh resume and clips, maybe with a handwritten note inside. The executive editor came to Little Rock to give a talk. I made sure I was there. Those kinds of things.

I tried the normal way of moving to a new city: applying for jobs there, hoping I get one and it comes with moving expenses. I’d been a finalist for a reporting job at not the P-G at one point – they even flew me up for interviews – but it didn’t work out.

It would have to happen a different way.

And then I moved. Even as their newsroom went through another round of staff buyouts, they found room in their freelance budget to toss me work. Mixed in with assignments from other publications, it kind of worked. It was enough.

We found an apartment we couldn’t turn down in late December in the Mexican War Streets on the city’s North Side. My wife quit her job in February. Then we were both out of full-time work. I freelanced. She temped. We scraped by.

I got a job writing for Gas Business Briefing, an online business publication covering the natural-gas industry in North America and based on the South Side of Pittsburgh. The P-G had an indirect role in that. The city editor met someone at a party who worked for a sister publication to the Briefing and put us in touch. When this job came open, my new friend was able to put in a word.

Still did some freelancing. Not long afterward, my wife found full-time work, too, as editor of one of AOL’s Patch websites.

Things were OK. Our plan mostly worked. We were here. We were employed in journalism.

And then the company that owned Gas Business Briefing got sold in July, subsumed into a large unit of a massive global company. The four of us at the Briefing – an editor who also reported, two reporters and a sales person – were not the main asset in the deal. The way we covered the gas industry didn’t have an obvious fit with the new company.

Upheaval. Again. I asked around among friends if they knew of jobs that might come open in the near future. Got some truly good leads. I told my boss I’d started looking around and that I’d feel stupid not to. He understood and encouraged me. He couldn’t make any promises about my future in particular, let alone ours as a publication.

I didn’t go out of my way to chat up anyone at the P-G. Didn’t mention the job situation to them. By then we’d known each other more than two years. They knew where to find me. And my style of gentle persistence didn’t much fit with bugging them just because my circumstances had changed. I knew they liked me. They knew I liked them. If we could work something out, the situation wasn’t waiting on me to initiate it.

So there I am sitting at work and my phone buzzes with an email. It’s from that first P-G editor.

“You gotta updated resume, big man?”

That’s it. That’s the whole email. That’s all it said.

That’s the closest they’d ever come to formally talking to me about a full-time job. We traded emails and he asked if I’d considered being an editor. Breaking-news editor in particular.

Kind of perfect timing, actually. I’d been thinking about that a lot. And breaking news, if you’ve poked around this site at all, is a bit of a sweet spot for me professionally.

The job sounded like a good fit. It wasn’t just any job. Good gig, a lot of work on the website, plus a seat at the table for digital initiatives and social media.

I went in for interviews all day on a Tuesday in September. I wore the same suit I’d worn the first time I went in there to meet them for the first time. I’m not quite that superstitious, but that’s how it worked out and I thought it was kind of funny.

They told me I should hear something by the end of the next week. My phone rang at work the next Tuesday – early for their timeline.

It was the executive editor and the managing editor on speakerphone. I’ve been around long enough that that was enough to tell me what this call was going to be. A job offer. I about fell down in the hall outside the Briefing office.

“So, what are you planning to do the rest of your life?”

The executive editor’s ice-breaker. I about fell down again.

It was a good offer for a good job at a good newspaper. But it was so much more than that. It was relief. It was joy. It was hell-yeah-ness.

It meant everything worked. Our plan to move here with no jobs and build something from scratch – it all worked. The uncertainty – worth it. The week we had 39 cents in our bank account – worth it.

I start work tomorrow at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. And I can’t wait to see what happens next.


Getting there.

Posted: December 1, 2010 in Meta, The job

It’s been a month. A not-bad month.

I’ve written some little things here and there — for money, even — and Eatsburgh is doing better than I could have hoped. I’m lucky, too, to also have the promise of more work ahead.

Today — this morning — felt the best so far. This piece on ghost bikes ran, sort of the first story I’ve done here that felt right or natural, one of the kinds of stories I really like to do.

Made the front page of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s website:

That's the headline, there at the bottom right

In print, it was on the front of their features section:

The "Star Wars" view.

Being from Portland, the idea of ghost bikes is nothing new. Here in Pittsburgh, they existed once, vanished, and have recently begun showing up again. An interesting thing.

Every story I came across in my research published in traditional media was set up to be emotional. Started with a family member or two of a dead rider. Talked a lot about how they felt.

Or it began with a melodramatic description of the bikes. It’s a bike. Stripped down and painted white. Let’s not be so into ourselves as writers we make them into something they’re not.

But those family members are not the ones who make and place the bikes. That’s what I was interested in. Why make one? What is it supposed to say? Who are the people who make them? What do they get out of doing it?

I tried to build the story from the street up with the people who do it. That’s where a story like this has value. Of course a family misses someone it loved. But why would someone outside the family make and install a memorial, then promise to maintain it?

Answer that, and there’s a story there.


Posted: October 21, 2010 in Meta

There’s a real chance I’m an idiot.

Two days after I last posted here, I took a leap. I resigned from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to move to Pittsburgh and freelance. My last day was Oct. 15 — coincidentally, my birthday.

That’s right. I gave up a secure job with steady paychecks and institutional heft and support to go try something on my own. Something far less certain.

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It’s not a move I make cold. I’ve been networking in Pittsburgh for a while now. I know a few people and they know a few more.

This is a plan that can work. I think.

The focus of this site will change a bit as I write about different things as I get assignments and make pitches — less law-enforcement, I would imagine — and try to make a real go of this. I’ve already set up one other site as well, called Eatsburgh. Those of you who know me know how much I like food, whether eating or cooking or finding ingredients or nice little spots.

All right, then. Here we go.

My goodbye email to my colleagues:

So, 1,243 days and something like 440,000 words after beginning as an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter, I move on to the next thing.

I got everything I wanted when I was first hired as a night cops reporter, working Tuesday through Saturday. Consistency, discipline, an old-school newsroom, a place that still thought of itself as a newspaper first, people around me I could learn from and an opportunity to challenge myself and get better.

I think I have.

I hope I have. No getting around the reporter’s latent insecurity.

Because people in this building responded well to my work, I got a day shift and normal-people days off. They rather generously let me write an average of about 2,500 words a week in their newspaper — about bad cops, good cops, bad guys, state police Taser use, the struggles of Baring Cross. One story helped add two men killed in 1887 to state and national law-enforcement officers’ memorials. Another meant a police officer diagnosed with PTSD got proper benefits after having been denied them.

There was even one story about kitten fetuses. I mean, really.

A special note of thanks to my editor, Jack Mitchell, who perhaps more often than he should have let me go down my own road to get a story.

Somewhere north of 15 percent of the articles I wrote or contributed to ran on Page One. And people all around this state read those stories — really read them. No mean thing, that.

OK. No more math.

The next thing for me is Pittsburgh, my wife’s ancestral homeland. Look me up — — and buy me a drink I may not be able to afford on my own should you ever find yourself nearby.

Then I’ll even let you tell me what a Yankee I am. (Though not a Yankees fan. They’re evil.)

All best,



Posted: September 19, 2010 in Meta, The biz

And while I’m thinking of it, what’s a better image for reporting than my silhouette shrouding a No Trespassing sign on some dude’s property?

You’re welcome.

Skiff made of paper.

Posted: June 13, 2010 in Meta, The job

You never know quite what to think when the executive editor’s assistant appears quietly and magically behind you.

This was a piece of good news. She came by to give me a couple certificates — Arkansas APME awards for spot news (second place; this-here story) and beat reporting (third place).

I’m not a big awards guy. It’s cool if I get them, but I don’t usually seek them out. I mean, hell, it’s not like I just got a MacArthur grant or a Polk or a Livingston or a Pulitzer. Even though we mentioned all our staff awards in the paper, I can pretty much guarantee you I’m the only one who knows I got these.

OK — me and the executive editor’s assistant.

But there’s something about these, taken together, that made me feel good. Better-than-normal good.

It’s one thing to get recognized for a single story. Everybody has a good day. The beat-reporting award at least implies consistency, quality over time. Which is what it’s really about. Not just what’s in the paper today. What’s in the paper on any given day. Something deep or surprising or new — but good.

I must say, among the best times to be a scanner-chasing day-shift cops reporter is election day.

I’m in early, everyone else comes in late and is usually distracted. And generally, people out on the streets behave. Cops are quiet, bad guys are quiet — and then I go home.

It’s also the rare day that lots of other people in the newsroom are busier than I am.

Weird. Good weird. But weird.


Posted: June 4, 2010 in Meta

So, this is not strictly journalism-related. But a journalist wrote it — which surely counts for something.

My friend Matt Davis was in town yesterday on his way to New Orleans, where he’s setting up shop as a freelancer.

He and his wonderful wife, Sue, like to eat. I like to cook. It works out. It’s so much more fun to cook for people who love food and will try nearly anything.

I came out of the kitchen at one point and set these on the table. Pickled cherries I made. An Armagnac duck sausage I didn’t make. And a little homemade mustard.

Matt got his camera. (He does that.) He made it look all fancy. (He does that, too. There’s really no stopping him.) I’m just glad they liked it.

Among the first things Matt said to me this morning: "I blogged about your cherries, mate."

Cooking for me is an outlet. Some people fish or make model planes or play World of Warcraft. I cook.

And I don’t much care for recipes, except as guidance. I’d never pickled cherries before last week. I went online, read a couple dozen recipes, then made one up based on what I liked. I did something similar a year or two ago for what has become one of my most-remembered creations: a pork tenderloin glazed in a chocolate sauce.

I’ve been cooking enough lately that it’s almost like when I write a story at work. I can see in my head how the flavors go together, can tell if there’s too much of something or not enough, or whether there’s something missing altogether. Just like with words.

Maybe that’s weird. It makes sense in my head. I guess as long as what makes sense in my head makes sense in the mouths of my guests, we’re all good.