Archive for the ‘The job’ 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.

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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.

Looking through different eyes.

Posted: September 19, 2010 in The job

Ever since I got my new phone, I’ve become a little different as a reporter.

I’m a writer, so I often think in words, using images as a guide. Go to something — press conference, crime scene, someone’s office or house — and translate what I’m looking at into pages and pages of scribbles in my notebook.

But I’d been wanting something to compare to my instant impression, a different, removed second opinion on the image. So I’ve been taking more pictures. Just for myself as I write.

I still write down the phrases that leap to mind as I’m looking at something, still take notes, but I take photos, too, as a reference for later, a check on my own perspective.

I did this a few times with the crappy camera on my old BlackBerry. Helped, but not like I’d hoped.

Sometimes it’s just a larger sense of the scene, like with this one.

But then came this story last week. I stumbled across it and figured whatever happened would be something worth writing about. A little slice of daily life and struggle.

When I went out to the property, I made my usual notes. Then I added these:

It was one of two stories I wrote that day for the front of our local section.

I made time as I wrote this one to go back through the descriptions and phrases in my notebook and also to look back through my photos for reference. It made my descriptions sharper in the story and, I’d like to think, a little more vivid. All because I had something with which I could challenge and refresh my memory and perspective.

Because you’re you.

Posted: September 8, 2010 in The job

An editor sent me an e-mail last week and told me one of my two stories that day was going to run on the front page.

I didn’t believe him.

It was a fine story, but there wasn’t much I had to add to the basics — charges in a year-old killing on the side of a freeway. Documents were sealed, investigators not talking, family not interested in interviews.

I’d had better days and done better work.

The editor came over to my desk.

“I shouldn’t tell you this,” the editor said. “I think it’s running out front because you’re the one writing it.”

How ’bout that.

The week before I’d had a story run on the front because of my work tracking it down.

This wasn’t like that. But who am I to turn down an A1 story?

The search for ‘Lunch Meat.’

Posted: August 25, 2010 in The job

Even people who want to be found aren’t always easy to find.

When the cops made an arrest in a 15-year-old homicide on Monday, I didn’t have any luck finding someone from the dead guy’s family.

Dead guy’s nickname — right there on the original 1995 police report — was “Lunch Meat.” So as much as I wanted to get the story about the family’s reaction to an actual arrest in a case they thought was long-mothballed, I needed to know how anyone in their right mind goes through life with a nickname like Lunch Meat.

Part of me wished I was here in 1995 to have written a new lede on the homicide story: “You know what doesn’t go with Lunch Meat — hot lead.” But that could be because I read too much of the New York tabloids. Look at what I named this site, after all.

I started with the paper’s archives and found his obituary. Plenty of family names in there. But mostly common names, and no hometowns. And after 15 years, who knows where they are, whether they married or divorced, whether they’re living. Still, enough to get started.

Phone book — no help. Online phone books — no help. Voter registration — a little bit, but in the end not much.

Court records — now we’re getting somewhere.

There wasn’t much in criminal or domestic-relations records, but I found what appeared to be one sister’s married name and foreclosure proceedings against another elsewhere. Of course, the latter just meant the address I had probably wasn’t good anymore.

Then I stumbled across guardianship papers. Lunch Meat’s real name was Larry Robinson Jr. — meaning there was a Larry Robinson Sr. out there somewhere. The obit listed one name I found in the custody papers when her son — Larry Robinson — petitioned to be her guardian and listed his address. No phone number, though.

A bit of a long shot, not least because the records were a few years old. But it was in the same area where the sisters lived at one time or another and I figured it was worth a short drive to check it out.

I pulled up outside and parked. Knocked on the door.

“Yes?” a man answered.

“I’m looking for Larry Robinson Sr.,” I said. “I heard about the break in your son’s case and was hoping we could talk a little.”

“Oh yes,” he said. “I’d like that.”

I had found him.

He told me he had hoped to have an opportunity to talk with a reporter but didn’t know how to go about finding one. He planned to go to the bail hearing for the person the cops arrested, but didn’t. He said he was glad I came.

I learned quickly how much he hated his son’s nickname — though he couldn’t stop it from appearing on the funeral program.

No idea what it meant, though. Just knew his son’s friends bestowed it and his son embraced it.

It continues to be a mystery — to us both.

We talked for a while in the shade next to his house, then went over to the cemetery nearby where his son was buried and talked some more.

Driving back to work, I knew I had one of my favorite things: a front-page story made so only because of the effort I put into it. Just had to wait for the late budget meeting to confirm it.

That was a good day’s work.

Sweating for a story.

Posted: August 7, 2010 in The job

It was only 85 degrees. That’s what my phone told me. But I watched a photographer sweat through both of his shirts and a detective dripping like a high school wrestler trying to make weight. My glasses slipped toward the end of my nose.

Hot means something different in the South. This is the first place I have lived where it’s not a random curiosity when you find yourself drenched in sweat just standing still.

It wasn’t even 9 a.m.

This was one of Little Rock’s nicest neighborhoods. The kind of place where nothing violent or strange happens — until it spectacularly does. Crime-scene tape and a coroner’s van in a driveway definitely qualify as out of the ordinary.

This was the same neighborhood where perhaps the most incredible killing in Arkansas history happened. This one.

This wasn’t as insane a thing as that. Murder-suicide. He was 81, she 75, which already makes it a little odd. Nobody at first wanted to tell me the dead people’s names, so I called up the assessor’s records for the house on my phone and showed the owner’s name to someone who might be helpful.

Non-verbal confirmation. Much obliged.

I pulled their marriage license and found they had just passed their 20th anniversary. A little more checking and it appeared this might be a somebody, a man who had co-owned and helped run a newspaper not far away during its glory years. Even had a patent for a printing-press add-on he invented.

So I dug and I called and I dug and I called.

Came up finally with this story.

After it ran, I got a very nice e-mail from my boss’ boss telling me how much the executive editor liked it — the reporting and the writing. And I got a note saying the same from the projects editor. And two or three others like them.

I’ll take that. Means it was all worth the sweat. Good times.

Being there.

Posted: July 14, 2010 in The job

Monday brought a story about a young woman — smart, promising — stabbed and then set on fire. With Tuesday came a story about a woman who said her daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend whacked her in the head with a golf club, bound her wrists and ankles, gagged her, rolled her up in a quilt, then tossed her into the trunk of her own car for a long drive and a toss over a guardrail in a rural county.

Fun, I know.

Both stories are about something awful. They even read sort of the same: accusation, dry recitation of criminal charges, details, context and reaction. But they are stunningly different to put together. In only one of these stories is a lengthy interview with the person these things actually happened to.

In the Monday story, the grisly details come from a detective’s report to her boss after arresting a suspect and the original incident report. Anything else — about the woman having been a cheerleader, majoring in broadcast journalism, planning to join the Air Force as an officer, how she might have known the dude in custody — comes from other people. Maybe it’s deep and moving and illuminating, but they can’t tell it to me like she would have.

They can’t tell me what happened to her.

The Tuesday story is different. I went to that woman’s house. I saw the dried blood clinging like rust to her fingers. I saw her swollen face and the ghosts of the spots of blood that still colored her gray hair where the golf club split her head. She could tell me herself about her relationship with her daughter and this boyfriend.

She could tell me what happened to her.

And she did. I could hear her pause or cry or catch herself or think to choose certain words. I was right there on the couch next to her overstuffed recliner.

That makes it a different story, both in the reporting and the writing. Makes it different for me, too, because I’m that much closer to what happened. The person’s pain — physical, mental, etc. — is not an assumption I have to make. It’s right there in front of me.

I wonder how much even close readers of these stories think about distinctions like that. I probably don’t think about them often enough.