Thirty years ago this Memorial Day, I began working as a journalist for the then-Chattanooga News-Free Press.
I wasn’t sure what I was getting into, only that I wanted to be a writer after having admired novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald and newspaper columnist Lewis Grizzard while at the University of Georgia getting a geography degree.
Well, 30 years have passed and I am still greatly enjoying the rewards of media writing. And along the way, I have also regularly had to be a reporter covering all types of topics. That, too, has been fulfilling in a different sort of way.
When I was able to get on at the Free Press back in 1984, the requirements were not necessarily that you had to have worked fulltime at a smaller paper, interned at another one and written for your college paper, as is likely the case today.
No, then editor Lee Anderson simply liked reporters whose personalities he felt comfortable with after interviewing them. And if you happened to have had some connection with him either through the schools or church you attended, your family, or your general outlook on life, that was a bonus.
But it all seemed to work out well and created a surprisingly diverse group of reporters, or at least personalities.
Among them when I arrived in 1984 were summer college intern Pete Austin, city hall reporter J.B. Collins, church editor Steven Epley, federal court reporter Ronnie Moore, police reporter Dan Narron, political writer Jeff Powell, health reporter Chris Vass, business editor John Vass, state editor Tom Turner, county government and courts reporter John Wilson, and general assignment reporters Jim Ashley, George Brown, Van Henderson and David Miller. Mike Finn and Mike Pare would join the newsroom within a couple of months of me.
Julius Parker was the city editor, while Buddy Houts and Irby Park were the assistant city editors.
There were also about 10 or so lifestyle department writers and editors under Helen Exum, 10 to 12 sports writers and editors under Roy Exum, and about 10 news copy editors under Stanton Palmer. It was definitely a big staff in those days when publisher Roy McDonald was not afraid to have a big paper with lots of local stories and pictures to draw subscribers.
I remember being very nervous when I reported on that Memorial Day, which was May 28. That weekend had already been eventful, as I had participated in the wedding of my longtime friend, Kurt Schmissrauter, to Julie Blaes two days before.
Mr. Anderson had told me to come into work about 7:30 a.m. that Monday morning, even though everyone else came in about 6. Well, when I arrived, the holiday edition deadline had already passed, if that reveals how much they were counting on me that first day.
Mr. Anderson then took me to the newsroom to meet assistant city editor Buddy Houts, who had friendly reporter Van Henderson work with me for a few minutes. I sat down next to Van, thinking he was going to show me the life of being a real journalist.
It took me about 15 minutes to realize he was teaching me how to type the tri-state obituaries – a tedious chore – so that he would no longer have to do them. Well, I guess you have to start somewhere!
Within a week or 10 days, however, I was given an opportunity to write my first byline story – a feature on a woman named Maude Jane Cox, who was turning 90 years old. I remember it was fun interviewing her, and I spent an hour or so at home that night trying to think of the perfect lead to the story.
I probably should not have spent so much time on it, as I believe one of the editors changed the lead, although maybe only slightly.
But I was thrilled to see my first byline article – which I realized was called a story in newspaper vernacular.
Interested more in the craft of writing, I gravitated toward being a feature writer, and also became interested in topics of local history – due in part to a University of Georgia history professor who made the subject come alive.
I think the editors would have probably preferred me being a little more of a hard-news type of reporter, since I was in the newsroom. So, after I had been there about a year, they started sending me down to sit in on city court for an hour or two every day and come back with some interesting stories. It was on the second floor of the since-revamped building where the Chattanooga City Council now meets.
I think the standard line the accused would utter to Judges John Taylor and Bill Cox over his or her arrest was, “Judge, I promise I will never drink again.”
I went on to be the police and fire reporter for a year or so, but always gravitated back toward being a feature writer at heart. The police and fire media liaisons at the time I was on the beat, incidentally, were future Chattanooga Police Chief Freeman Cooper and future County Mayor Jim Coppinger, respectively.
Well, 30 years have passed and I am continuing as a freelance sports, news and feature writer for the Knoxville News Sentinel in Knoxville, where I live now, as well as for chattanoogan.com and the Mountain Mirror. I certainly still enjoy the couple of times a month or so when I come down to interview someone in Chattanooga or collect some information while visiting my father, Dr. Wayne Shearer.
It is always like old home week. And I try to always keep the Lee Anderson philosophy of being a fair reporter in mind.
In many ways, the reporter in me has grown in the last seven or eight years. Recently, for example, I had an opportunity to interview former Olympic figure skating medalist Michelle Kwan along with several other people.
I was quite aware that she had missed out on getting a gold medal twice while losing to younger American skaters in 1998 and 2002. That is all I could think about while others were asking her some questions about why she was in Knoxville, etc.
Finally, I asked her if it bothered her that she did not quite win a gold medal.
She gave me a diplomatic answer while smiling, and it made for a much richer story.
Mike Wallace of “60 Minutes” and probably Mr. Anderson would have been proud of me, and hopefully it was a fair question and did not embarrass her.
Since 1984, I have continued in some form of print journalism, even while being able to write stories only periodically while teaching public high school fulltime from 2003-06.
I have also dabbled a little in audio journalism for fun, and have even wanted to learn about shooting video, since I have picked up on the hobby of taking still photographs during my years as a journalist.
“Printer’s ink” has remained in my system all these years and I still get a sense of excitement over seeing my byline story – especially if it has managed to make it past some picky editors with minimal editing.
Sometimes I feel guilty that I am writing for personal satisfaction as much as anything, but maybe that is an OK reward since I have not become materialistically rich in this business.
Another aspect of my work I enjoy is that I am a journalistic purist, and don’t think I would care for public relations writing or even working for a news firm with a slanted agenda.
With more media sites devoted to the latter, the world of news has definitely changed a lot. Also, the printed paper seems to be in danger, as most people under 40 seem to turn to websites or other sources for their news. TV news stations have plenty of competition these days as well.
It’s a changing world, but my inward enthusiasm over journalism writing has thankfully remained the same – even after 30 years.