Roughly three months before I walked into my first class at American University in 1972, five men were arrested trying to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate hotel. Two years later, Richard Nixon would become the first U.S. president to resign.
How could you be a communications major in Washington during Watergate and not wind up a journalist? By junior year, I was features editor of the college paper. As a senior, I interned with The Baltimore Sun’s Washington Bureau. Two weeks after graduation, I landed my first job: high school sports reporter with the Naples (FL) Daily News.
It is to Naples that I will be returning on Sept. 6 to promote my new novel, Bootlicker, at the Southern Independent Booksellers Association (SIBA) trade conference.
A lot has happened in the 34 years since I left my first job.
After Naples, I began covering news at the Lakeland Ledger, eventually catching the attention of The Tampa Tribune. In 1985, my work earned me the paper’s coveted Washington bureau, where I stayed until switching to the same job for the Charleston (SC) Post-Courier. All told, I worked more than 25 years for Southern newspapers, bringing a New York perspective to stories about everything from Strom Thurmond to the Confederate flag.
The economic troubles that plague newspapers today grabbed hold of Charleston about 10 years ago, and the execs decided they didn’t need a Washington reporter. I wound up a speechwriter at a federal agency, and later moved on to manage the agency’s web and social media teams. Somewhere in there I also returned to the classroom for a Masters in fiction from Johns Hopkins University.
But I’ve never forgotten that first job or my first boss, Tom Rife. We were a two-man sports staff, which meant doing everything from covering pro football to local tennis, from taking photos (with film cameras) to writing headlines, and from laying out pages to cultivating sources. My biggest story was local star JoAnne Russell’s doubles championship at Wimbledon. She and Helen Gourlay Cawley beat the renowned Chris Evert and Rosie Casals in the first round, and top-ranked Martina Navratilova and Betty Stove in the finals. Wow!
I also remember a fierce argument with the Naples High football coach, who felt the local paper should be more cheerleader, less critic. Later, when I was reporting from Washington, the local congressmen I covered would make the same argument.
More significant was that over the years I became frustrated with writing stories to fit the ever dwindling daily news hole. I wanted more space, and to try building anticipation and developing characters instead of flooding the first two paragraphs with all the news. Why became more important to me than the other 5 Ws.
That’s why I joined the Hopkins program and started writing fiction. Bootlicker is a prequel to my first novel, Bella. Today I also blog regularly about my adventures in self-publishing, and am busy on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and YouTube.
I can’t imagine how many words I’ve written over the years, but the first were at a small paper in Naples, where I knew no one and no one knew me. I’m grateful they gave me a chance, and hopeful that the few who are still around from those days will have time to visit. I’d like to thank them for setting the foundation that has allowed me to make a living all these years doing what I love most.
What lessons have you carried forward from your first job?