First Love? How ’bout the First Job?

Biggest story as rookie sports reporter: local star wins Wimbledon doubles in 1977

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?

15 Comments so far »

  1. Larry Lipman said,

    Wrote on August 17, 2012 @ 2:21 pm

    Steve:
    Our paths were similar and crossed often. I was working on a small newspaper in Frederick, Md. when Watergate occurred. I also worked in Lakeland (for the Orlando Sentinel) and we crossed paths in Tallahassee and again in Washington bureaus in the mid-1980s.

    Your experience in the journalism field shows clearly in “Bella.” You’ve been where your characters go and it shows in your writing. I’m very much looking forward to the successful release of “Bootlicker.”

    At that first newspaper job, as I’d walk out the door with my camera slung over my shoulder, the city editor would yell out these words of advice: “Kids and dogs!”

    [Reply]

    Steve Piacente Reply:

    Thanks, Larry; I know there’s a novel in you as well and look forward to reading it one day!

    [Reply]

  2. Tom Rife said,

    Wrote on August 17, 2012 @ 4:25 pm

    Out of total respect, I call you Mr. Piacente now, sir. I always sensed you would do great things in journalism and in life and you have followed through on your dreams and aspirations. It is just awesome to see how your path to success has taken shape. Congratulations!

    [Reply]

    Steve Piacente Reply:

    That’s beyond kind, Mr. Rife; anxious to catch up next month!

    [Reply]

  3. Wendell Cochran said,

    Wrote on August 17, 2012 @ 8:23 pm

    My first newspaper job was as a sports intern at the Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg, Va., in the summer of 1966. I had two semesters of college journalism under my belt and got the gig because I had once upon a time called in sports scores and game summaries from my high school baseball team.

    So the first night on the job (6 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift), I met the sports editor. We talked a bit and then he threw a stack of AP copy at me and announced, “I’m going to dinner, write headlines for these.” And he left, less than 15 minutes after I arrived. (He did come back).

    Dutifully, I started trying to write headlines. I had learned to “count” characters in my journalism class. (Younger readers have no idea what I’m talking about. Basically, each character has a value and only so many will fit into a column.) It was taking me a painfully long time, because I was trying to be careful.

    Across the room the managing editor was watching me over the top of his glasses. After a few minutes, he couldn’t stand it any longer. He walked over and demanded, “What the fuck are you doing?” Now, that was a word we didn’t say in my house (and one I still wouldn’t say in my mother’s house out of fear and respect). “Writing headlines,” I managed to say.

    With that, he grabbed a story, went to his typewriter, put a pink of half sheet paper in the machine with one twirl of his wrist, took a quick glance at the copy and proceeded to type: “Clack, clack, clack, ring, clack, clack clack, ring, clack, clack, clack.” One more twirl of the wrist and he handed me the copy. “Here,” he said. “Do it like that.”

    [Reply]

    Steve Piacente Reply:

    Oh for the good old days when we were oh so miserable, right Wendell? Thanks for dropping by and a great story.

    [Reply]

  4. Judy Boysha said,

    Wrote on August 18, 2012 @ 11:24 am

    My first job was oddly prophetic. I was a high school junior and looking for a way to fund my ever-increasing desire to spend money “hanging out” with friends. A rather involved application process landed me a coveted “you’re hired” from Six Flags Over Mid-America.

    When you show up for training, you have no idea what you’ll end up doing, only that you have a job. I was worried I would land in a food job … or worse … pushing a broom all day in the park. But it turns out they handed me a camera and pointed me to a kiosk right at the park’s entrance. I was the photo-on-a-button photographer. What a great gig! Taking pictures all day of smiling amusement park goers.

    At the time, my intent was to head off to college the following summer and become a Russian linguist. I’m not sure how much that photography job played a role, but I ended up a professional videographer instead.

    As a visual thinker, it was, no doubt, a wise decision and I am happier for it.

    [Reply]

    Steve Piacente Reply:

    Thanks for coming by, Judy. Selfishly speaking, the best part of your story is that the path you chose eventually led to us working together!

    [Reply]

  5. Angie said,

    Wrote on August 19, 2012 @ 11:26 pm

    Steve what a great post I really enjoyed it! Thank you for sharing I learned so much on my first job. I had no money no friends no relationship with Iowa… I was a stranger just trying to get by. Looking back at what I didn’t have it made me work harder… It made me focus on my work… So that one day I can move on to the next level and eventually make it back to Washington. I learned that I couldn’t do it alone and without mentors and supporters I wouldn’t be where I am today… That’s why now I do my best to pass it on.

    [Reply]

  6. Angie said,

    Wrote on August 19, 2012 @ 11:27 pm

    PS sorry for the typos I’m posting this with the help of Siri 🙂

    [Reply]

    Steve Piacente Reply:

    Send Siri to my class at AU, Angie; we’ll straighten her out! Thanks for coming by and sharing your story. Readers can learn more and follow Angie’s exploits for NBC4 at: http://ohmygoff.tv/about/

    [Reply]

  7. Dr. Beth Erickson said,

    Wrote on August 20, 2012 @ 9:16 pm

    Steve,

    As you know, I loved BOOTLICKER and have even recommended that my husbad read it, which he is doing.

    I am in the process of reading another novel by an unnamed author for possible consideration for my show. And I am forcing myself to keep at it. And that is a horrible way to read a book! Anyway, your writing and that of another Southern author, Michael Moore, have spoiled me.

    You write so well.

    Dr. Beth Erickson

    [Reply]

    Steve Piacente Reply:

    Thanks for the kind words and a very engaging conversation, Dr. Beth. I highly encourage readers to drop by and learn more about your site at drbetherickson.com!

    [Reply]

  8. Annette Mardis said,

    Wrote on August 26, 2012 @ 3:28 am

    Shortly after I started work as a features writer at the now-defunct Clearwater Sun, my first full-time journalism job, I was sent to write a story about an old house that had been converted into a social services facility. (I don’t event remember the purpose. It’s been 32 years since I wrote the story.) Anyway, in an attempt to be descriptive, I wrote how there may be cobwebs in the corners of the old house, but the people getting help there couldn’t have cared. After the story ran, I was summoned into the editor-in-chief’s office. Seems somebody at the social services agency took exception to my cobweb observation and thought I meant it as a cricitism (which I did not). I just thought I was being descriptive. The editor made sure I did a requisite amount of quaking in my shoes before he sent me from his office with the admonition to be careful about such seemingly innocent comments. I had many interesting experiences at the Clearwater Sun over the next nine-plus years before I was laid off when the daily Sun became the twice-weekly Sun, a precursor to its eventual death.

    [Reply]

    Steve Piacente Reply:

    Interesting story about the power of words, Annette. It’s also a good lesson for my communications students at American U, in terms of thinking about how stories are read as opposed to how they’re constructed.

    [Reply]

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