The Beginnings of My Ink-Stained Wretchedness
Forty years ago this month, I got my picture in the paper -- no, not because I was indicted or had accepted the ambassadorship to the Faroe Islands or anything like that, but to herald my beginning as an honest-to-God working journalist.
Roughly two months out of college, I landed a job as a general assignment reporter/assistant sports editor at the Blackstone Valley Tribune, a weekly paper in Whitinsville, Mass. While this wasn't my initial foray into the Real World(TM) -- I'd taken two years off from college before moving to Boston to finish up my undergrad degree as a journalism major -- it was a milestone nonetheless: I was officially entering my chosen profession.
My first stories for the Tribune included a report on a traffic improvement proposal, profiles of two area residents selected for the Outstanding Young Men of America program, and a short feature on a local girl hosting her Japanese pen pal. I also wrote a personal-perspective column for the editorial section -- my colleagues and I took turns contributing these, which worked out to roughly one a month -- and pieced together updates on some of the area summer recreation leagues.
I think I can tell you, in all candor, that this is not the kind of stuff I had dreamed about doing someday, back when I was in journalism school.
But those were assignments were typical for a small-town paper (technically, it was a small-towns paper, because we covered six different communities). The focus of the Tribune was local with a capital "L." Whatever national political upheaval or international incident you might read about over breakfast, once you got to the Tribune office you'd be contemplating the agenda of the next selectmen's or school committee meeting, eyeballing police blotter items, checking the high school sports schedule for the games you'd be covering, or perhaps looking over a note sent in about somebody's neighbor, friend or acquaintance who was truly a Special Person and deserved a feature in the paper. Sometimes, you got a good idea or lead; sometimes not. Fortunately, if one story didn't pan out, you could usually find another, or it would find you.
Waxing nostalgic about one's first job gets easier with each passing year, but fact is, for all the long hours and low pay, I enjoyed the hell out of working at the Tribune. A big part of the reason was my colleagues: We were all roughly the same age and just starting out, got along very well, and often socialized outside of working hours. And I feel that we all were determined to get as much as we could out of this experience, professionally and personally.. Sure, like in most any workplace, we'd complain or joke among ourselves about those assignments we found dubious, but we knew we had to do a good honest job on them.
Working at the Tribune, I encountered the wider world, writ small. Maybe it didn't seem that way at first glance, but you could discern universal themes about politics, power, money, love, hate, faith and the like amidst the seeming quietude in the Blackstone Valley. This was an area undergoing a transition from textile industry hub to a bedroom community for the proliferation of biotech companies. Some area political and business leaders thought the valley needed to act more as a single economic entity instead of a collection of communities; not everyone necessarily agreed. Meanwhile, tensions between "townies" and "newcomers" would occasionally surface, like in town elections or zoning issues.
Inevitably, some far-off event in a geopolitical maelstrom will resound in a small town, and such was the case a couple of months after I started: A local man, only just turned 19, was among the 241 U.S. servicemen killed in the bombing in Beirut. And then there are the occurrences that are only supposed to happen somewhere else: In early 1985, a local teenage boy killed his mother and his grandparents, in whose house he and his mother were living. (A colleague of mine shot a poignant photo of a young couple who were neighbors of the grandparents, trying to comprehend what had happened; the husband looks at the camera, stunned, while his wife gazes intently at her infant child.) Less than a month later, in the same town, an 18-year-old woman committed suicide; her husband had killed himself back in January, three days after their marriage.
There were many, many delightful experiences working for the Tribune, too. The teenage pen pals I wrote about during my first week obviously enjoyed being together, and it was heartwarming to see them bond. The coach for a local high school field hockey team generously and capably gave me a 10-minute primer on what I needed to know about the sport -- which I'd never watched before -- so I could report on the game I was about to cover. I interviewed an animal control officer who'd joined her peers in condemning how their profession was depicted in the "Garfield" cartoon, and the result was a fascinating, and sometimes hilarious, peek at an often demanding job. And there were the people you'd see most every day, like at the diner where you always ate lunch or the general store where you bought soda and snacks, who might tease you about a small fact you got wrong but accepted you as part of the local landscape, which was tremendously comforting.
Some years ago, I talked with a small-town newspaper editor who complained that the reporters on staff were simply marking time until they could land a job at a bigger paper: They'd do the assignments given them, but there was little enterprise on their part, and they didn't seem to take any interest in the community they covered. Now, maybe the editor was having a bad day, or week, but something told me this was more than just venting. And I have to say, I kind of felt sorry for the reporters: They might be getting the professional development they sought, but they were missing out on some valuable personal development.
For the record, I did in fact leave the Tribune about two years after I arrived. I found a paper closer to Boston -- which was an important consideration -- that offered the opportunity for more in-depth features and profiles, which was what I wanted to do. I was ready to move on from the Tribune, but not to forget it. And I never will.