For the first time in nearly 34 years, since June of 1989, I am no longer employed by a newspaper. The editors said they do not believe my column fits with the direction they want to go, so my very part-time position has been eliminated. That’s certainly their prerogative, and we are parting ways on positive terms.
I wish the Ledger-Enquirer well. Newspapers are struggling amid competition from online media and Americans’ growing preference for propaganda and bubble-thinking affirmation over information. Newspapers are the torch-bearers for local journalism. The smaller the community, the more it’s true. As more newspapers fade away, so does accountability in the community. A poorly informed public is bound to be more gullible. I’m not sure whether ignorance or climate change or Vladimir Putin will be the one to do us in once and for all.
Those of you who know me well know that this was a side gig I’ve done for fun since I left my full-time job at the Ledger-Enquirer in 2011. My real job is Vice President of Communications for The Fuller Center for Housing, which is really just another form of journalism to me. I report on projects, success stories and events for our nonprofit’s work in more than 100 communities across the U.S. and around the world. I don’t do PR or spin — I just tell folks what we’re up to, and they tend to like it. I do writing, video, photography, print products, website management and much more. I also do a lot of reporting for The People Helping People Network. Both of these nonprofits teamed up to send me to El Salvador recently, and I brought back hundreds of photos, videos and stories with more still to do. In short, I have plenty on my plate.
Writing a weekly column was job No. 3, and one that my boss David Snell at The Fuller Center permitted, a decision he has only regretted about 27 times. Some weeks it has been a burden as I’ve realized my column was due to be submitted in an hour — and I’d yet to even come up with a column idea. I’d plop down at the computer and wing it. Most of my newspaper columns have been written in 30 minutes or less. Anything longer than that and they’d get a free one-topping pizza. (I’m pretty sure that’s correct … lemme double-check my contract.)
Now, before you grab your pitchforks or pitchsporks and go marching down Broadway in Columbus by the thousands demanding my return to the L-E’s pages, know that this doesn’t mean I’ll stop writing. I still plan to do regular commentaries — some that will offend you, some that might make you smile and plenty that would make an experienced newspaper editor vomit. The only difference is that I will no longer reap the vast riches that come with putting three hours a week on a timecard.
My musings will no longer be “columns,” but will be posts on my website. So, bookmark kudzukid.com, follow my official Facebook page and sign up to receive new posts in your email inbox. I’ll no longer be constrained by a newspaper’s publishing schedule or space allotment. Some will be longer, others shorter. And, because I’ll be my own editor, I can promise 14 percent more typos. It’s online, though, so I can fix them — unlike some of those permanent errors I’ve made in print newspapers since 1989. (I always thought it was unfair that the public would call us on the carpet for a typo, but no one called WRBL or WTVM to tell them they mispronounced somebody’s name.)
As you can read in my bio, I started out in this business at the Americus Times-Recorder as a part-time sports writer because I needed beer and pizza money in college. Then-sports editor Mike Flynn is the man to blame for getting me into this business in the first place.
I then did part-time sports coverage for my hometown paper, the Citizen and Georgian, before getting my first full-time sports writing gig at the Valdosta Daily Times in the high school football capital of the world. I loved the town, though the newspaper was run by a tightwad company at the time. I showed them, though, by going back in 1993 to the Americus Times-Recorder … which was run by the same corporate tightwads. I had the joy of being overworked and underpaid.
In 1997, I became a copy editor at the Ledger-Enquirer, starting out by working four 10-hour days a week. It was a better company, and the newspaper industry was thriving. Those were the heydays for me from about 1997 to the early 2000s.
In 1998, our Executive Editor, the brilliant Mike Burbach, came up with one of his less brilliant ideas — letting me fill in for a vacationing columnist for two weeks. It stuck. That definitely was not their plan. But my weekly column would keep going for the next 25 years.
One of the reasons Mike was so brilliant was his leadership partner, Managing Editor Susan Catron, the best newspaper boss I ever had. She was committed to doing what was right for the reader. Sometimes that meant she wanted to strangle me, but we argued for the right reasons. Now, she is managing editor of The Current, a nonprofit journalism outfit on the Georgia coast that I think might be the only sustainable model for local and regional journalism in the future.
After Burbach left us for Saint Paul, Minn., a fellow with a background in corporate law took over. I thought that might be the death of my column. I think Ben Holden was afraid this Southern-talking, pickup-driving boy might subvert his authority. At one point, I expected to be fired outright. But he grew to tolerate my authority-bucking attitude and occasionally would come to me to gauge the temperature of the newsroom because he knew I was a straight-shooter. Ben also was a passionate journalist but even more passionate about building a better community and developing mentors for young people who desperately needed them. He taught me a lot about how to engage folks you don’t always agree with by being direct and honest but not with pointless sparring. I think I convinced him that even pickup-driving Southern boys can be trusted.
Of course, he had to restrain himself a few times. Once he ordered us each to shadow a colleague in the newsroom for a day and deliver a report about it. The fella I was paired with was about as excited as I was. I delivered a report to Ben that basically said my pairing was pointless and I was too busy for his order.
“Why didn’t you just draw me a middle finger instead?” he asked me one day on the way out the door.
“C’mon, Ben. You know I can’t draw.”
Months ago, my first boss Mike Flynn sent me a picture from a gym in Columbus, where he had met this Ben fellow. When Ben found out Mike once lived in Americus, he asked if he knew some “smart ass” named Chris Johnson. They shared a laugh. So, really, Ben, any pain I caused is Mike’s fault.
I’ve worked with dozens upon dozens of wonderful colleagues in the newspaper business from all kinds of backgrounds and locations. It expanded my perspective on the world. Likewise, The Fuller Center has done the same. The world’s a lot smaller when you spend days dealing with folks from Nepal to El Salvador to Louisville to Lanett, Alabama.
I loved the newspaper business. I love what I’m doing now. I’m working on a nonfiction book for The People Helping People Network, and I’m busy on a new novel — one that’s set in the area where I grew up but is likely too controversial to publish anytime soon.
In short, the writing doesn’t stop.
It won’t stop until I stop.
And, I hope you keep reading.