You always remember the first one. At least I hope so.
For me, the first one — and in this case I’m referring to my first bylined story in the Index-Journal — came in August 2004. I was just a rookie, trying to pry my way into the business. And Mike Stone, the Index’s sports editor at the time, opened a crack in the door for me.
The Index, at the time, needed a sports clerk. That was a person who worked in the sports office at night and took phone calls from coaches for all of the brief stories and box scores for local teams that went in the paper each day. I studied communications in college and had written for the student paper at Lander, so when I saw the sports clerk job advertised in the classifieds, I decided to give it a shot. I grew up reading the Index, so the idea of landing a gig here held special appeal.
Stone brought me in for an interview, looked at a few of my clips from the college newspaper, and gave me a written test for the sports clerk position. It had a bunch of sports questions, as you might imagine, some of which were embarrassingly easy, (“How many points for a field goal in football?”) and others I’m pretty sure I bombed (anything to do with Greco-Roman wrestling). But basically it went well, and I completed a writing portion of the quiz.
Mike didn’t initially want me for the sports clerk gig (though I would later get it, which is a long story for another column), but he did want me to come on as a “stringer.” A stringer is basically a freelance reporter, paid by the story, who goes out and covers ballgames, particularly high school football and basketball games on Friday nights.
I was thrilled at the opportunity, but Mike first wanted to try me out with a live game. So on a Saturday afternoon, he sent me out to what was then Southside Middle School to cover a semi-pro basketball game. A team from Greenwood was taking on a squad from Anderson. Calling the affair “semi-pro” was a stretch, but there were a few serious ballplayers out there, and the game was entertaining. I hurried back to the office afterward and handed in 10 column inches of a story that I regarded as poetry. Mike regarded it as, um, something less than poetry, cut it down to six column inches, and placed it on the page for the next day’s paper.
But, I had my foot in the door, and off we went. Now 17 years have passed. Gone in a blink. I was in love with newspapers then, and I still am, even if the atmosphere and rhetoric surrounding “the media” doesn’t always love you back.
It’s been on my mind, particularly, during the last week. As I’m sure you know if you’ve been reading the Index, this has been National Newspaper Week. Indeed, Saturday marks the last day of the annual acknowledgment of papers big and small.
Whether we collectively acknowledge it or not, newspapers are as vital to local communities as they have ever been. Or at least they should be. In an environment where there is so much noise, we still need women and men who are going to keep an eye on city hall, follow what’s happening with the police and the courts, and report on what your legislators are doing at the State House.
And it’s not all just the serious stuff. Local newspapers are warm, living institutions that help bring color to the community. The story from your favorite team’s Friday night game. The preview of the summer barbecue festival. A picture of the homecoming queen. Interviews with the cast of the latest play at the community theatre. Profiles on the first day of school and interviews and photos on graduation day.
I snuck into this business 17 years ago with a test for a sports clerk gig and a tiny story about a Saturday afternoon basketball game in a middle school gym. In the nearly two decades since I’ve told thousands of stories.
Here’s to thousands more being told, in this community and many others, for years to come. Let’s make every week National Newspaper Week.