Jan 05

Why journalism?

“I became a journalist to come as close as possible to the heart of the world.”

• Henry R. Luce


I WAS A FOOTBALL PLAYER of amazing talent. I could make it through an entire game without dirtying my uniform. As impressive as this may seem on the surface, it belied a dark truth: perhaps, football was not my calling.

I like to think it was a clear moment of consciousness as a fourth-string 8th grade quarterback sitting at the end of the bench that made me realize that writing would be my life’s endeavor. Truth is, though, I’d loved writing from my earliest memories.

At seven I wrote a 12-page book about a Knight who slew a dragon and saved a damsel in distress — complete with stick-figure dragon drawings. It was cute to the point of being precious, trust me.

While most of my fellow high school students dreaded writing research papers, I relished the thought, preferring to research and write papers rather than take tests. When delving into a paper, you accomplish more than learning the material.

You envelope yourself in it.

IN HIGH SCHOOL, I JOINED the school newspaper, The Lancer. Before I knew it, I had become the sports editor and not long after that the managing editor.

When it came time to consider career options, there was really no choice. I’d long ago given up on my childhood dreams of being a cowboy or a bull fighter, and it was obvious that despite my wildest fantasies football stardom was never going to blossom for me. But, I learned, you could make a living writing, which is what I did best.

We received an afternoon daily newspaper in those days from the small urban city 10 miles west. I couldn’t wait to get home from school and run to the paper box at the end of the driveway to grab the Evansville Press. I studied it like a map. Not just the words and the pictures, but the layout, the use of white space, the size and font type. I sought to understand what the reporter and editor were thinking as they put it all together.

I enrolled in college to study journalism and never looked back. In college I covered golf and football, but found my true passion during the summers when I worked at the local weekly newspaper. Here I would frequent town council and school board meetings instead of locker rooms, learning the ins and outs of Roberts Rules of Order, the Associated Press Stylebook, and the inner workings of government. I already knew I wanted to be a journalist, but now I knew that I wanted to write hard-hitting, thought-provoking news and analysis.

Upon graduation I entertained two serious offers of employment, both of which would allow me to explore new frontiers outside the one-stop-light town of my youth. The first was at a small daily newspaper just outside of Cincinnati, the second was at a weekly newspaper in suburban Chicago. The pay was the same, the distance from my hometown similar enough.

So, why Chicago?

It was a girl. And while the love affair didn’t make it past winter, Chicago had become my home.

FOR THE NEXT EIGHT YEARS, I plied my wares as a reporter and editor at a variety of Chicago area newspapers. My focus was politics, government and education. My duties included not only reporting on issues but also guiding others in the newsroom. As much joy as I got from cracking a good story, I found even more accomplishment in honing the skills of a young, energetic writer.

The old man who lives across the street from my parents asked me once what I write about. I thought about telling him all the aspects of government, politics and business that I routinely undertake, but instead I simply told him, “I write about life.”

It was a simple answer, but the dead-on truth. Life is what happens when government makes decisions. Life is affected. Life is changed. Relating those events to people is at the heart of journalism.

I’ve written a novel and a half dozen screenplays.The novel still sits unpublished in my desk drawer. And the screenplays?

Well, let’s just say, I’ve become quite adept at penning “almosts” or screenplays that grab a producer’s attention just long enough to crush me later. It’s okay, though, I’m just ahead of my time. All I have to do is wait for time to catch up.

Since 1995, I’ve worked primarily as a health care writer, covering state and national issues in the Chicago area. It has been a fascinating journey that has taken my interests past local and county levels of government to state and federal issues.

I obtained a Masters of Jurisprudence in Health Law from Loyola University Chicago Law School in 2000. If I’m going to write about legal issues, I might as well speak the language.

I had an Illinois governor tell me once that he was involved in no criminal wrongdoing. Then, in a scrum of journalists, he told me I was a bad reporter for even asking such a question. I disagree with him, and when that former governor gets out of prison in a few years, I might just tell him that.

FOR THE PAST YEAR, I’ve been engrossed in a book project about high school football that had been in the planning stages for several years. I’ve interviewed dozens of coaches and players, reviewed game tapes play-by-play, and traveled several times to a half dozen small towns to inhale the fresh air, blue skies, and local charm. Each interview has opened new paths for the story to the point where it is not the story that I expected to write.

My career has taught me several important lessons but none more valuable than the understanding that the reader won’t read your in-depth political analysis, no matter how much blood and sweat you put into it, unless you relate it to them. This is why most people read the obituaries and stories about family dogs in need hip replacements, because everybody can relate to losing someone and most everybody has had a pet that needed them.

Relate it to them.

JOURNALISM HAS ALSO TAUGHT ME to see people at their best and worst and to definitely question everything. The old journalism mantra “If you mother tells you she loves you, check it out” has never been truer.

There are times I question why I’m crazy enough to engage in this demanding profession. But I know. It’s the unexplainable need to tell a good story, to dive under the surface and root out a hidden truth. And then there’s that deadline adrenaline surge as well. 😉

The most amazing part of journalism is that every single day I meet someone who teaches me something. It may be a simple thing, but that person added value to my experience. That person can be a doctor or lawyer, a carpenter or a store clerk, but they are all part of the fabric of life that is Americana. They are all part of the story — a story I hope to tell.