My View: 'Truth-teller' takes bow in newsroom
"You'll never make it as a news reporter, Steve Law — you're too damn opinionated."
With those sage words of advice, North Dakota-bound Roger Moore passed the baton to me as the news reporter for KMXT-FM, the public radio station for Kodiak Island, Alaska.
That was the summer of 1983, and I guess you could say I proved my fishing buddy wrong. This month I'm retiring after more than 35 years as a news reporter and editor.
Roger was right that I was too damn opinionated, something I tried to cure myself of in subsequent years, as I navigated the transition from passionate activist to dispassionate chronicler of events. I'd graduated from Antioch College with tremendous idealism and ambition to change the world.
Later I settled for a more modest goal: telling the truth.
I never really intended to go into newspaper reporting. After returning to Portland following six months on the road in a VW camper van with my then-wife and our infant Rachel, I needed to apply for jobs to qualify for unemployment benefits.
In a bit of a surprise, an editor at The Valley Times in Beaverton took a chance on this guy with one college journalism class to his credit and one year's experience as a radio reporter. They paid me $5 an hour, half what I made in Kodiak, and less than I made at my prior job at a nonprofit radio station, KBOO, where I was volunteer coordinator.
But as I tell aspiring journalists these days, they should enter into this field because they feel a calling, a desire to inform the public. Think of yourself like an artist, I counsel, doing this work for its intrinsic rewards.
And there are many.
Some things have changed dramatically during my 35 years. I composed my radio stories in Alaska on an IBM Selectric typewriter, while my editor was toying with this new gadget I think he called a word processor.
But at its core, the work is still the same. We dig up stories, interview people, search for documents, read background material and cover meetings, events and news conferences. We still must cover the basics: who, what, where, when, why and how. We still try to start with a catchy intro (the lead), explain to readers why we're writing this and why they should care (the nut graph), and try to put a bow on it at the end. And we still seek a variety of viewpoints to provide perspective and balance.
Aside from shrinking newsrooms and the transition to digital media, perhaps the biggest change in 35 years is how the public perceives our work. A large chunk of the public has disdain for news reporters, egged on by a president who calls us "enemies of the people."
Interestingly, all that abuse has made it a harder decision for me to pack it in, especially as other people seem to be more supportive than ever of the work I do. Who knew that telling the truth could be seen as so important?
Some of my peers think I'm an anachronism, because I'm not glued to a smartphone or tweeting all the time, and I still write stories about boring topics like how government collects our money and spends our money. (I wish more of those peers followed my lead years ago when I was writing about overly generous pension payouts to Oregon public employees, while covering state politics for the Statesman Journal newspaper.)
In my work, whether it's been covering local or state government, education, business, politics or the environment, I've sought to report what I thought was important for readers to know, not what they wanted to hear. I wanted readers to come away thinking they understand an issue, that I got it right. I wanted to be the public's watchdog, especially over those institutions and people who have so much influence over other peoples' lives.
Too much of today's news reporting, I feel, focuses on trivial matters. A politician's stance and work to address climate change — the biggest challenge facing humankind outside of preventing nuclear war — is far more important than who they sleep with.
I hope the many talented reporters still devoted to telling the truth can remember that.
And I hope that readers remember the role of truth-tellers is vital to a democracy, and they need to nurture the newspapers and other sources of those truths, even if we sometimes get it wrong.