I planned for this column to be the literary equivalent of a 12th inning walk-off home run in the seventh game of the World Series, with all the guys who ever picked on me sitting in the stands rooting for the other team.
You know, something special and memorable, something monumental for what will most likely be the last thing I write in my newspaper journalism career.
Sorry to get your hopes up. I feel like it’s going to fall a little short, but I’ll do my best.
I’m honestly not feeling a whole lot like a mighty slugger at the plate, poised to save the day.
Sometimes the feeling is closer to the last scene in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” I’m about to make a run out the door, low on ammo, bleeding and surrounded by Bolivian federales.
Well, no, my prospects aren’t that grim. The reality is somewhere between doomed gunslinger and bat-wielding hero as my last day at the Tribune looms.
This column hits print on Friday, the last day of my tenure with the Tribune and the River Valley Media Group and my final day as a reporter. Normally, I’m pretty busy on Fridays writing stories for Sunday’s entertainment section, but this week I juggled my duties to ensure that this column is the last thing I write before closing the door on my journalism career.
And so, without further ado, in the words of a great writer from long ago, “once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.”
In high school, when I first conceived the cockeyed idea of becoming a newspaper reporter, my goal was to have my words read or even recited from memory hundreds of years in the future. I didn’t necessarily fancy myself a Shakespeare, but at an age when my classmates were convinced they were immortal, I was thinking about ways I might actually achieve something like immortality.
I wanted to be remembered. I wanted to create great, sprawling, important, meaningful works of literature that future high school students would write essays about years after I was gone, but I figured one does not simply waltz into the bigshot book writers club. I looked at the careers of some of the writers I admired most — Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Jack London — and one thing in common was they all started as newspaper reporters.
On top of that, I actually thought reporters were cool. Not that long before I was thinking about my post-high school path through life, two young reporters at the Washington Post — in reverence, I here write the names of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein — dug into a story and didn’t let go until they forced a corrupt president out of office.
So I went into my college years at the University of Minnesota bent on becoming a reporter. In hindsight, maybe I should have realized that an even better way to become a great novelist would be to study the greats. Twain, Hemingway and London probably didn’t have the opportunity or inclination to study literature. Maybe I should have thought about all the other great writers who didn’t start out as reporters.
My college paper was a great training ground. The first editor I worked under (and the last) later won Pulitzer Prizes, and many of my colleagues went on to have distinguished careers as journalists at some of the country’s greatest publications.
And then there was me.
Oh, I’ve done all right, I guess. I’ve been a professional journalist for roughly 32 years — almost 29 of them in the La Crosse area. Most weeks, I did good work and did my part in filling up the paper and fulfilling the newspaper’s duty to keep the public informed, a key to a healthy democracy.
Some weeks I even did exceptionally good work. I never won a Pulitzer, but I’ve been honored to receive some Wisconsin Newspaper Association awards over the years. While it felt good to have fellow journalists from another state find my work award-worthy, none of those really equaled the thrill of the Best of La Crosse County honors the past couple years, voted on by people who read my stories on a regular basis.
I don’t know of anybody who practices journalism just for the awards, though. I know I never have. I enjoy telling people’s stories and letting them know about important issues that they should care about.
For me, journalism has been more than a job. It’s more like a mission, a public service, a calling. Until recently, I pictured myself being a newspaper reporter for the rest of my working life, despite all the contractions in the journalist workforce.
But you know what? Crunch time has finally came and I had to choose between keeping at job I love in a business facing increasingly difficult financial prospects or trying a new adventure in employment while I’ve got time for reinvention. I’m choosing adventure.
The past few years have been the best in my journalism career. I’ve so enjoyed tapping into the creative community and getting to know the dedicated people on the La Crosse County Board and the numerous service-providing departments the board oversees. We have it so good here.
I wish my colleagues at the paper all the best. We’re all counting on you to keep up the good fight.
Rock on …