After my first year or so at the Keizertimes, I began fielding the same question from a number of my regular contacts on the job: “When are you moving on?”
One way to read a question such as that is they wanted me gone, but I suspected that wasn’t the case. It was more a matter of people expected me to find another paper or media outlet somewhere that would move me up the ladder to whatever came next.
My stock answer went something like this: “I don’t know, I think there’s some nobility in telling the stories of a community.” I felt I had to justify my satisfaction with what I was doing because the reality was I only ever wanted to be a “general assignment” reporter. That role meant I didn’t have to specialize in any one thing and could keep learning about all sorts of things when the moment arrived.
Newspapers were always a source of learning for me. I loved reading the funny pages as a kid. In particular, I came to love Bloom County, a comic strip that my dad unknowingly introduced me to when I stole collected editions from his nightstand and reread them over and over. Artist and writer Berkeley Breathed used humor in a way that introduced me to the adult world in baby steps. Even if I could laugh at the outlandish things the characters did, there was usually a subtext that I recognized even if didn’t quite understand all of it. My dad had to field all sorts of questions to help me get there.
A more recent strip from Bloom County that basically sums up my entire existence. Follow Berkeley Breathed strip on Facebook here.
As I grew older, my dad and I would visit my grandfather and sit in a carriage swing in his backyard while the two of them discussed the daily front page of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, or the columnist they both seemed to love. I kept learning by proxy even if I was still harboring fantasies of being a newspaper cartoonist.
I was in college and struggling with what I felt was the inanity of a business degree when I switched majors to journalism, surprising myself as much as it surely did everyone who knew me as the consummate introvert. I discovered amazing teachers in the journalism program at Auburn University, ones who taught us the business of journalism like a trade skill. By the time I graduated, I knew how to bang out copy eight hours a day seven days a week, it serves me well to this day.
A few years – and one major career detour – later, I arrived at the Keizertimes. I count myself lucky to have ended up in the career I trained for, but I still didn’t completely understand the power a journalist can wield.
In my second year at the paper, a McNary High School football player ended up battling cancer. A junior at the school and friend of the football player had made a feature-ish length film he was proud of and decided to hold a screening in the auditorium to raise money for the cancer battle. Zeek Earl’s movie debut was standing room only. I featured Zeek and his movie, Simply Mafia, on the front page of the paper the following week. I liked way the story came out, but the nature of news only lets you linger on the successes for so long before moving on to the next thing.
The following year, Zeek was on the field for the Celtic varsity soccer team and I was taking pictures when I happened to sit down next to his mother, Sharon, in the stands. Sharon told me the article I had written about Zeek’s filmmaking had a big impact on him. The article had given him motivation to keep making movies and hope that he might fulfill his dream of being a filmmaker one day.
Zeek kept making movies after he graduated. He filmed commercials and entered them into contests and won. He used prize money and crowdfunding to make short films. Three years ago, he turned one of those short films into his first feature, Prospect. It’s rated 89% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.
Make no mistake, Zeek did the hardest work. He stuck with his dream and found a way to make it reality. But, when I think of what newspapers and journalism mean to me, it’s the things they’ve kept me learning and the young dreamers like Zeek who I’ve been able to cheer for along the way that stand out above all others.
I love the work that I do and I’ve survived doing it when everyone else suggested I find other things, but it’s not cheap. Actual reporters, printing expenses and covering the healthcare of the paper’s employees are the hard costs associated with keeping the wheels turning. If any of that matters to you, and you are in a position to help us out with a tax-deductible donation, you can do so here.
It’s been one of the greatest pleasures of my life to become part of this community and, most especially, a part of the lives the young people I continue to work with in two clubs at McNary. I will keep doing it as long as you will have me.
Be safe, stay healthy – and thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Eric A. Howald