My father never missed an opportunity for metaphor.
Whenever he saw me struggling with something – math, football, marriage – he’d tell me the story of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, the first two men to climb Mt. Everest.
He said the two nearly died in the ascent, struggling through massive ice fields in bitter cold, fighting off frost bite and altitude sickness to be the first to climb the highest peak on the planet.
When they reached the top, my dad said Edmund, exhausted but exhilarated, turned to his pal Tenzing and said, “Now what?”
When I was 12, I never really got the point. Now at 42, I get it.
It’s not achieving the goal that matters, it’s the struggle to get there.
When I started out gathering and reporting the news, I didn’t really know what I was doing. Sure, I had a journalism degree, but that mostly made sure I knew how to write in journalese – one-sentence paragraphs that adhere to The Associated Press style manual – and had a reasonable sense of what’s news.
My wife never lets me forget that the night I got home from my first day at my first reporting job I collapsed on the couch and said, “I have no idea what I’m doing and nobody seems to care.”
I’m a journalist because I refuse to be ignorant but here I was, an ignorant journalist. I endeavored to do whatever it took to learn the craft. Within two years I was runner up for Community Journalist of the Year from the Arizona Press Club.
Soon I became an editor and discovered that leading a newsroom of reporters was a lot more fun than reporting. I was thrown into the editor’s job at the EXPLORER, a weekly that covers the northwest suburbs of Marana and Oro Valley. I didn’t know what I was doing and made a lot of mistakes. When I look at some of those old EXPLORERs, I cringe at how bad they are.
I struggled through it and soon the paper was recognized as among the best nondailies in the state, repeatedly winning General Excellence and Journalistic Achievement awards from the state’s newspapers association.
I’m not without ambition. While leading the EXPLORER was fun, I wanted to lead a bigger newsroom at a bigger paper. Podunk weekly editors, however, rarely ascend to the top of metro dailies. They have to start at the bottom of the middle (or the top of the bottom, depending on your perspective) and work their way up.
Two-and-a-half years ago, I took a job here at the Citizen as an assistant city editor. I wanted to make my mark and move up, either here or in the 85-paper Gannett Co. Inc. chain of dailies. Seemed like a smart career move at the time.
Just as I was getting started, Gannett pulled the rug out from under me, announcing it was closing the paper unless a buyer could be found. Normally, I wouldn’t have worried, my ego is big enough to think that a talented guy like me should have no problem getting another journalism job.
But when the economy is shedding millions of jobs and the newspaper industry is in freefall, there are damn few jobs to get.
I was screwed.
Friday, after a long, strange trip in limbo courtesy of the Justice Department and the Newspaper Preservation Act, I was ready to take up my spot on the unemployment line; to go on the government dole while I searched for someone to hire me. The paper was closing, everyone had to clean out their desks and go home; Saturday’s paper would be the Citizen’s last printed edition.
Then a Gannett vice president called me into an office and said, “How’d you like to be part of the new Citizen Web site?” She explained it was a work in progress, charting new digital territory, soliciting and managing community commentary. I’d be working with one of my coworkers, Ryn Gargulinski. “Anyone else,” I asked. “Not right now,” she said, the details of the site and what we would be doing would be worked out in the coming days.
“Sure, I’ll do it,” I said. What the hell else was I going to say.
That night, depression set in. This is not what I set out to do. I wanted to captain my own news ship, not be chief mate in a leaky, two-person dinghy being towed behind the S.S. Gannett superliner.
In a few days, the corporate officials holding the rope are going to let go and sail away, calling back “see you in port,” leaving Ryn and me to bail and row like mad.
I refuse to sink. Ryn and I are going to call a few thousand of our Tucson friends, or soon-to-be friends, and get some help. We’re going to patch up this dinghy, put a motor on it, renovate it, expand it, polish it. We’re going to turn it into the sleekest, fastest coolest ship in the digital news fleet.
Soon, though I’m not sure when, Ryn and I, and maybe a few shipmates, are going to roar into port (perhaps splashing a little water on the lumbering superliner for good measure), the envy of the online cacophonous commentary world.
Exhausted but exhilarated, I’m going to look over at my pal Ryn and say, “Now what?”