Do you remember your first real assignment? I do.
It was my first day as a summer intern at the old San Antonio Light. Up walked Bend Segal, a gruff, seasoned assistant city editor who had weaned many a cub reporter. He handed me a six-page press release. “Rewrite it,” he said. “And let me know when you’re done.”
Seems like it took me forever to rewrite that press release. But I finally managed to finish it, reducing the six-page release to three. I handed the copy to Ben, who took his red marker and quickly circled a typo and handed it back to me, saying, “Do it again.”
This happened about four more times. Ben would find something small that was amiss: an extra space, a code that was off one character, etc. “Do it again,” he would say each time. Finally, he approved the copy to be scanned into the computer system for editing.
I never knew nausea and dizziness could have such varying stages of severity.
As I staggered back to my desk I told myself, “Dude, you ain’t gonna last long in this business!”
A short time later, Fern Chick, another city editor, called me over to her desk, where she had my rewritten release called up on her computer screen.
Peering at me over her reading glasses, she greeted me with a warm smile and said, “Why don’t you pull up a chair and let’s see what we’ve got here.” As she reviewed the story, Fern peppered me calmly with questions and observations:
“Do you think we really need to say this right here? Naw – what do you say, let’s go ahead and take that out. . . . What if we wrote it this way instead? It would mean the same thing in fewer words. . .”
Finally she proclaimed, “There! I think we’ve got this just right. What do you think?”
The finished story – my three-page rewritten press release that had taken me a couple of hours to craft – was only three or four single-sentence paragraphs.
“That’s a pretty good job for your first one!” she told me as I sank farther into my chair. “Don’t worry; you’re doing fine. You’ll get the hang of it.”
I learned two things that day. From Ben, I learned to sweat the little things – not just the big ones. Accuracy matters and knows no size. If people can trust you to get the little things right, it makes all the difference in the world when you want their trust on the big stories.
Fern taught me that this career is all about learning – keep plugging.
I thought about Ben and Fern and a lot of other colleagues when I heard remarks by a retired publisher at the recent National Newspaper Association convention in Tulsa.
I can’t recall the man’s name, but he was being honored for his years of service in this industry of ours. He referred to a Bible passage relating Apostle Peter’s visit to a village. The people there brought out their sick and laid them on mats in the street in hopes that as Peter passed his shadow might fall on them and they would be healed.
The old publisher said he was able to lead a successful career – and a fulfilling life – because the shadows of so many had touched his life. And in turn he hoped his shadow has touched the lives of others for the good.
What a wonderful perspective. Two shadows touched my life 36 years ago. And so many more have touched me since then. I am so fortunate for that.
In our business, our shadows touch the lives of the people with whom we work every day. We help mold and shape each other, oftentimes totally unaware of just how much value we are adding to our lives.
And what do we have to show for it all? One heck of a huge shadow that touches the lives of so many: our newspapers.