My Year in the Trenches

A veteran editor goes back to square one, and learns something new
June 3, 2008

It was a store-bought cake with a row of candles and a message in sugary script. Excited young voices filled the room in a third-floor apartment at the crest of the hill that rises behind New Hampshire’s statehouse. As the candles were lit, one of the party’s hosts quieted the crowd and said it was obvious who should have the honor: me.

Blushing and beaming, I stepped forward and blew out the candles. Then, rather than make a speech, I simply recited the message on the cake: “It’s Over, Bitches.” Why the expletive was necessary, and why this particular expletive, I didn’t exactly get. But everyone else seemed to get it, which was good enough for me.

Of course, I knew what was over. It was the New Hampshire presidential primary, my eighth and last as the editor of the Concord Monitor, the twenty-thousand-circulation daily in the state capital. The party celebrated the Monitor staff’s work on a story that had consumed our time and energy for weeks, rising to a crescendo and a surprise ending in the first days of 2008.

I had witnessed plenty of campaigns and surprises in thirty years at the paper. What was different this time was that rather than run the show, I had left the corner office in the Monitor newsroom to become a reporter, columnist, and writer. The idea came to me last spring. I had decided to retire in June 2008, a decision that focused my thinking. More than forty-five years ago, I got into journalism to write, but I had run the Monitor’s newsroom for nearly thirty of those years and been editor of some kind for thirty-five. Having moved from sportswriter to sports editor to city editor to managing editor to editor, I had never been a daily city-side reporter. If I were ever going to have the chance, this was it.

I also viewed my switch as being in the Monitor’s interest. Like all newspapers, we are struggling to thrive in a rapidly changing media world. Decisions about how the paper should proceed, I reasoned, should be made by the editors who will have to live with those decisions. Felice Belman, the managing editor, was my heir apparent as editor, and Geordie Wilson, the publisher, promoted Felice to executive editor. At my request, he allowed me to keep the title “editor,” but my job became to provide content.

So one day late last May, I came to work as a writer. I say writer rather than reporter because that is how I viewed myself. I reported a few breaking stories, but as a beat reporter, I couldn’t hold a candle to the reporters on our staff. This fact was confirmed for me in just a few days of eavesdropping on my new pod-mate, Sarah Liebowitz. Sarah is a political reporter who, at that moment, was winding up her work on the New Hampshire legislative session and beginning in earnest her coverage of Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy. Her telephone was an extension of her senses. This constant working of the phone, and other gadgets I knew less about, gave Sarah and the other reporters command of the beats they covered. I didn’t have time to develop such savvy.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

I did have the sense to turn to other reporters for help. One of my first stories was about a girl who was graduating from a local high school whose parents had been killed two and a half years earlier by an arsonist. The girl’s grandparents had taken her in, nurtured her through her grief, and helped her succeed as a student. For the story, I needed to know what had become of the arsonist, who had never gone to trial after the court accepted his plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. I turned to Annmarie Timmins, our police and court reporter. Within minutes she pointed me to the records and gave me the names and numbers I needed.

Mostly I am my own boss, although I welcome editing and always have an editor for my stories. My goal from the outset was to create content that played to my strengths and served the paper’s needs. We have lost staff by attrition. We have no reporters assigned to our Sunday Viewpoints or Home & Family sections. I set out to write regular columns for Viewpoints. This meant I often went to see presidential candidates on the stump and used our editorial-board interviews with them to find angles for columns. For Home & Family, I initiated a personal column called “At My Age.” I pitched it to readers sixty and older, like me, but I also used it as a vehicle to write about almost anything I wanted: love, health, art, books, yoga, journal-keeping, how I met my wife. I have had more reader response to the “At My Age” column than to anything else I’ve written.

From the beginning of my year as a reporter, I had to learn and relearn lessons. Some were basic. As a kid sportswriter covering high school games in the 1960s, I had to write on the fly. I could dictate a lead on the phone without having written it. If the clock demanded it, I could file ten minutes after a game. Sometimes during my stringing days, I produced different deadline stories on the same game for two papers. Thus I had confidence that, almost forty-five years later, I could fire off cogent takes on presidential debates for the next morning’s edition.

It wasn’t necessarily so. The notes I took were too copious, and in the twenty minutes I had to write, I found myself lost in who said what. I struggled to be decisive about what mattered or who had scored. Although I developed more selective note-taking techniques and improved with time, deadline stories were among the least successful and rewarding pieces I did. It was a shock how difficult it was to do at sixty-one what had seemed like second nature at eighteen.

Reporting is a humbling job, not a glamorous one. Time—how reporters spend it, how little control they have over it—is always a factor. There is no joy in the hours spent reading town budgets, bills before the Legislature, or thick demographic reports on whether and why your state is losing young people. Mostly I was spared the boredom of government proceedings, but when I covered the annual town meeting in New London, the two newsworthy items were twenty-first and last on a twenty-four-item agenda. As I sat in the gym bleachers shifting my rear end on the hard seat and watching the clock, residents debated almost every item. I missed my 11 p.m. deadline. Another time, I heard that a man I wanted to interview was going to be at a meeting on a Saturday afternoon. I stepped into a church in Warner and found myself at a Masonic installation-of-officers ritual. With no gracious way to exit, I sat there for almost two hours.

That wasn’t the only time I learned a lesson the hard way. In conjunction with a presidential debate, Richard Schiff, the actor who played Toby Ziegler on The West Wing, came to Manchester to speak at a forum. Assigned to interview him beforehand, I put in a call to his publicist. I figured it would take a while for Schiff to return the call, so I rushed out to be fitted for a tux for my son’s wedding. Just as I was slipping into the jacket, my phone rang. It was a publicist for Schiff’s organization. I asked if I could call back, but the answer was no. A sudden thunderstorm was rattling the windows and darkening the day. Because the Concord High School prom was that night, teenagers and their moms packed the tux shop. I stripped off the coat, shouldered past preening teens and high-stepped through a downpour to my car. Breathless and sweating in the steamy car, I interviewed Schiff with the cell phone on speaker and my steering wheel for a desk.

Writing daily also brought surprising challenges. Despite years of editing, I found that I sometimes had feelings of inadequacy about the tenets of writing that are so dear to my heart: kill off without mercy the throat-clearing sentences that come naturally to every writer looking for a good lead; write a lead that hooks the reader instantly; use short sentences and simple words; know what your story is before you write it and resist even juicy details that stray from your theme; determine beforehand how many words a story is worth and stick close to that number. As an editor, I preached these basic lessons again and again. I have always told young reporters at the Monitor that if they followed this advice, the daily practice of reporting would take care of the rest. They would grow and prosper as journalists.

I still believe this. It’s just that I have a new understanding of how difficult these things are to do. Every one of those tenets is hard to follow with a deadline breathing down your neck. A lead (or lede, as I still prefer to spell it) is hard to write. Fifty-cent words creep into stories against a writer’s will. It’s much easier to write long than it is to write short. I was surprised at how often I needed to turn on that editor’s voice in my head, or ask another editor, to figure out why a story wasn’t going well.

My most gratifying work as a reporter has been for a project on World War II. Its origins were both personal and professional. My father died last year, and because I never got around to taping an interview with him until after Alzheimer’s had addled his memory, his World War II story died with him. Also, I had been following Ken Burns’s progress in making his PBS film, The War—his company, Florentine Films, is based seventy miles from Concord in Walpole, his hometown—and I knew its broadcast would heighten public interest in World War II. As the film’s debut drew near, I interviewed Burns on the back porch of his summer home on the shore of Lake Sunapee. I also reviewed The War for the paper.

For the Monitor’s World War II project, I set out with fellow reporter Meg Heckman to interview as many local people as possible who had experienced the war. We figured we’d find a couple of dozen people with stories to tell. But before we knew it, our prospective interview list totaled more than a hundred.

Our method was to do an extensive interview, transcribe it, and cut and reshape it into a chronological oral history. We double-checked the facts, sent the oral histories to their tellers for correction, and relied on our staff artist, Charlotte Thibault, to create maps to locate and help illustrate the stories. We began publishing our series, my war, on the Sunday in September that Burns’s film debuted. We are still running the stories as I write. We have told more than forty stories so far and have more to tell. People have entrusted their most harrowing and personal experiences to us. Many shared their stories for the first time.

Four remarkable things happened as a result of this series. Our readers got a firsthand education about the vastness of World War II, as did Meg and I. Readers learned that the remnant of this generation still in our midst includes neighbors who for decades have silently carried with them stories of courage, endurance, and adventure. With the help of Ari Richter, the Monitor’s managing editor, we added sound and in some cases video to the Web presentation. And by enlisting high school students to do some interviews, we created a community journalism project across generations.

There was a period last summer when World War II took more than half my work time. In addition to interviewing Burns, old soldiers, and others of that generation, I found more opportunities to write about it. Richard Rhodes, who won a Pulitzer Prize for The Making of the Atomic Bomb, came to Manchester for a speaking gig at a local college. I interviewed him about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, among other subjects. I asked Senator Chris Dodd’s staff to send me galley proofs of his upcoming book about his father’s letters from the Nuremberg trials, where Thomas J. Dodd had been a prosecutor. In July, two months before Letters from Nuremberg: My Father’s Narrative of a Quest for Justice was published, I was able to write a front-page story.

Then, as Dodd and the other presidential candidates quickened their pace, I joined the rest of the staff in covering them. Working mainly as a columnist, I learned a great deal about journalism from this on-the-ground experience. When John McCain’s campaign imploded last summer, I saw firsthand how much campaign beat reporters relish a political obituary. They might have preferred McCain’s open style to buttoned-down operations like Clinton’s or Mitt Romney’s, but preferences count for nothing when the mighty appear to be falling. I also observed how the coverage that candidates receive reflects the way they and their campaigns treat reporters. Because Clinton had a rough history with many of the reporters covering her, their stories tended to be highly critical from the outset. By contrast, it wasn’t until well after New Hampshire that reporters and columnists began to probe Barack Obama’s rhetoric and question his dearth of experience. In part, that was because Obama was refreshingly straightforward in answering journalists’ questions. The people who spoke for him were also more open and relaxed than Clinton’s aides.

The best part of being on the campaign trail is, simply, that it’s fun. Yes, the jokes get stale on the fourth telling, and the potential you see for a candidate to rise from the pack almost always proves to be empty. But I’ll not soon forget the day just before the primary when the Monitor’s Dan Barrick and I decided to team up to see as many candidates as possible and write a rolling account of what we witnessed. I rose before 5 a.m. in subzero temperatures and began my day talking with rowdy union members as they awaited John and Elizabeth Edwards at one of the old, red-brick Amoskeag mill buildings on the Merrimack River in Manchester. I had breakfast at a diner where Bill Richardson spouted false optimism and pumped hands. Outside, his and Ron Paul’s supporters held dueling rallies and Dennis Kucinich volunteers passed out fliers. At the Concord High School gym, I joined a throng to listen to a hoarse Obama celebrating his victory in Iowa. From there, I headed to Henniker to hear Mike Huckabee play bass guitar with Mama Kicks, a local band. I watched as his sidekick, Chuck Norris, revved up the teens in the crowd with muscle jokes and a call to abolish the income tax. By the time I had written my accounts and woven them with Barrick’s, it was 10 p.m.

The difference between our beat reporters and me was that most of them could have risen the next morning—every morning—and done it again. I needed a rest.

I have gained a few cosmic perspectives from my time as a reporter.

When I came to the Monitor thirty years ago, one of my first acts was to wean the staff away from turn-of-the-screw coverage of government. As a result, a newsroom already skeptical of the new boss surmised that I favored soft news, not hard, that I wanted people stories, not tough reporting. In reality, I believed then, as now, that excellent community journalism requires a combination of thorough reporting on public affairs and strong human stories that help readers get to know one another.

When I pick up papers around the country these days, it seems to me that both elements are in decline. The one diminishing the most is the human reporting. As their staffs shrink, newspapers are losing their ability to connect people to people.

After almost a year of reporting, I appreciate more than ever what journalists do—in part because they are doing more than ever. But mainly I am talking about what good reporters have always done. Every day, I see my colleagues sift out false information, challenge power, resist cheap shots, and hold stories until every fact has been checked and double-checked. They take the time to be fair. They are more concerned with being right than being first.

It troubles me that in the current media culture, instant communication and even instant analysis are valued so much more than the bedrock practices of journalists. I hope the day never comes when market forces kill off these practices.

Personally, I am glad not to be an editor anymore. As my younger colleagues might say, Those days are over, bitches. But this year of reporting has been a gift. It’s the best job on earth. 

Mike Pride is the administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes and editor emeritus of the Concord (New Hampshire) Monitor. He has been a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, co-chaired the Pulitzer Prize board, and written or co-authored six books. He and his wife Monique live in New York City and Goshen, New Hampshire.