A feature writer’s poignant farewell

Veteran features writer Kristen Cook submitted her resignation letter to the Arizona Daily Star on August 28, after 26 years with the newspaper. She posted the letter below on Facebook and asked her followers to share it if they cared about journalism and newspapers. Share they did, more than 200 times. Readers and sources also left her more than 200 comments.

So this is it. I’m done.

After 26 years at the Arizona Daily Star, I’m hanging up my media badge.

If I come up and ask you something that seems incredibly nosy, that’s all on me now. Sheer snoopiness. I no longer can hide behind a reporter’s right to know.

It’s been fun, it’s been frustrating. It’s been long. The time is right to check out of the newspaper biz.

I’ve always joked that I — the one who worked part time and received no benefits or raises — would be the last one left, the one who’d turn out the newsroom lights, just like I turned them on for so many years when, as part of juggling parenthood and paycheck, I’d adjusted my shift to start at 6:30 in the a of m.

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I’ve covered the worst of the worst. Murders, homicide trials, stories so shockingly awful they still haunt me. One of my mementos is a small, color photo of a young teen, lips painted red, holding a basketball on her lap and a trophy in the other hand. This 15-year-old girl went to a sleepover, gave birth to a baby in a toilet and strangled him. Tragic on so many levels. Covering that case landed me on a cross-country flight to New York for a spot on a daytime talk show. The hot topic was the epidemic of teen pregnancy. The show taped on the very same set as “Saturday Night Live.” While waiting to go on air, I sat on Cheri Oteri’s lightly soiled, green couch, feeling just nervous enough to make a stain of my own on the well-worn fabric.

I’ve hunted for rattlesnakes and sweet-talked a James Beard-award winning chef into letting me feed him fried Spam and watermelon. I wrote about the woman who makes treats for the animals at the zoo, hydroplaned on the very track used to train police officers and firetruck drivers and hung out with the 4-year-old lead singer of his family’s rock band. Little dude wrote his own songs including one that used the word “meow” 16 times. The song, of course, was called “Cowboy Kitty.”

Kristen Cook

Hardboiled types dismiss the stuff I’ve written (and loved the most) as unimportant “fluff.” But that fluff — the little piece about the 72-year-old woman who took up stilt walking — is the stuff that ends up carefully cut out and saved in a box of family treasures. “Remember when grandma was in the paper?” Being on the front page is something special that not many can brag about.

It’s a huge responsibility to be trusted to tell someone’s story.

When you write a feature, you’re invited in. You hear dark secrets, great joys. You laugh with strangers, cry with them. A few hours later, you’re friends.

And the feature stories that come from these interviews are just what people need — more than ever — after wading through headline after headline of gloom and doom. Fluff? No, it’s the writing equivalent of a warm blanket, a steaming cup of cocoa that soothes as the storm rages outside.

But newspapers are struggling. The staffs are shrinking, just like the paper itself. Sometimes, I spot the flat, plastic-wrapped package on my driveway and it’s hard to tell if it’s really the paper or a “Find Jesus” pamphlet. There are still plenty of stories to tell, but fewer people to tell them. And fewer people who want to pay to read them.

It is what it is.

Bless those Spotlighters out there who are still fighting the good fight. I love hearing about the small, family-run papers making a difference in their communities. I don’t love that many newspapers are run by corporations with policies to reward their CEOs with six-figure raises while laying off the foot soldiers who’ve been faithfully toiling in the trenches. I think it sucks that newsrooms are full of idealistic people who work hard because they believe in what they do and because they want to highlight injustice and yet they’re not valued or appropriately compensated. More than once a coworker was laid off only to be hired back a year or so later to the same job — for less money. Most journalists sure as heck aren’t in the field for any monetary reward. They do it because ink runs through their veins.

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I have, well, had coworkers who revel in hate mail. I wish I could be as thick-skinned. Instead, I kept a “validation” folder. I treasure those notes from readers who would take the time to tell me they liked something bearing my byline. Sometimes they would tell me a story back. It’s a special connection to have someone you’ve never met feel like they can talk to you.

Those faithful subscribers are the ones who kept me going. But, I’ve done all I can with this medium.

I cringe when I read the paper and see simple grammatical errors or careless mistakes like two versions of the same story running in different sections. But, I get how it happens. There’s less time and fewer eyes to catch goofs. I don’t judge. Mistakes happen. We’re human.

I’m human.

And so I see my 17-year-old daughter, who’s got the world at her fingertips, exploring colleges. It’s scary, but mostly it’s exciting. Limitless. The world is never more full of possibilities than when you’re 17. Maybe even when you’re 47.

I’m not too old to make a change.

What is it I want to do? What I wanted to do when I was 7: write a book. Although now I would not write about a white horse with a gleaming silver mane.

I think I can pull this off. After all, I have pinky-swears from two people who said they’d buy any book I wrote. So, that’s two sales.

When my middle child was in kindergarten, she sang a song called “Kindergarten Blues” for a talent show. It was, as you can guess, all about the hardship and suckiness of that initial foray into school. But, the triumphant last line — and one she performed with a giant smile and happily jiggling jazz hands — is “A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.”

That’s how I feel.

You can’t see it, but my hands are waving.

Oh yeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaah.

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Kristen Cook covered cops, local government, juvenile justice issues, courts, and education and was a features writer and columnist in her 26 years with the Arizona Daily Star. A University of Arizona journalism graduate and perennial Arizona Press Club winner, the mother of three lives in Tucson.