Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Life's lessons aren't always pleasant: A final conversation with a good newspaperman discarded after loyalty went unrewarded

A few months ago, as a way of expressing sorrow at the death of a former colleague, I wrote this blog. I didn’t post it at the time because I wasn’t sure it was appropriate. But today, as I sat in my basement, I decided that the fellow would have liked this. I will refer to him as “Kevin” in this dispatch. May he rest in peace and make sure St. Pete sticks to deadlines.

At the time, I wasn’t sure why I was meeting the former colleague.
It’s not that we’d been particularly close for some time.
And I feared that he was going to try to sell me one of his phone plans, as I‘d heard that was one of his enterprises since he was shooed out the door by the newspaper to which he had given his life.
I was aware that he had personal problems, at least one of them unfairly publicized. Nobody’s really mentioned that in all the wonderful things they’ve said about him in the days since he dropped dead of a heart attack. But we all have personal problems.
Those who know me best know I’ve confronted many a demon and have come out the better man on the other side for the most part. I “swapped” demon stories with Kristofferson once and I think even he was amazed.
So Kevin’s more recent problem certainly wasn’t something we’d talk about unless he asked for advice, which I didn’t anticipate to be the case.
I had no interest in it and I’m nonjudgmental unless you are preaching the virtues of bland, uninspired, bottom-line information sharing (I believe that is a form of what once was referred to as journalism) or if you shoot somebody more than once in the head and then gut him, sternum to scrotum. I’m not sure which of those types of people ranks lower in my esteem.
I viewed my departure -- from the newspaper that Kevin loved and lost -- as perhaps one of those innocent Iraqi civilians probably felt after a few hours of water boarding by some of my Green Beret friends. I’d embraced the freedom, despite the big question marks about the future. I knew I had to feed a family and pay bills. I no longer felt like I was suffocating beneath a tsunami of dishonesty and the back-stabbing disrespect of even people I thought had once been good journalists… friends even.
At least I got out with a modest buyout that enabled me to go about getting established as a freelance writer and a part-time college educator.
It was our difference in opinion as to our employer, or at least some of the people and policies, that perhaps drove me and the guy I’m calling “Kevin” here apart years ago. He was so loyal that he was blinded and eventually blindsided by that employer. I think that broke the heart that eventually ceased beating a week or so ago.
But one thing I always liked about Kevin was his interest in music, a passion of mine, and his love and depth of knowledge in some types of the art form that exceeded my own by a long ways. He also had an affinity for the work of Elvis’ original guitarist, Scotty Moore. And since Scotty had become a friend of mine over the years, that was one thing Kevin and I could discuss. I also was a friend of Bobby Thompson, Vassar Clements and Josh Graves, all of which I guess raised me in Kevin’s rankings.
It was his love of music that brought us back together, almost three years after we’d had any contact other than an occasional e-mail.
I’d read his blog about country music and sent him a note saying I enjoyed an entry. He responded with a request for coffee sometime.
OK. The last time I’d seen him, we weren’t necessarily friends. I was being held up as the poster boy of the kind of journalist no longer wanted. And I had politely, always, resisted what newspapering had become while I continued my refusal to partake in the back-stabbing and bending over that it apparently took to succeed any more. I may be right, I may be crazy… Actually, I guess there’s little doubt as to both of those qualities.
I’d been in newspapering for almost 35 years and if I had anything to show for it -- other than slow aches in my heart when I thought of some of the stories I covered, bodies and splattered brains seen, innocents and innocence lost -- it was that I could sleep at night, at least when the caffeine wore off. I tried to treat people fairly.
Kevin instead had chosen to embrace, for the most part, the newspaper. Now I’m not saying he was wrong. He had his motivations. And besides that, from where I sat, at least he had earned his spot on that up-elevator through hard work and misplaced loyalty.
And while I’m not sure if he fully bought into what had become of newspapers, he represented that hellish and heartless descent to me.
He also shaved off his beard, wore ties and pretty much excused or made excuses for the hierarchy. And once, when an otherwise good employee used profanity, in exasperation, in an e-mail about a story running late, Kevin exploded and said he was going to report that to the big shots. Let me be specific here: The big shots in this story are not the big shots, necessarily, still involved at the unnamed newspaper. They’ve either moved on, been farmed out or been decapitated while, out of corporate habit, bending over.
I knew Kevin was a better man than that and that he knew better. But he loved his job, for the most part. And that is to be admired.
I had loved my job sometimes during my life.
And he loved the newspaper. I wish I had that same love for the newspaper at which I was his colleague, but it didn’t deserve it. It did deserve loyalty from me while I was employed there, though. Loyalty and respect are not the same thing. But I would never bad-mouth an organization and still accept their paychecks.
Where in the past we could discuss things as more or less equals, he became, to me at least, the voice of rigid authority.
I do not like rigid authority. So, as is my nature, I rebelled in the only way I could. I did the right thing, at least as I perceived it, whether it bothered anyone or not.
I tried to work hard, earn my pay and as much as possible steer clear of the man who actually loved the newspaper that was losing its spine after long losing its soul. I do not back talk my bosses unless they are attacking someone I love or someone who is my charge. I must amend that to add that I do back talk my boss now and my son keeps telling me to quit sitting in my office cussing at the guy with long, white hair.
After the early years, in which I called him Kevin, I began to call him “Mr. (Insert last name here).” Sometimes I called him “Boss.” It was not said sarcastically. I just couldn’t call him Kevin any more, but as I was collecting a paycheck, he was one of the bosses and I did as I was told, at least most of the time, unless someone was going to get hurt. Or I had moral objections.
So, when I left my final shift in corporate journalism, I shook hands with Kevin, kind of like Jake saying goodbye to the prison guards while being released at Joliet.
The phone call from Kevin came about three or four months ago or so. I do keep a fairly busy (thankfully) schedule, so it was a month or so before we could get together.
He was going to be in my part of town after some sort of job-search seminar.
You see, perhaps two years after I left the newspaper, more or less on my terms, he had been escorted to the door. It was a part of a purge of many of the old hands, a talented and loyal bunch who’d invested their lives and hopes and dreams at that newspaper.
I much preferred my prior newspaper locales, but I actually had dreams at the newspaper where I worked with Kevin, too. Until one of the bosses, similarly put to pasture, told me my dreams and goals “didn’t matter.” I also had been told I was “too old.”
As for Kevin’s job loss, well, I’m not sure if his problems had anything to do with it. I doubt it. For all I could find out, it was a simple matter of streamlining, of cutting out the people with institutional knowledge in favor of the younger people who matched, more perfectly, the demographic. Upper middle-class white shoppers who like second-hand lace panties and Taylor Swift music seemed to be the target.
But even though I didn’t have a lot of affinity for Kevin at the time I heard he had been let go, I viewed what happened to him as a betrayal by his “family.” Here was a good man who had sacrificed, perhaps even bent over a little too much, because he believed in the ultimate product.
He believed in putting out a good newspaper with correctly written headlines and good attributions.
He believed in working hard to make sure that happened.
Yes, I regarded him as a corporate guy, but his elevator to the top already had begun its descent by the time I left. If he couldn’t see it coming, I could.
Still, he believed in the product. And he believed in treating people fairly.
Pretty good traits for a guy who I had come to regard, at least for a time, as just another corporate puke.
Well, there’s not a lot of sense in dwelling any longer on this.
When he and I met, it was over iced coffee at a local bread shop. We joked a little about the days we’d worked together.
Then he said “Tim, I think it’s probably my fault for the fact we somehow drifted apart. I did and said things, or maybe I didn’t say things when I should have. But I’m sorry. Really sorry.”
That’s really all it took. It’s not like he was the epitome of what had happened to my beloved newspaper industry. It was just a guy who said he had made some bad choices. Heck, I’ve done that myself.
And I really felt badly that he had been betrayed by something he believed in.
So we finished out the long afternoon drinking iced coffee and talking about Scotty Moore.