A.A. changed my life.
No, not Alcoholics Anonymous. I’m referring to a publication called Advertising Age. Journalism students at my college were encouraged to read it. I was then a student in the advertising option of its journalism program.
Most of A.A.’s pictures were of advertising executives in suits standing around with cocktails in their hands. The cocktail part sounded okay. I was, after all, a student at the University of Idaho, where drinking beer was practically the school sport. It was the suits that bothered me.
Did I really want to spend my life in a suit and tie, mingling with other people in suits and ties, talking about the hottest trends in underwear and mouthwash commercials?
It led to one of the best decisions of my life. I decided it made more sense to do what you do well and enjoy doing than something that will pay you a lot of money but make you hate going to work every day. My advisor spluttered and fumed when asked if it was possible to change majors as a senior, but he made it happen. The rest, as they say, is history. I went to work at my hometown newspaper, The Idaho Statesman, and spent 40 years there.
Now, here I am at The Idaho Press.
The reason for changing horses way past midstream is simple. I did what I do best and enjoyed doing for most of my time at The Statesman, including writing columns in semi-retirement. Recently, that changed. I was limited to writing once a month about “people in the community.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with writing about people in the community. But personal columns are what readers have been telling me for years are their favorites. Being told not to do them was a little like telling a piano player to use only one color of keys.
So, when Idaho Press Editor Scott McIntosh told me he believed in hiring good people and getting out of their way to let them do what they do best, what could have been a difficult decision became an easy one.
And here I am.
I owe The Statesman a lot. It gave me a career that was almost never boring. It opened doors to meeting scores of colorful Idaho characters, interviewing famous people, traveling the world. Lifelong friendships began there.
You don’t leave a place where you spent most of your working life without some reservations. But it was the right time, the right fit. The Statesman is focusing heavily on digital; the Press is more committed to print. It’s signed up 5,000 new subscribers since June, a circulation percentage increase few newspapers anywhere can claim. I’m a print guy. Most of my readers are print readers. And in a way, this brings me full circle.
My first job at the Statesman was in the Canyon County Bureau. Those were flush times for newspapers. The Statesman had full-time bureaus in Canyon County, Twin Falls, and Ontario and Vale, Ore. Canyon County’s was in a corner office in downtown Caldwell.
It was an ideal place for a rookie reporter to learn the ropes. I covered city council and school board meetings, cops and courts when the other bureau reporter was off, wrote business, general-assignment and feature stories, took photographs, pretty much everything.
It yielded some memorable moments. No one who witnessed it will forget “the Underwood Incident,” in which a reporter in a fit of rage hurled her prized, vintage typewriter across the Caldwell bureau office. Journalism could be pretty colorful in those days,.
One day my editor sent a message asking the bureau folks to be on the lookout for weather photos. I happened to drive by a Caldwell golf course that afternoon just as two elderly golfers were teeing off in a snowstorm. They were dressed head to toe in Scottish golf outfits – kilts, tam o’ shanters, the works. The snowflakes were the size of quarters. It was the perfect weather photo,
Only it never made the paper. A few days later, my negatives were returned with a message that read, “These are great shots of these golfers, but the negatives are covered with black dots.”
The black dots, of course, were snowflakes – which would have been obvious had anyone gone to the trouble of making prints of the negatives. (I can tease my then editor about it now because he’s a longtime friend.)
I’d been on the job less than a month when he asked me to review a symphony orchestra concert at the College of Idaho. I was ridiculously unqualified and said so.
“Don’t worry about it,” he replied. “Just go and describe the concert and get some quotes from people in the audience.”
It seemed to work until, a week or so later, a letter to the editor described my review as being “egregiously bad.” Only after looking it up did I realize that that meant extraordinarily bad. Flagrantly bad. As bad as a review can possibly get.
A retired College of Idaho teacher influenced me for life. Margaret Sinclair was a master grammarian who wrote to say she enjoyed my stories but had noticed that I didn’t always use the language correctly. Would I mind if she sent me an occasional lesson?
Mind? She taught me more about the finer points of English usage than all of the textbooks combined.
I owe a lot to the late Margaret Sinclair, and to the late Canyon County Bureau. A new reporter couldn’t have had a better grounding.
Now, a few thousand columns later, I’m back, doing what I love and looking forward to sharing some of your Sundays with you. Sometimes one Sunday a month, sometimes more.
And, like any good piano player, I’ll be using all the keys.
Tim Woodward’s column appears in The Idaho Press on the first Sunday of each month, often more frequently, and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Got a column idea for him? Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.