News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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December 26, 2010

Stephanie Salter: I've got some really good news for some of you guys

TERRE HAUTE — Of all the sentences I’ve imagined writing in my long, moss-covered newspaper career, this is not one of them: I am quitting my job to get married.

Just a few years from Social Security and Medicare — if they don’t keep moving the finish line — I no more saw myself hanging up my scribe spikes early than I saw myself calling somebody “husband.” I was a happy spinster and career gal, content with friends, family, a barge full of great experiences and a relatively secure job that has never been about making much money.

But the problem with humans is, we can see ourselves only in the past and present. We really don’t know what’s coming at us, no matter how much we pretend we can plan for all contingencies. As I have written before, a wonderful man named Bill came my way and I have been persuaded to leave the road-less-traveled.

Right about here I need to call time-out to qualify what I just said: I am quitting my job at the Tribune-Star because I’m getting married in a few months, but — sorry, Tom, Mike, John, Ray and the rest of the letter-writing critics — I’m not disappearing forever from the opinion page.

After my Jan. 2 column, I plan to take time off, then return to the Trib-Star as a freelancer. Same opinions (sorry, again, gents), just not as often and minus my other full-time duties here. Readers who think I write only on Sundays probably won’t notice a thing.

I suppose I could sever all ties to the newspaper business (except as a subscriber), but I’d just as soon not conduct that experiment. Other than a four-year stint at a magazine in the early 1970s, I have worked at a newspaper since I was 19 years old. I have been a sports reporter, a higher education beat reporter, a general assignment reporter, a feature writer, a columnist, an editorial writer, an editor, and I have spent time at that most fulfilling, difficult news task, investigative journalism.

As you have read before in this space, I love newspapers, newspapering and newspaper people. Like cops and EMTs, we keep weird hours, get too much salt in our diet, lean toward inky dark humor and routinely see people at their most vulnerable, nasty, generous and triumphant. If a newspaper person is bored on the job, he or she belongs in another line of work.

Conservative pundits think they invented newspaper bashing, but print journalists have never been revered by society. One of my all-time favorite lines about the business is from the 1940 film “His Girl Friday,” with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. Playing the tough, veteran reporter, Hildy Johnson, Russell listens as a beleaguered news subject complains about the cynical and cruel patter of a bunch of city hall beat reporters.

“Why, they ain’t human, Miss Johnson,” the woman says.

“Of course they ain’t human,” Hildy replies, “they’re newspaper men.”

That was 70 years ago. Then, we had no hearts; now, we’re part of a vast liberal media conspiracy that is bankrolled by George Soros. (Still waiting for my hush money, George. Any day.)

A little more than six years ago, when I took over a vacated desk in the Trib-Star newsroom, I was grateful for the hiring window that allowed Max Jones to add me to the team roster. Relocated back to Indiana after 29 years in San Francisco, grieving my dad who died in October 2004 (and grieving my friends and home so far away), I found solace in the familiarity of daily newspapering.

I’d left a staff of hundreds for a staff you can count on your fingers and toes, but my colleagues — and our work — were no different from any I had experienced over the decades. Sometimes, after a long day, I would walk into the parking lot and be startled to realize I wasn’t in San Francisco. The workday was done, another newspaper was headed for bed, my world was as it had always been.

Because I am leaving as a full-timer, I can now state that anyone who isn’t in newspapering can’t appreciate how hard the reporters, photographers and editors of the Tribune-Star work to put out this paper. Whenever I hear people criticize our news coverage or complain that “you guys never dig into any real stories,” I want to bring them into the building and defy them to do what a handful of folks, working on Clinton-era computers, manages to accomplish, day in and day out, 365 news cycles a year.

One of my most treasured days in journalism, ever, was June 7, 2008, when a taped-together Saturday staff went into overdrive to cover the story of widespread flooding throughout the Valley. I still remember the moment news editor Zach Taylor and I were looking at a stunning aerial photo by Jim Avelis on Zach’s Macintosh. I wondered aloud how big we could run it. With a few clicks and keyboard strokes, Zach blew it up and it became one of the most dramatic page-ones I’ve ever seen.

But the symbol of that day — and of the business I love — was septuagenarian sportswriter Tom Reck. Soaking wet and in his sock feet, he came straight from his evacuated apartment to the newsroom, downed a cup of coffee and wrote a first-person account of his escape from fast-rising flood waters. That’s a newspaperman.

As I mentioned, my past six years would not have been possible without Max Jones. As editor, he takes regular heat for letting a liberal have her say here in the heartland, and he has backed my right to express my opinion even when he did not share it. (Max is old-fashioned that way; he really believes in the First Amendment.)

In Susan Duncan, assistant editor for news, I have found a friend, sister professional and a role model for the kind of “boss” I tried to be when I was promoted to the one and only managerial spot I expect ever to occupy. Take her out of the equation and my shelf of journalism awards would be much barer, my therapy bills sky-high.

As for publisher B.J. Riley, we have only a little history, but I recognize in him a crackerjack businessman who loves newspapers and respects the people who put them out. (Believe me, I cannot say that for many of the other publishers I have known over 40 years.) B.J., too, takes heat for giving me a forum, and I appreciate his offer to take some more when I return in the spring.

The last of the kudos goes to the readers of the Tribune-Star. Without you (and your renewed subscriptions), none of us would be here.

I confess, I didn’t expect much enthusiasm or support from you, but you surprised me from the beginning. For one thing, there are a lot more liberals in these parts than most people, including liberals, imagine. (Debs lives!) For another thing, even readers who tend to disagree with me still hear me out. I look forward to our continued exchanges.

Thursday, I will follow tradition and share my own eclectic roundup of notable people who’ve passed from our midst in 2010. Next Sunday, I’ll say au revoir with another blast about Indiana public education. After that, Tom, Mike, John, Ray, et al — you get the rest of the winter Salter-free.

Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or  

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