The glow of a late journalist’s lessons brightens an anniversary to reflect on and a role to relish
When I decided to leave The Oregonian last summer a mentor and friend offered sage advice over the last of our monthly lunches. The first year of a big cross-country, career-changing move like this, he advised, might be rough. But, he believed, a year later I would look back and be glad I weathered it and know it had been the right thing to do.
Firm in my decision yet wrestling with the emotions of leaving not just a newsroom I had grown up in, but a part of the country and a life I loved, I hoped so.
Now, nearing my first anniversary at OU, I’m confident this is where I’m supposed to be.
My job officially has two parts. One is as digital and design adviser for all of what we do at OU Student Media, from Sooner yearbook to The Oklahoma Daily to Ad Force to whatever we might dream up next. One is as editorial adviser to Sooner yearbook. (In a lesser capacity, I also teach as an adjunct in OU’s Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication.) Upon accepting the job, I thought that meant steering students through the process of creating a yearbook, guiding them to better visual work and coaching up people on digital; all framed around the goal of growing audience. I had differing degrees of experience with each, but looked forward to the challenge of all. More than anything, though, my career had been framed around creating change and I was excited to enter another situation ripe for that.
What I did not fully anticipate was a different sphere of the job, which has been the most difficult yet rewarding: The students. Of course, I understood that I would be advising students. But I did not grasp as a veteran journalist, fledgling educator, person or parent how simultaneously fulfilling and exhausting it would be. I have said at times this past year that I feel like I went from having three children to approximately 93. Although that may sound overwhelming (at times it is), I say it with great joy.
I’m back where I fell in love with journalism. In the room where I met and later fell for my wife. On the campus that inspired me. In the town I was raised in. I’m repaying the lessons and the listening, the stern kicks in the pants and the simple kindnesses that my mentors bestowed on me through the years.
I’ve been blessed with a great number of wonderful mentors. But in the past year one particular person has helped me find a new clarity, happiness and effectiveness in this job.
The oddity of it?
We never met. In fact, she died before I contemplated a career in journalism.
Gail Westry was one of the people who physically embodied many of the values that breathed life into The Oregonian’s old newsroom at 1320 S.W. Broadway, so I learned over a series of phone calls in the spring of 2000.
The North Carolinian, working as an editor at The Oregonian, had died of cancer just before Christmas in 1994. She was 40 and left behind a young son, Desmond. Her friends, in an act equal parts celebration of life and processing of grief, created a memorial internship to honor her legacy. Each summer, a panel of those who knew Gail would interview the roughly 15 students picked from across the nation to come to Portland and then select the one they felt most embodied their friend’s spirit.
That was my understanding based on a pamphlet mailed with my offer letter and a phone call from a reporter conducting committee interviews. Subsequent conversations revealed more. Gail made friends easily. She smiled a lot. She listened more. She cared — and unabashedly showed it — always. She made those around her better, and brightened their lives.
And so, some time later, I — a mumbly, retreating, 22-year-old who often felt out of my depth in Oklahoma, much less in what I anticipated would be Portland’s urbane West Coast dynamic — was humbled (and, honestly, mortified) to learn I was to be that summer’s Westry intern. I was no Gail Westry. I wasn’t sure I’d even met anyone like her.
Nonetheless, there would be a little ceremony, I was told, in some part of the newsroom called The Well and a lot of people would attend. A knot built in my stomach over the idea of being singled out before strangers.
The day arrived shortly after my internship began. I wore a poorly knotted tie, tried to mask my nerves and hoped I wouldn’t have to speak. The Well, which I’d quickly learned was the physical heart of The Oregonian’s newsroom, was full; some of its collapsable walls rolled back so an already large room could accommodate even more people.
The ceremony began and my attempts to look calm and dignified failed. (“You looked,” I was told years later in the frank manner one journalist talks with another, “like you had a stick up your ass up there.”) My nerves raced. Friends of Gail, members of the selection committee, veteran newsroom editors gathered up front. They talked about who Gail was as a person, what she meant to The Oregonian, what she meant to them as a friend. Even gazing at my shoes the power of their words was impossible to miss. When I occasionally looked up into the faces of the people who would become my future colleagues I was taken aback to see tears on many faces. Not just people like a beloved obituary writer and a kindly news researcher, but also venerable masthead names.
In that moment I glimpsed the real culture of The Oregonian. It was a newsroom, yet more.
Soon, the internship turned into a job. The job into an extended family of sorts. Personally and professionally, the family into a satisfying and rewarding life. Amy and I married, traveled, set down roots, renovated a house, started a family, built life-long friendships. Fourteen years and 1,943 miles away from home didn’t feel so distant because The Oregonian and Portland was a destination. Fueled by a culture of journalistic rigor, editors Sandy Rowe and Peter Bhatia engineered a machine that at its zenith could compete with any newsroom in the nation.
Compete we did, dominating the Northwest and winning many of journalism’s top honors along the way. But even when we’d gather in The Well to celebrate another Pulitzer or to mourn the death of a colleague, Sandy or Peter would almost invariably pause the proceedings and say — with not a trace of arrogance, but rather a deep appreciation for its rarity — For as good as we are as journalists, what makes The Oregonian special is that we’re a newsroom of even better people.
In each of those moments, five, 10, even 15 years after her death, I knew the glow of Gail burned bright.
Visitors to The Oregonian’s old newsroom generally entered via a hallway in which many of the higher-profile awards were displayed. The growing lineup of Pulitzers — six collected since 1999 — lined one side in large frames with photos of the winners, reproductions of the coverage and, of course, the lede-to-your-obit certificates. On the other wall in neat rows stacked from floor to ceiling were dozens and dozens of National Headliners, Blethens, Stickels and more. To have your name in that hall carried unspoken but understood weight.
Tucked among all that hardware was just one plaque, as I recall, that honored something beyond our collective Journalism: The Westry. A simple wood base. A raised black backdrop with a bronzed, glowing representation of Gail’s smiling face. A heading to identify its purpose. The years of her birth and death beneath her image. Recipients’ names and the years they were selected engraved and added each summer since 1995. And these words: Gail Westry was filled with optimism, humor and a concern for humanity. This internship strives to recognize and nurture these qualities in journalism’s next generation.
Years passed, life unfolded, a business model unraveled. Like many newsrooms, we accepted too late that disruption had arrived and with it the necessity of evolution. Even when we got religion, at times still we moved too slowly. Then, at others, we changed too rapidly without fully anticipating the consequences. I know I made mistakes. I suspect we could all admit a few. All the while, though, we grappled with an honorable question: How to preserve the bedrock values that had made The Oregonian great while fearlessly innovating so it could remain so.
At ground level, we began to see what revolutionary change looked like. One year there was no budget for an internship program at all. A gap in the plaque’s timeline. Recipients who had become staffers, automatically joining the committee, left for other opportunities. The committee shrank. At multiple points buyouts were offered and, as I recall, some on the Westry committee took them. An already small group withered. By 2007, most of the remaining committee members who had known Gail were poised to depart.
We hated the idea of disbanding the internship. Worse, we dreaded the idea that one day The Oregonian might not remember Gail. We commissioned a new display, a framed piece recounting who she was, what she meant, those who’d been selected and when the program ceased. At the center, Gail’s smiling face. To be displayed — where else? — at the entry to The Well.
I’ll never forget seeing a prominent member of the newsroom later pass the new display. Without breaking stride, she raised a finger to her lips and then gently pressed it to Gail’s face as she returned to her work. The glow had dimmed, but it endured.
I began to plan my exit, building a path to return to the University of Oklahoma. It was the only place I wanted to work if I was going to leave because it too was a place built on public service, bold ambition and a culture of learning.
The renamed Oregonian Media Group was planning a new future as well. 1320 S.W. Broadway, our home since 1948, hit the market. A bold and beautiful future awaited in leased offices overlooking the Willamette River. On tours of the construction site it was widely noted that the sports editor’s desk — my desk — would have the best view in the entire office: Mount Hood. Alpenglow, I realized, would glimmer in my peripheral vision as I worked through another dinner my wife and children ate without me.
It was a clean slate and truthfully, perhaps, a necessary one. A minor manifestation of that would be the wall decorations, which we were told had been carefully selected by interior designers. Packing/discarding began at Broadway and one day I, the last person still working for The Oregonian who had been on the Westry committee at the end, arrived to find both the old plaque and the new display on my desk. A note explained they would not be hung at the new location. I took them to my boss, one of the masthead names who had tears on her cheeks at that reception in 2000, and explained what she already knew better than I: Gail, a person she had actually worked with, should not be forgotten in the new location. She took the display and said she would aim to hang it somewhere when those freshly painted walls had absorbed few nicks. I took home the old plaque and hung it in my garage.
A week or so before we were to depart the Broadway location (which itself is being remade for a new life as you can see in the video), and days before our new editor was to begin, I got an offer from OU for this job. As an editor I had always believed you should never ask more of your staff than you would give yourself. So for years I had bullheadedly rolled up my sleeves and done hands-on work, generally low-level needs so reporters could still report, helping push the plow that was our 28-person department to success and security. Consequently, I lacked anything resembling a sustainable life-work balance. I finally accepted it was a problem during the 2012 Olympics, two staffers working on London time and college football season looming, when I went to the emergency room one night with chest pains. I was 35, a regular bike commuter; stress, the docs shrugged, after a litany of tests. Two years later I was still exhausted and increasingly frustrated by what felt like a shrinking degree of autonomy. Journalism is hard work but it is not ditch digging. The glow, the fun, was fading.
I needed to recapture what I had loved as I worked my way from intern to sports editor. I thumbed through a notebook I have carried off and on for more than a decade. On the first page, dated Aug. 17, 2004, when I still was working as a copy editor, it was all spelled out in my careful penmanship under the heading “THREE CAREER GOALS” followed by a couple of cliche quotes I’d picked up at some conference or another. (Yes, I know some may find my idealism nauseating.) On the list: “Continue education — both for myself and through mentoring future journalists.”
Things I’d figured out at 27 again became clear at 37. The parts I had loved the most were what great editors had done for me years before: Creating a culture where finding and growing new talent, then getting them off to successful starts in this business — whatever it becomes — was vital. Do that and the rest will fall into place. That was the job offer at OU.
I accepted, gave notice, said too many hard goodbyes over the subsequent weeks and planned the cross-country move. The Westry plaque and other keepsakes from the then-shuttered Broadway building were carefully packed into boxes marked FRAGILE.
College has not changed much, I think at times as I walk campus, and then I am reminded of the many drastic ways it has. Tuition costs while here; student debt after you’re gone. Social media and its endless peer pressures. Media messages of all kinds at all times about bodies and sex and expectations. Mental health concerns, hiding in plain sight but still often misunderstood. Countless new ways to get into trouble with an inebriated tap and swipe. Civic discourse, individual conversation, online dialogue, anonymity. The economy. The job market. The concept, once a given, that each generation will do better than the one that preceded it.
Students today are so strong and yet, like treasured items in the boxes I packed for the move, so fragile. I don’t mean this in any sort of care-to-the-wind manner; I’m not that kind of person. But at times I want to grab them by the shoulders, give them a good shake and tell them it’s going to be OK. Because I genuinely believe that will be the case. I want to tell them that in agonizing over what might be, they too often miss out on what actually is. That in spending so much time crafting a persona, they don’t let many see their real selves. And that worried their own curated personas will be exposed, they rarely peel back the fraudulent veneers of their peers’ Tumblrs, Snapchats and Instagrams. Human conversation appears a lost art with too many, and conflict that leaps beyond antagonizing an avatar is either purely paralyzing or atomic warfare. It all often leaves me wanting to scream, You’re missing out on what should be some of the best years of your lives!
I bring that up to juxtapose what this job might once have been against what it has become. My original mentor at The Daily, where I now co-advise with the great Judy Gibbs Robinson, was an old-school gentleman journalist named Jack Willis. His patience and grace in gently shepherding aspiring journalists to become real ones, showing us the way but letting us walk the path, was the perfect fit for me and countless others. Jack always believed in and challenged us, and the morning after a big story there was no grander praise than, “You covered it like the pros today.”
Those old ways still work, but like in journalism itself, evolution is essential. And so I’ve carried on Jack’s mantra of offering more questions than answers, the better to spur students to puzzle through, to debate, to converse, to reach their own conclusions rather than simply implement whatever mine might be. I’ve introduced the all-important question Sandy would ask, “What does success look like?” and peppered students with it as they roll out new experiments to better coverage. I’ve added my spin to the dialogue with #ITVI (“Is there value in…?”) as we’ve shifted to GroupMe and Slack for real-time conversation, the better to expand their minds as digital coverage unfolds, not just in print-focused budget meetings.
Leading — advising, if you will — boils down to three age-old things: Culture. Motivation. Accountability. We’re helping students build something, showing them how to succeed in that new space and how to manage it effectively themselves. The culture will come and the accountability will follow. But in my first years in the job the motivation is key. I must show them the value and necessity of jobs that they’re being told lack both. I must help them not only to master the basics, but to shoot past that foundation and into the space of experimentation, innovation and risk. And to the resulting rewards, which I’m confident will be some of these students helping to create the new future of our industry.
This is where Gail and her glow enter the game. There’s no motivation without investment. So I’m trying to get to know our students as people, not just personas. To understand them. To care, and unabashedly show it. To make them better. To, if I ever really get to be any good at this, maybe brighten a few lives. Someday. Already, in establishing some trust new horizons are opening. We talk of their hopes and dreams and how to help get them closer to realizing them. We have the conversations my mentors had with me. We have the conversations I believe Gail had with so many.
When things are good we talk of Mary Cain, the teenage running phenom, and the progressive-overload principle I’m adapting journalistically for the best of our best. When things are difficult we talk of my favorite feature story, Unfinished Business, the Finnish word Sisu and this passage: “He said it is like when you climb Everest. You get a glimpse of Everest, and then it disappears. For a long time, all you see are the rows of hills in your way, and you can’t imagine that you will ever get there. And then, suddenly, you see Everest again, sparkling in the sunshine.”
It’s in each of these countless little human moments with these strong yet fragile students that I’m recapturing what I loved most about The Oregonian: The joy of contributing to something greater than any individual can accomplish alone.
After being crazy enough to let me — six months removed from The Oklahoma Daily — copy edit the six-part investigative series that led The Oregonian’s winning entry for the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, the trio of Sandy, Peter and copy desk chief Jerry Sass was generous enough to procure for me a personal copy of the Pulitzer certificate.
I was only the copy editor, making a small contribution to a large team that collectively accomplished something greater than any individual could have alone. Still, if possible, I knew I would bring that piece of paper back to OU someday, to hang it where students — maybe mumbly, retreating ones like I used to be — could see it and dream a little bigger than they once might have. To know that kids from here could go anywhere and, if their hard work intersected with being in the right place at the right time, their experiences at The Daily or Sooner would help them capably perform on journalism’s biggest stages.
But the most meaningful honor from all those years at The Oregonian is not the one most would assume. Instead, it is one you might not notice if you walked in and sat in the old-school editor’s chair beside my desk. The place where students regularly plop down and unload their thoughts.
Sometimes, to cry.
Few of them notice it either.
But I see it all the while, hovering above them, Gail’s glowing face a reminder of what matters most.
It’s better than Alpenglow illuminating Mount Hood. And I get home in time for dinner with my family.
The Westry interns
1995 Maisha Maurant
1996 Tracy Cutchlow
1997 Clifton Chestnut
1998 Crystal Carreon, Victor Chen
1999 Paige Parker
2000 Seth Prince
2001 Joy Woodson
2002 None selected
2003 Esmeralda Bermudez
2004 Victoria-Lola Leon Guerrero
2005 No internship program
2006 Gosia Wozniacka
2007 Tracie Morales