SEVENTEEN YEARS. It’s been 17 years this month since I began my career in journalism. In many ways, it feels like yesterday. In many ways, it feels like a lifetime.
I’m less than a month away from turning 40 (mark July 3 on your calendars), and I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about the past. I’m not doing what I expected to be doing … and I’m much happier than I ever imagined. My wife has a lot to do with that.
Though it’s been nearly 20 years, the memories of my first professional job interview are fresh. I had no idea Independence, Kansas, existed, let alone had a newspaper. I had no idea the town was 15 minutes away from where my father grew up in Coffeyville.
If not for my father, I still wouldn’t know much about Independence. Dad was worried I was going to sit around and do nothing for too long after I finished at Washburn in May 1999. In other words, taking a few weeks off wasn’t an option, even if I had my own place, paid my own bills and sort of had a plan (at least that’s what I told him).
At the time, dad lived in Warsaw, Missouri, but he was working at a craft show in Coffeyville. He stopped by after the show to visit and to drop off a business card he’d picked up from a photographer at the Independence Daily Reporter.
That was the only job lead I had after college. Of course, I wasn’t really trying at that point. I’d saved some money and planned to continue working part-time at the local Osage County Chronicle during the summer.
Somewhat begrudgingly, I called the Daily Reporter and spoke to the grizzled editor, an elder woman who had worked at the paper for more than 30 years. She knew little about sports, other than the paper needed a sports writer to help the sports editor.
In early June, I drove two hours south to Independence, arriving an hour early. I sat in my car down the street from the newspaper, trying to calm down. I ran as many questions through my head as I could, and I reviewed my portfolio for the 100th time.
The interview lasted all of 15 minutes. I don’t remember the questions. I remember meeting with the sports editor for 10 minutes. All told, less than 30 minutes. The editor offered me the job on the spot. Given the size of the town, I had a salary in mind. I figured the paper couldn’t meet it. I was shocked that the offer was more than expected: $385 a week ($20,000 a year). Ah, journalism.
I didn’t start for another month. My first day was July 6. The sports editor was on vacation, which wasn’t a surprise. If you work in sports, you take time off in the summer. That hasn’t changed to this day.
I remember being humbled by my first task: writing short stories about tee-ball. My dream of writing columns for the Capital-Journal seemed about as realistic as marrying a prom queen (somehow, both happened years later).
It might have been a small-town setting, but in many ways, I’ve never had more fun than I did in my first job out of college. I certainly learned more at the Daily Reporter than I have in any job.
The summers moved at the pace of Billy Butler on a grounder to second base. We really didn’t have much to do in sports. For the first few weeks, I dutifully stayed until 5 p.m. Mercifully, the grizzled editor came up to me one afternoon and said, “You really should go home early in the summer. Trust me, we’ll make up for it.” I remembered that well when I was working 70 hours a week during the fall and winter.
That first summer in Independence was a blast. Once the section was finished in the morning (the Daily Reporter was an afternoon paper), I spent most of my time planning and working on our special football section. The theme was a common one in sports sections in 1999: football teams of the millennium.
Each of the 10 teams we covered in the area got not only a preview, but also a “team of the millennium” feature. Much of the research for those stories entailed digging through the archives to determine which team in the 1900s was the best for each school.
Keep in mind this was 1999. The Internet had arrived, but it wasn’t as prevalent. The Daily Reporter wasn’t even online at the time (and wasn’t, amazingly, until 2015). So, when I say digging through the archives, I mean digging through the archives.
The sports editor, Brian Thomas, still a sports editor and now an icon in the region, and I spent most of July and August in the paper’s storage room. The bound archives were not organized. They were stacked on top of old desks, buried on and behind newspapers, a complete and utter mess. It was the dried ink and faded yellow paper version of “American Pickers.”
Among the characters I met at the first job was the longtime publisher, Hub Meyer. To say Hub was old school would be to say Craig’s List hurt newspapers. He was blunt. He was honest. He absolutely loved the news.
Hub began working at the Daily Reporter when his father, the publisher, died in the early 1970s. He was the publisher until his death in 2014. I had not seen Hub since I left in 2000, but I will never forget his last words to me: “Ernie, you did a really good job here, and you’re a talented guy. I expect you do really well. The best of luck to you.”
I worked in newspapers for 11 years. Those words are the ones I remember the most to this day. I also know that in 11 years of working at newspapers, I got bonuses twice. Once was at the Daily Reporter, the smallest paper I worked at.
What I also remember about Hub, usually short on praise, is how he reacted when Brian and I finished the football tab. He loved that tab more than we did. He also smiled like The Grinch when he was done reading it. I realized why the next day when I saw a bin of football tabs in the front office for $2 each. They sold out in a week.
All these years later, I think about those first few months in Independence often. I think about my late-night jogs past old, cozy houses on weathered, cracked sidewalks. I think about climbing on top of a desk and chair in a musty, stoic storage room to grab the June 1912 editions of the Daily Reporter. I think about how dazzled I was reading box scores in those papers dotted with names like Cobb, Ruth and Gehrig.
I made a little more than $20,000 in my 14 months in Independence, but I gained a lifetime of memories.