AD Main Menu

Julia O'Malley: At the newspaper that raised me, a new story unfolds

Julia O'Malley

When I first walked through the Daily News office 19 years ago, I was 16 years old. What I remember most were personalities. Mike Doogan, metro columnist, paced, ornery and preoccupied. Sheila Toomey, court reporter, cradled a phone between ear and shoulder, laughing way too loud. Don Hunter, who covered City Hall, muttered at his computer. The desks were all paper piles and coffee rings.

Those were the "good old days" people talk about now. A few years out from the last Pulitzer and fresh from overtaking The Anchorage Times, the News had oversized ambition and money to chase it. There were reporters covering every beat, librarians and columnists, clerks typing in letters and managing obituaries. The Internet was beyond the horizon.

Howard Weaver, then the editor, was perched on the edge of a desk when I first saw him. He shook my hand. I had no official position but after that I just kept showing up after school. A few editors encouraged me to write about my life. I produced stories about teen magazines and hanging out at Taco Bell. The journalists in the room came over to my unofficial desk and talked to me. Their interest made me bloom. The editors asked me to write a column every week.

Learning to report and write at the Daily News was like learning to play an instrument. Listen and practice, my teachers said. You will never be perfect but exhaust yourself practicing. Then, when you go home, you'll know you've done your best.

Logging so many hours at the newspaper while my brain was still developing may have damaged it. Now I never know what I think about anything until I write about it. Which might be why I am writing this today, nearly two weeks after the announcement that the Daily News will be sold to the Alaska Dispatch. I have no information about what my future will be. Few of us do. But the longer I have to think about it, the more excited I am about the possibilities.

I came back to the Daily News between semesters at college, and again after graduation, because of the people. So many brilliant reporters and editors schooled me over the years. When I think about it, they were all telling me the same things: Own your mistakes. Never think you're smarter than your readers. Be useful to them. If you do all that, then you're doing it right. If you can move people, enlighten them and keep the institutions that are meant to serve them honest, then you are doing it well.

I came back for the last time almost nine years ago as a reporter. After a few years I became a columnist. About that time, the economy started to slide, ad revenues declined, readers began looking at news online and print readership fell. Newspaper companies everywhere began to bleed. We had our first round of layoffs.

The pensions were frozen. There was no more 401(k) match. We had furloughs and pay cuts. The landscaping service was canceled. The flower beds went feral.

Howard Weaver, by then retired from corporate management, sent me a pin in the mail. It was in the shape of a tattered piece of paper and it said, "Don't give up the ship." For a while, I resented it, and then I pinned it on my bag. I wasn't at the paper because I wanted mentors anymore, I was there because of the work.

Every time I reported a column, I met someone who told me something new about a place I thought I understood. I love to be surprised like that. Anchorage never stops being interesting.

The hardest part about being a columnist is the pace. But, after a year or so, whenever my mind emptied of ideas, the phone rang. Readers had stories to tell. They wrote me about their children and their neighbors, about injustice, loss, humor and history. They sent Easter cards and drawings made in jail cells. They invited me to the shooting range. They debated my politics. They took me to church.

That might be the most important thing I've learned about journalism so far. The work is not about you, it's about the people who live in your community. Their criticisms keep you honest. When your writing helps them, you are doing your job. If you pay attention, there will never be a shortage of stories.

The waves of layoffs kept on until we couldn't bear to throw another goodbye party. A few co-workers started seeds on an empty desk. Then they took over an empty flower bed by the patio. The institution was withering but from the newsroom our view was lush.

We planted that garden for five years until there were only two of us left to tend it, Lisa Demer and me. Last fall, she and I pulled out giant sunflowers in the rain after filing our stories. I looked at myself in the mirror when I got home. I was soaked and filthy. I looked delusional. Maybe I was delusional. The newspaper building seemed to fade more every morning when I pulled into the parking lot. How long would I have a job? I had a son. And a mortgage. I was getting too old to start a second career.

But then, like some kind of miracle, the hemorrhaging in the industry slowed. We got the OK to hire a few more writers. They appeared, young, talented and hard-working. We redesigned the newspaper. I ran into old friends at the grocery store. The paper looks like it's doing better, they said.

A couple Mondays ago, Lisa planted this season's seeds. The next day, we were called to the loading dock. Alice Rogoff, the publisher of the Dispatch, walked onto the platform. I looked over and saw Pat Dougherty, the editor who steered us through the hardest years. He was wearing a sports coat. He never wears a sports coat. We were being sold. Pat was retiring after 34 years.

I'm waiting now to see how this story unfolds. This will be my last column for a little while. I'm helping with the transition from one owner to another. In July, my second son will be born, and I'll be taking some time off. After that, I hope I can find a way to write about the city again.

I'm grateful for the years I've spent writing and every phone call, every email and every letter that readers have taken the time to send. Growing up around the Daily News, I've had many great teachers, but it's readers who taught me most.

Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Reach her by phone at 257-4591 or email her at jomalley@adn.com.


By JULIA O'MALLEY
jomalley@adn.comJulia O'Malley