Friday, July 24, 2009

My continuing education

I had my eyes opened again when I worked in 2008 at the tiny Surry Messenger in Mount Airy, N.C. The Messenger had an interesting "birth" the year before. Two Surry County newspapers, the Mount Airy News and the Elkin Tribune, were being bought out, and more than a dozen people from those papers left and formed the Messenger.

While the Mount Airy News is sold on racks, the Messenger was free distribution. They were thinking of dropping their Monday paper and instead going on Sundays. And while the weekday papers are distributed just in the Mount Airy area, the Sunday paper covers all of Surry County (except for homes that are almost inaccessible from the road, but that's a different story).

I was cocky for my second interview with the boss, Rebel Good. I'd worked at eight newspapers, including two in the 100,000 range. This paper was barely 11,000. I had forgotten that reporters at major newspapers rarely, if ever, help put the paper out (at least until that time; it's changed a bit since 2010). Copy editors rarely take pictures, and many don't lay out pages. This was a tiny paper, and, generally, everyone has to do everything.

I was hired to help them with the Sunday paper, and I did everything. Rebel didn't spare me. My first weekend, I did a story on gas wars in Mount Airy; later that day, I covered a football game for Mount Airy High School.

Rebel sent me to take a picture of a McDonald's that was being razed and rebuilt; to write a story on a day-long power outage in Dobson, the county seat; to write a sports story on a local middle school that was hosting its first home football game, and to take pictures of the winning window display in a local festival.

He had me lay out the editorial page and to help the sports editor with whatever he needed. I'd wanted to write all of my career — 29 years at that point — and I wrote more stories in the first month than I'd written in either of the previous 10 years.

Late in my second month there, the sports editor quit and I took his place; and I got busier. I cranked out five sports sections a week with no regular helper (while the former sports editor has ME to help him for two months). One of my co-workers, Brook, was a huge help on Fridays during high school playoffs. But I still had to write two to four stories that night and lay out the section. Once, I left at 6 p.m. for the game, and I didn't finish until 6 a.m. No, that's not a typo.

It was hard work, but I reveled in it. I was working at a daily newspaper with a weekly flavor. I always tell young journalists to work at a weekly or a small daily; you'll have to learn everything, and you'll be better off in the long run.

On Dec. 13, 2008, I drove to Raleigh, N.C., to cover Mount Airy High School playing in the state Class A championship game. I had to take first-half pictures and email them back to the paper. Then I went back on the field, watched the last third of the game, took notes, took more pictures, interviewed coaches and players. My column from that game, in which I basically just told what I saw, was probably the best thing I wrote for the Messenger.

The biggest problem I had is that I had no wire. If I had a slow news day, I still had to find stories or pictures to fill the section. The last week of the year, around Christmas and New Year's, was a terrible time for sports news, and that's when I planned to run the all-county football team and a feature on the Elkin High School fencing team.

I'd just finished my six-page section on Friday, Jan. 2 when Rebel grabbed the page proofs and called me into his office. For four months, I'd worried every time he called me in the office, afraid he'd fire me for some little screw up. This time, he sat me down, said they were cutting back on sports coverage and letting me go.

I was stunned, naturally. I knew the paper was cutting back to three days a week because of the economic downturn, but I'd been busy; I hadn't had time that week to worry about my job.

It was a part of my continuing education, of course. I was reminded that, even if you've worked for solid newspapers and written freelance for big-time publications (Sports Illustrated, The Sporting News, the Miami Herald, the Washington Post, The Sun of Baltimore), you can get laid off by a tiny newspaper that's fighting for its life.

I'm proud of what I've done and what I can do, but I remain humble. They won't let me be any other way.

Note: As far as I know, Rebel was the only person at the paper who knew about my newspaper and magazine background. He also knew about the three books I'd written up until that time. I think the others would have been shocked.

Note: The Messenger went out of business in January of 2010, a year after I got laid off. In January, it'll be six years since my last newspaper job ended.

Contact: Email me at or Also, my Twitter handle is EDITORatWORK.

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(a book of great stories about the Intimidator)
(the book of great NASCAR stories)

More blog entries by Tom Gillispie

Anecdotes by Tom Gillispie


  1. Great read, Tom! Makes me want to read more of your posts. It really has been and is tough out there, isn't it? Would you ever consider putting out your own newspaper, I wonder?

  2. Thanks, Lisa. I'm a natural newspaperman with no newspaper. If I can find an ad salesman, I'd do an online newspaper. Tom