Today I leave The Martha’s Vineyard Times. I do so with a mixture of regret at leaving a job that was new and interesting every day, and relief that I can now shed the daily responsibilities and concerns of a community newspaper editor.
In many ways I feel like a country doctor leaving his patients — in my case our readers — whom I have gotten to know, and who have come to me over the years to ask me to report on the stories they thought needed telling.
I worry about their future care. I worry about the changing nature of journalism and the rush to post news to the web, often leaving context and storytelling behind. And I think about the stories that would not have been told but for The Times.
When I began at The Times 26 years ago, my job was to sell advertising. I spent a lot of time convincing business owners that “Islanders read The Times.” I am proud to say that today that fact is well established, in part because we have continued to focus on the stories that are important to this community’s stakeholders.
As I recall, the first general news story I wrote was about a house being built at Cape Poge on the tip of Chappy. The builder was using a helicopter to ferry gravel from a staging area at Bend in the Road Beach to the site. I asked the pilot if I could go along. I got into the helicopter, normally used for crop-dusting cranberry bogs, and the pilot, a character wearing a cowboy hat, told me not to touch or bump any of the levers in front of me. We would be traveling over water carrying a sling with thousands of pounds of stone under us — and, oh yes, his Labrador retriever was sitting in the helicopter with us. But he was worried about me touching the controls. I sat frozen.
Once, a visitor suggested that it must be very quiet in the off-season, and asked, “What do you write about?”
I laughed. “Winter is when we fight,” I said.
I think across the span of news stories with a sense of pride. Reporting on the tribal efforts to build a casino, on airport and county commission contretemps, and on the golf-course wars, the SSA — always, it was a target-rich environment.
Community reporting requires careful calibration, and a balance weighing individual privacy against the job, which is to reveal what’s important to the community. On more than one occasion I shook my head over the disturbing details in a police report and wrestled with how to tell the story. There was also pain; reporting on the untimely deaths of young people takes a toll.
The fun part was the range and breadth of stories and the people — you people — I got to know.
I think of Herbie Hancock and the battle to build a new Chilmark School — “These are little kids,” Herb said in response to state building-code dictates on square footage. “Why do they need so much room?” Classic.
One day, as he lay dying at home, Herb called me up to say he had something for me. When I walked into his bedroom, he handed me his old Browning humpback shotgun. It meant the world to me, and I have never shouldered it without thinking of Herbert and the rich Island values he encapsulated.
I am still fond of the lead to a story published August 22, 1996. The Gay Head selectmen were furious with me for several unfavorable stories that had thrust their town into the news spotlight. In reaction, they adopted a new press policy — they would only accept questions from the press in writing. They imposed this nuttiness even though they and I sat facing one another in the town hall meeting room.
Long ago, I learned the best defense was a good headline and lead. Under the headline, “Gay Head officials stiff-arm press inquiries,” I reported, “Reacting to what they called inaccurate and biased news coverage of their municipal policy making, the Gay Head selectmen this week adopted by formal vote a practice used by the Vatican, and some Middle East governments: They will in the future respond only to questions from the press which are submitted in writing.” Selectman Carl Widiss smiled when I handed him the first question on a scrap of paper. Such fun.
Of course, none of this happens in a vacuum. I think that newspaper owners, editors, proofreaders, photographers, ad sales, and you, the readers, are all part of one team, and I am grateful for the help I have received from every one of you.
Over the course of my career, I have met reporters from the large dailies here to cover a presidential visit. I was always struck by the contrast between their relationships with their readers — distant, and closer with the newsmakers than the news readers. Here, I have always sat in one corner or another of our large open office, and over the years readers have felt free to walk right in to tell me about a story, ask a question, or vent their anger. Just the way it should be.
I believe in answering the phone and talking to people when they have something on their mind, even when they are angry. This newspapering business is not a perfect science. We make mistakes, and when we do we need to fess up. There is not enough space here to list mine.
Once, when my daughter Marlan, now 25, was about 7 years old, I pulled into a parking spot at the Vineyard Haven Post Office. By chance, a county official who was the subject of an unflattering news story in that week’s paper pulled into the opposite space. Given the opportunity, he took it and angrily challenged me on every point in that story. I listened and told him that I stood by my reporting. He left, smoldering.
Marlan had taken it all in, and wanted to know why the man was so angry with me. I told her I had written a story he didn’t like. She pondered this a moment, and then, her face etched with concern, said, “Dad, you should be a talk show host. Everyone likes a talk show host.”
I’ll think about that.