When I got my fateful call to work at the Grand Forks Herald, I was a cub reporter down U.S. Highway 2 a bit, in the Magic City of Minot, N.D.
If you counted my internship the previous summer, I had been at the Daily News a year. I had covered tornadoes, fires, strikes and the perplexing issue of Western water rights. I had also learned — from our well-tended “paper” library — that there were two Ingeborg Moens in Minot, and I had been writing the obituary of the wrong one (discovered pre-publication, praise Jesus).
But, I also yearned to go East (a theme in my life); I had lofty career ambitions and lots of drive. When I was offered a job at the Herald, I accepted with glee. And now, many years later, I have come to realize that my time at the Herald was more than just the fulfillment of my earliest career goals. It was a time in which I learned at least three valuable life lessons:
— No place is too small, too understaffed, too remote, too anything to be truly excellent. Never once did anyone at the Herald say — well, we’re in a remote and very cold corner of a remote and very cold state and some people here don’t like us, so we’re just going to play it safe. Yup, we’re not going to try anything new. Never.
We tried everything — we recruited graphic artists and data specialists before anyone knew what Big Data was, we embraced diversity in the newsroom as a way of seeing the bigger picture in what we covered, we did and redid every process conceivable for crafting a better feature article or a more compelling front page. We even stayed up for 24 hours covering the city’s day and night rhythms like we were at the New Yorker.
And the paper won the Pulitzer. The GF Herald deserved it, hell and high water or no. (See references to The Flood below.) I wasn’t at the Herald when it won the award, but I wish I had been.
— Good things, people, places don’t always last. Don’t take them for granted. When I packed up the U-Haul in 1994 and continued my habit of moving East (this time to chase my dream of covering Congress), I assumed that Grand Forks and the Herald would remain entirely as they were, as if preserved in amber, just waiting for me should I decide to return.
Well … we all know about The Flood and the loss of the Herald building and the collapse of owner Knight-Ridder and the changes to the publication itself. Time doesn’t wait for us. It doesn’t care. Make the most of what you have when you have it, and savor the memories. But don’t expect anyone or anything to wait for you.
— You can accomplish more than you think you can. Sometimes, you have to be pushed. One of the reasons that the Herald was such a special place — and an overachiever of a newspaper in its prime — was because of Mike Jacobs. Mike was exacting, intimidating and a genius.
Like most geniuses, he was extremely effective at the “vision thing.” He was always striving, always coming up with a new way to look at things or a bigger idea and that drove all of us to do the same. The secret, which I have adopted as a manager of 20 people now, is to give your team something to strive for, even if it seems impossible. It’s good if they think you’re a cock-eyed optimist or even a little crazy. It means you believe in them and the organization and what you’re all doing. And isn’t that what we all want? To feel part of something bigger? I certainly do.
After I left the Herald, I went on to many other wonderful places — I was a congressional reporter for Congressional Quarterly and later the Omaha World-Herald Washington Bureau; I’m now a marketing executive for a large corporation; I’m also a mom and a doting pet owner. I live in New York City. (More about that in my upcoming posts.) All of those experiences have taught me much and I’ve been fortunate to witness far more good than bad.
But my time at the Herald has stuck with me. Perhaps it’s because it was so central to my being in those pivotal early career years. Or, maybe, it’s just because it was a special place — filled with talented and fun people producing a great product and retiring for a salty dog or a Grain Belt after putting the newspaper “to bed.” That is also one of my cherished memories from the Herald. And it’s fascinating that something we considered routine — going out for a drink after doing our best for yet another day — is now one of the things that I miss the most. Another life lesson …