What I did for a living
I earned my first actual paycheck at about age 13 when I had a paper route. It was not the daily newspaper, but a free weekly advertising paper that I delivered to every house within my route. The pay was a penny a paper and I had 200 to deliver so I made $2 per week. The check arrived in the mail once a month and it would either be $8 or $10 depending on how many delivery days there had been that month. I remember cashing the check at a downtown bank and then spending the money on comic books and candy at Neisner's dime store.
When I was 15, I got a job as an usher at the Madison Theater in downtown Mansfield. It was an ornate old theater that I assume was originally an opera house because there were little rooms on the second floor overlooking the stage from which, I presumed, actors could keep an eye on what was happening in the show. In my time, it was a movie house and I remember seeing movies like "Soylent Green," "High Plains Drifter" and "The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean." Sometimes they showed a "blaxploitation" film like "The Mack" and the all-black audience would be decked out in the extravagant suits of the early 1970s.
I also worked as a "grunt" (aka helper) with an aluminum siding crew and as a clerk at a big department store called "Uncle Bill's." Through college, I worked at the university library and had summer jobs in Mansfield at the "Downtown Motor Lodge" and a company that supplied chemicals and science supplies to schools. One summer, I tried door to door cookware sales (which was a financial disaster).
Sandusky Register (1979-1983)
After college, my first professional job was as a reporter at the Sandusky Register. I started off on the police beat -- which is the best way to get started in newspaper reporting -- and later covered statewide news and interviewed candidates for governor.
The Register was an afternoon paper so our deadline was something like 11 a.m. and the first edition would be on our desks by about 1:00.
In retrospect, it was a good job in a nice part of the country (right on the water), but I was in my early 20s and didn't really appreciate the writing opportunity that the Register offered. When events in my personal life led me to Indianapolis, I decided I wanted to quit journalism, get a "regular job" and write on the side. This was, of course, a bad idea.
Move to Indianapolis (1983)
I moved to Indianapolis in 1983 so my then-wife, Jenny, could go to graduate school at Christian Theological Seminary. At the time, I wasn't sure I wanted to stay in journalism so I looked around for other jobs. I worked at the front desk of the Columbia Club and then got a library job at the Indianapolis Museum of Art Library.
I had always liked libraries and decided to get my Masters in Library Science, thinking perhaps I'd go the academic route. Then, in late 1986, I heard about a job that combined my interest in journalism and libraries.
Indianapolis Star & News Library, Part 1 (1986-1993)
In December 1986, I started working at the library of the Indianapolis Star and News. This was the classic "newspaper morgue" where all the clippings and old photos were filed away. Although the Register had a small library, it was nothing compared with the operation at the Star and News.
This was still the heyday of the newspaper business in terms of both business and journalism. Across the country in big cities and tiny towns, newspapers were thriving and employed thousands of writers, photographers, artists, researchers and others. I did not know it then, of course, but things would change very soon.
In those days, the Library itself had a staff of more than 20 and was focused on the two main tasks of archiving that day's newspaper and answering reference questions from the two newsrooms as they prepared their next editions. The archiving process involved composing an abstract of each article and typing variations of that abstract on multiple cross-reference cards to be filed in a bank of cabinets under various topics and names so that the article could be found again later. Reference questions were researched using the newspaper archive and from various books and encyclopedias on the Library's shelves.
I gravitated toward the research part of the job and became the chief reference librarian while I was working on my master's degree in library science. I was also on a "Future Media" committee set up by the publisher and I made a pitch to him in 1992 that we launch a dial-up "videotext" service that would be available only to newspaper subscribers. I don't know what might have happened with that idea because that's also when I got the job in Dayton.
Dayton Daily News (1993-2000)
I became director of the Dayton Daily News Library in January 1993. The library came with a staff of half a dozen people who were good people and hard workers, but who did not have the advanced skills of the Star/News staff. But it was my first opportunity to manage such an operation.
The 1990s, however, were when everything began to change. I was excited by the potential uses of the emerging World Wide Web within the newspaper industry, and I put together my first online encyclopedia. During this period I also became pretty involved in the News Division of the Special Libraries Association, and gave several presentations on what I advocated to be the future of news libraries in the Internet age.
Near the end of 1999, I received a call from my former boss in Indianapolis who told me she was retiring and recommended I apply for her job. I did, and got the job. Before I left, I prepared a report for the publisher at DDN laying out what I was advocating. He invited me for a meeting and was supportive of the long-term vision, but it was clear that there were other priorities he felt they needed to pursue first. And I understood that what I proposed might not seem like a great idea from a business perspective because it would require human resources. But I also felt that I had proven that if you dedicate just one person to the operation, one person can accomplish a lot.
Indianapolis Star, Part 2
It felt like a luxury coming back to The Star Library because I had a much bigger staff made up of individuals who had more extensive skills than team I had in Dayton. One of my first priorities was to re-create the encyclopedia project, but this time it became a public project.
And I had a pretty good run with that for several years, mainly from 2000 to about 2005, but that was also a period in which the size of my staff was gradually whittled down. It was during my first year in the job that the Pulliam family sold The Star to Gannett, which in those days was notorious for its penny-pinching management. As it turned out, Gannett's parsimony was good preparation for the hard years that would come, when all newspapers would face declines in revenue and readership as a result of the explosive growth of the Internet.
In 2005, I was recruited to run the Star's online news operation. It was not a job I actually wanted, but I took it because I felt I had to. It was a grinding job because there were only a few of us and we had to react to breaking news around the clock. When I had the chance, I extricated myself from that role and took on the task of building interactive databases on things like property taxes, school test scores, etc.
In 2009, as things were getting precipitously worse for the newspaper industry, I made another pitch for an encyclopedia approach to online content. Here is a proposal I made, but it didn't really go anywhere.
Of course, what I really wanted to focus was local history and for a while I managed to have a local history blog that was actually popular. But like so many of the things I tried to do, that was swept aside by decisions made at the corporate level. Not that I begrudge any of that. It was a difficult time and decision-makers were just trying to find some way forward. The waves of layoffs had begun and near the end I was just trying to do whatever would keep me employed.
Along the way, I had managed a couple of book projects for The Star and so I was asked to do that again for a centennial history of the Indianapolis 500. That was 2011 and the book project and an accompanying online database that I made ended up being my last hurrah in the newspaper business. I was laid off in June of that year.
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