By Stephen C. Fehr
Saturday, May 31, 2008
Today is the last day at The Washington Post for me and dozens of reporters, editors, photographers, artists and other journalists who have volunteered to take early retirement packages.
When historians look back at the challenges that American newspapers faced in the early years of the 21st century, they will no doubt center on how the Internet competed with newspapers to deliver information. They will chronicle the declines in circulation and advertising revenue that led so many news organizations to trim their staffs. In The Post's case, the newspaper lost $77 million in print advertising revenue last year but gained only $6 million in online advertising revenue.
I hope the historians will also write about some of the people who were swept aside by this revolution in technology. People like me.
All I ever wanted to do was work at a newspaper. When I was in second grade in Southern California, the boys would play kickball at recess. Afterward, I would draw a nameplate, headline and box score on a sheet of paper and write an account of the game that I would pass around in class.
I was like that through grade school, junior high and high school, finding ways to deliver information to people. In the Boy Scouts, I created the troop newspaper, "The 809 Scouter," once calling myself "our intrepid correspondent" when I filed dispatches from summer camp.
I was the only paperboy I knew who actually read the newspaper he delivered. Midway through my route one day, I stopped to buy a soda at a convenience store and sat outside to read the paper. To my horror, the circulation manager pulled up and yelled out the window of his truck, "Hey, you're supposed to deliver the paper, not read it!"
But I couldn't stop reading. The sound of the fat Los Angeles Times hitting the driveway each day was as sweet to me as any chirping bird. I loved all the sounds of the newspaper, especially the clatter of the wire service teletype machines and the rumbling printing presses I would hear when my mother, a reporter, took me to her suburban Orange County newspaper.
When I was a senior in high school, I applied to The Post for a summer internship. "It was intriguing for our selection panel to consider a high school student for the first time," the paper wrote back. "But we simply had too many excellent college applicants to take the chance this year."
So on I went to the University of Missouri and its School of Journalism, the nation's oldest, which this fall will mark its 100th anniversary. My mother had gone there and so had her sister, Eve Mark Edstrom, a metro and national reporter at The Post for 21 years who died of cancer in 1971 at age 48. My uncle, Ed Edstrom, was a Washington correspondent for the Louisville Courier Journal and Hearst newspapers.
I wanted to follow them to Washington, and in 1975 I got my chance. After applying to The Post for five years, I was offered a summer internship. It was the year after Richard M. Nixon resigned, and The Post was where every journalist of my generation wanted to be. There I was, a 22-year-old kid sitting about six feet from Carl Bernstein's desk and about 15 feet from Bob Woodward's. They were writing "The Final Days" that summer, but when Woodward returned from his book leave I asked him to sign "All the President's Men," their account of the Watergate scandal.
"Mr. Woodward," I said, handing the book to the nation's most famous reporter, then only 32.
"Call me Bob," he said. With that, he took my pen and wrote "Bob" in six-inch-high letters with a small "Woodward" below.
Woodward was such a rock star to my generation that I knew everything about him, including that he showed up at the home of The Post's metropolitan editor one night to ask for a job. I used the same tactic to get hired at the Kansas City Star when my summer job at The Post ended. Only, I showed up at a family barbecue in the back yard of the Star's metropolitan editor. He hired me the next morning.
I returned to The Post in 1989 for what I thought would be my last stop in journalism. I was so thrilled that I listened to "The Washington Post" march over and over on my Walkman. What other paper has its own movie ("All the President's Men") and its own Sousa march?
That's the music I'll be hearing in my head today as I reflect on the profound change taking place in my profession, change that is claiming casualties almost daily. To me, picking up the paper in the early-morning darkness has always been like opening a Christmas gift each day, a gift of words. I hope my colleagues who are staying will remember that as they report and edit information crucially needed in a democracy.
I also hope they remember people like me, who on the outside may look like a dumpy 55-year-old "voluntary retiree" but on the inside is still that second-grader who always wanted to work at a newspaper.
The writer was a reporter and editor at The Post for 19 years. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org