Kenneth Burns: Love affair with newspapers has never waned

Mar. 26, 2013 @ 06:46 PM

I’ll never forget what a journalist friend said when I told him I was thinking about getting into the profession.

“Don’t.”

It was 1993. I had just finished college. I had a degree in English, and I was considering career options. I thought of newspapers. So I sought my friend’s advice.

He was an industry veteran, and I listened carefully to what he said. I took his advice, at least for a few years.

When I finally started working in newspapers, I realized that I had learned something important from him. Not that I shouldn’t work in newspapers.

No, what I learned is that newspaper people are grouchy. Bless ’em.

I love newspapers. I’ve loved them for as long as I can remember. When I was little, I read the Sunday comics on the living room floor. Every day after I came home from high school, I read the Nashville Banner, the now-defunct evening paper.

I went to college in Chicago, where I was a fan of both dailies, the Tribune and the Sun-Times. In the Tribune I admired wonderful Mike Royko, the city columnist whose writing was sometimes hilarious, sometimes deadly serious. In the Sun-Times I read Roger Ebert, the Pulitzer-winning movie critic who’s still one of the finest craftsmen working in newspapers.

In college I also began reading The New York Times. I haven’t shaken that habit. I lived in Chicago’s notoriously independent-minded Hyde Park neighborhood, where the joke was that North Siders read the Trib, South Siders read the Sun-Times, and Hyde Parkers read The New York Times. Guess you had to be there.

I also devoured the Chicago Reader, the storied alternative weekly. I was moved by the great writing, the fearless investigations, the authoritative arts coverage.

After I finished college, I received that fateful career advice. So I took a job in software, and later I moved to Madison, Wis., for graduate school in political science. I thought I wanted to be a professor, but I learned in grad school that academic life isn’t for me.

Then I was in my early 30s, and I was still figuring out the future. I also was still reading newspapers — the Madison dailies, The Wall Street Journal. I wanted to do what newspaper people do. So I decided to try working for one.

A friend in Madison knew the news editor at Isthmus, the now-37-year-old alternative weekly. I had a few conversations with him and the other editors, and on Nov. 22, 2002, Isthmus published my very first paid newspaper article, a theater review. It was of a university production of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s “The Physicists.” I enjoyed it.

I became a busy freelance writer, covering both arts and news. My editors taught me the skills of the trade. After a few years, I joined Isthmus full-time in a series of jobs — reporter, features editor, arts editor.

I had arrived! I was making a living in newspapers. I covered crime, politics and business, as well as food, lifestyles and entertainment. I’m proud to have spent seven years on the staff of Isthmus, a great paper in a news-obsessed city.

Then circumstances brought me back home to Tennessee. My partner took a teaching job at UT, and I followed, not knowing what awaited me here.

What awaited was The Mountain Press, where I took a job as a reporter last November, just a few days before a certain incurably uncertain liquor referendum took place. It was an exciting time to start reporting Sevier County news.

Now another, apparently more certain liquor referendum has occurred, and I am changing roles. Our former community news editor, Gail Crutchfield, has gone back to Alabama, and I am taking over for her.

So I’m no longer out working beats in Pigeon Forge and Sevierville. Most days I’m in the office, waiting to get my hands on the stories filed by my wondrous colleagues.

I like reporting, and I also like editing. I’m glad I’ve been able to do both at The Mountain Press.

I’m glad I do what newspaper people do. Thanks for reading.

— Kenneth Burns is Community News Editor of The Mountain Press. Call 428-0748, ext. 212, or send e-mail to kburns@themountainpress.com. Twitter: @KennethBurns.