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In the journalism business, the stories never end


One time I was interviewing a guy in Tipton and he asked what it’s like to be a journalist. After hearing a brief summary, he said, “Jeez, it sounds like writing term papers for a living.”

He had a point. But that’s like feeling sorry for the guy we met on our family vacation last summer. All he does is sail in the summer and ski in the winter – jeez, it’s like spending your life in PE class.

The other way to look at a newspaper career, the way that keeps you working steadily instead of retiring to Costa Rica, is that every day it’s something new. It could have been the immortal Mark Twain – but it wasn’t, it was only Roseanne Barr – who pointed out that if you walk around with a pen and notebook people will feel obligated to answer any foolish question you care to ask.

That’s the charm of it.

Once, for a personal finance story on thrifty habits, I phoned a woman I had never met and asked her how often she buys underwear. It’s a long story, but the point is, she told me. And no restraining order was issued.

The fascination of the journalism dodge comes from scattering your questions among the widest possible range of people. One day, you’re in a Las Vegas day-trading shop, listening with a mixture of skepticism and romance as a young woman claims to be up $600,000 for the year. Another day, you’re sitting in on a men’s drumming/chanting/bonding group, worrying that they’ll force you to hug somebody. It’s a big, bizarre world, but at least you get to watch from close up.

Plus, you work with notable characters. The loudest, most profane, hardest-drinking editor I ever knew switched to the priesthood. In retrospect, the black suits probably were a sign.

What have I learned from all this? I was afraid you were going to ask that. Let’s see . . .:

*When you do a feature story in a cave full of sleeping bats, it’s important to work fast. Photography seems to wake them up.

I’m sure we could dig up lots more examples, but my clips are all stored away in the attic.

What else do you acquire in three decades of journalism? Frustration, mostly. The typical newspaper reporter meets an endless procession of remarkable people and thinks, I should have taken a flier when I was young, like that wealthy entrepreneur, instead of sitting on the copy desk and going through major-league box scores, making sure “Ramirez” had an adequate supply of vowels. Or maybe I should have soaked up more formal education, like this respected doctor, instead of quizzing Terry Branstad about his leisure suit.

As I start my stint with the Des Moines Business Record, the goal is the same as always: Maximize learning, minimize frustration. Business, not politics, is the true game for grown-ups and everybody plays for keeps, so there has to be some useful stuff to learn.

With any luck, somebody will teach me what I needed to know all along, and my problems will disappear. Or at least I’ll hear some decent stock tips.

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