Column: Goodbye, but not really

Jennifer Hemmingsen
Published: November 10 2013 | 5:49 am - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 11:17 pm in
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  I once had an editor who told me a story’s first sentence should be like a punch in the nose -- short, sharp, even startling — so here’s my best, though technically not the first one:

This isn’t really goodbye.

Another editor used to tell me to always save something good for the end — to reward all those readers who stayed with

me. In that spirit, here’s a story.

I dropped out of journalism school a few weeks into my first semester.

My assignments — mock news stories with impossible “deadlines” — came back looking like murder victims, they were so covered in red ink. I felt like an impostor; pretty sure I was the only person for whom the inverted pyramid was some kind of secret code.

I couldn’t write a lede (an old-fashioned spelling left over from days when type was cast in hot lead) if you offered me $1 million to do it. There was no way I’d ever make it in journalism, I said.

A few years later, a rudderless twenty-something with a baby, I snagged a job designing ads for The Albert Lea (Minnesota) Tribune. They hired me on a whim, because I knew about this new program called Photoshop. My co-workers, Dick and Chrissy, were old Linotype operators and extraordinarily kind to me. We listened to classic rock all day, every day. I still can sing Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine” from end to end.

A few months in, I took another stab at journalism — offering to write a few stories to help out the three-person news staff. My first hard-hitting piece — a roundup of that year’s popular Halloween costumes — had me literally shaking in my boots.

When I finally mustered the courage to approach my first source (a saleswoman I picked out at random), I squeaked out three questions before fleeing in embarrassment. The next time it was a little easier. The next time, easier still.

Today, it’s my daughter who is embarrassed when I start accidentally interviewing people during casual conversations. Me? I can ask anything of any stranger, figuring they’ll tell me to buzz off if they don’t want to share.

I learned on the job, like an old-time cub reporter, saying“yes” to tough assignments because I didn’t know any better. Taking my lumps as they came.

I learned from editors who, by rights, should have been too busy to be my mentors: Jim Boyenga, Dylan Belden, Richard Hensley, Hal McCune. At The Gazette: Lyle Muller, Mary Sharp, Jeff Tecklenburg — the coolest customer on deadline that I’ve seen.

I learned from co-workers like Geri McShane and Ed Shannon, who through decades of reporting had become so entrenched in their community they could teach Google a couple of things. Fellow reporters taught me how to research and write; how to handle difficult sources. Taught me to get cellphone numbers in good times and to use them in bad times, when formerly friendly sources were nowhere to be found.

After a couple of years, I went back to J-school. There, I had more great teachers and got some valuable perspective. But before and after, in the newsroom, the world became my classroom. I learned from county supervisors and police captains, from crime victims and angry neighbors, from farmers and children, businessmen and women, teachers, conspiracy theorists, activists and advocates — hundreds of people who helped me understand how our lives and interests flow together. Messily, imperfectly and sometimes inharmoniously, to form the communities in which we live.

I could go on, but this isn’t an Oscar speech, it’s a column and — as I’ve been told more than once — I’ve got to keep things moving. You’re distractable and busy. You’ve got things to do, and I still haven’t explained that “goodbye.” 

So I’ll go ahead and tell you: Tomorrow I start my new job as The Gazette’s Manager of Community Networks and Engagement. I’m giving up “You Are Here” to help the fledgling “We Create Here.” Funny, till I just wrote that, I hadn’t noticed the similarity of the names.

Some of you have been confused about what WCH is all about, or what it’s even supposed to be. That’s partly because it’s still developing, partly because a lot of the changes we’re making are behind the scenes — invisible to you. I’ll explain in detail over the coming weeks online and in the Sunday WCH pages. I’m counting on your feedback — your thoughts, your questions and concerns.

Once again, I’ll be learning on the job. As always, I’m going to need lots of teachers in my corner.

So goodbye, but not really. You know where you can find me.

Stay in touch.

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