Learning journalism on the fly

My Alliance Review column for June 6:

Today’s notable anniversary falls exactly a week after a date that is notable for me on a personal level — May 30 was the date 12 years ago I started at The Review. I began as a part-time reporter, my official hire being the date I went full time sometime in July, but I consider May 30 my anniversary.
It was a challenging spring and summer for me in 2002. I had never worked for a newspaper or even as a writer of any sort — “You understand that I have no journalism experience?” I asked during the interview on May 29 — my writing education limited to high school English classes and the college of autodidactia, and most of my writing since high school was limited to my daily journal and a brief stint as a monthly writer for a folk music newsletter in the 1990s.
Besides learning the craft of news writing and interviewing, no easy task for a quiet, retiring lover of books, I had to learn about Alliance and the surrounding community — very quickly. I grew up in North Canton and live in Plain Township, and I knew Alliance mainly for Silver Park fireworks, Carnation Mall and a few other stores, Pisanello’s pizza, Mount Union College and Firehouse Theater, but mainly it was a city I drove through or around going to and from Salem to visit family. I knew nothing about the Carnation Festival and Days in the Park; the village of Sebring, recently demoted from city status; and the historic houses, and I was thrown in scribbling with pen and reporter’s notebook.
Perhaps my first introduction to the Carnation Festival was interviewing the late Bill Zumbar at the Castle about the rose show. Bill typified something I came to see frequently in the course of my job — he possessed an intense passion for his subject, and that summer day in 2002 he effusively, enthusiastically described roses in elaborate detail, challenging me to keep up both with pen and with comprehension. About that same time I took my first tour of the Mabel Hartzell home, and although to me it was all new and I wrote my article as if it had never been done before, I learned over the years that I was writing what was written every year and it wasn’t such a novel news article after all.
I learned about school board, township and city council meetings, and I studied fine points of words and grammar I had always neglected, such as “lie” vs. “lay,” the proper use of personal pronouns such as “he,” “him” and “his,” and the proper placement of “only.” I studied two excellent writing guides that Chris Schillig recommended — “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser and “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White — and I learned to navigate the streets of Alliance, Sebring and the outlying townships, news writing software, email and the Internet.
On the day of my anniversary last week my wife and I attended “Forever Plaid” at Firehouse Theater, and I encountered several memories of dozen years at The Review. We picked up a pizza from Victorio’s, and the owner remembered me from our interview when he took over the business in 2006. We ate our pizza on the Alliance Community Hospital patio, and I remembered the articles by Nancy Whitaker (no, she’s not my wife — she spells her name wrong) when the new hospital building opened. I saw Editor Emeritus Mike Patterson at the theater, and he told me he retired seven years ago.
I’ve worked for five editors including Mike, reporters and photographers have come and gone, and some, as have I, have stuck around for a while: Chris said he’s been here 22 years, in varying positions and levels of employment, and Tommy Carlile started in April 2002. I certainly have learned my way around the Alliance community and the newsroom, and I learned to write, and I always strive to improve. I shudder at some of the phrases I used in those early days, but all I have is now, and I hope I can look back in 12 years and shudder at my writing from 2014.

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