Every decision leads us to where we are, but some of them, of course, really stand out.
For me, one such moment came in spring 1988, when, a little more than a year from college graduation and halfheartedly pursuing a teaching degree that I knew wasn’t right for me, I saw a job opening for a reporter at the Mankato State University student newspaper — aptly called the Reporter — and decided to apply.
“I like writing,” I thought, glossing over the fact that before you can write news, you have to go out and talk to people and extract their information.
That part was not really consistent with my personality. But I’d been opening up a bit in college, gaining confidence in the social realm, and I got the job.
As luck would have it, on one of my first nights hanging around the newsroom, there was a fire alarm in the science hall a few hours before our deadline, and that building, clear across campus, was being evacuated. Could the new guy cover it? The student-editors, already hard-bitten after just a couple of years in the field, seemed uncertain.
But I’d been reading newspapers since age 8 — had even produced my own special edition (circulation: 1) on a manual typewriter one elementary-school snow day, and although that publication literally would have to be characterized as fake news, I had a sense of what a real story should have in it.
I went to the scene, dove in and asked questions of witnesses and authorities, came back to write, and filed with time to spare. The editors were impressed.
That was a thrill and I kept at it, even getting cocky at times, but the reporting part never came to feel natural to me. My first professional jobs called for editing and some reporting, but eventually I settled into all editing, where my best opportunities seemed to be and where the information would travel to me.
I’m now 30 years into my career. Occasionally I’ve regretted not spending more of it writing. But whenever I think that, I also realize that perhaps it was fate that I didn’t become a reporter. I can do that work serviceably when I need to, but doing it daily requires an unrelenting enthusiasm for interacting with sources and strangers, and I don’t know if I could have sustained it. Meanwhile, I’ve found a niche writing now and again for the opinion pages, which, when I have a suitable hook, can accommodate my, uh, introspective style.
Today, that hook is just a gentle plug for a profession that’s been taking its knocks, sometimes with justification but more often — more cynically — not.
In my 24 years at the Star Tribune, I’ve witnessed all kinds of reporters in action. Some are truly in-your-face, even over the phone; others are genial and quietly persistent; and still others dig deep into documents and data. All of them are passionate about making the world a better place through information, and they never cease to amaze me with the results — all day, every day, as our paper’s slogan now goes.
David Banks is at David.Banks@startribune.com.