An ode to newspapering

Published 11:22 am Saturday, September 6, 2014

I wasn’t much good at any work before I meandered into journalism.

Howard Tillery, left, Scott Sexton and John Railey at The High Point Enterprise newspaper in the mid-1990s, actually got paid to explore North Carolina’s Deep River. -- SUBMITTED | HOWARD TILLERY

Howard Tillery, left, Scott Sexton and John Railey at The High Point Enterprise newspaper in the mid-1990s, actually got paid to explore North Carolina’s Deep River. — SUBMITTED | HOWARD TILLERY

It wasn’t from lack of trying. I cut grass, stocked groceries, washed dishes, cooked and waited tables through happy days of mis-spending my youth. Right after Carolina, not knowing what to do with my English degree, I tried to sell real estate at Nags Head but quickly found out I liked asking questions instead of answering them.

Much of the family profession, law, bored me.

I finally took an aptitude test to figure out what career would be right for me. The administrator, assessing my test results, said some people have it tough because they have to choose which career would best fit their many talents.

You don’t have that problem, he said.

Gee, thanks.

He tried to explain. I understood. I had a modest talent at writing, and I could apply it either to journalism or advertising. I also had a social conscience, the test had indicated, I was restless, and I didn’t like bullies. Given the last three factors, I chose journalism. It also seemed a good place for someone who likes beer.

Just kidding, although, at least in the old days, it was a good place for people who like to drink (after work, of course) — and to laugh. But I quickly found out that the biggest thrill of all in “this thing of ours” is adrenaline. There was nothing like the rush of tracking a story down on deadline, beating the competition and seeing it in print within hours.

I worked my way up, waiting tables and taking a typing course as I wrote stories for free at The Chesapeake Post, a weekly newspaper. After a summer of that, I landed a full-time job as the police and courts reporter for the Suffolk News-Herald, also in Tidewater, making the grand sum of $5.25 an hour. I complained about the pay, of course, because journalists, by nature, complain about everything.

But really, I felt like I was being paid to play. I learned more in my first years on the job than I ever learned in college. I went from Suffolk to The High Point Enterprise, finally coming to the Winston-Salem Journal in 1997.

In almost 30 years in this work, I’ve endured hurricanes, been to the Third World, met celebrities, seen preachers fall and criminals rise, followed a river to the sea, visited Death Row, been threatened, cussed out, called into court and, once in a while, praised. I’ve loved it all.

To be a journalist is to be a voyeur who gets paid to pry into the lives of others, slicing into their good times and bad times, as journalist Gay Talese noted in his classic book on The New York Times, “The Kingdom and the Power.” You laugh and sometimes cry with your sources. If you’re human, you come to care about them. You learn the best interviewing technique: Shut up and listen. If you’re honest with yourself, you know some sources are playing you as much as you’re playing them.

And then there are the people who share this profession. To be a journalist is to be part of a raggedly romantic band of dramatic, wise-cracking, obsessive, compassionate and sometimes courageous brothers and sisters who speak the same language, dream the same dreams and often chase the same stories. We serve as shrinks for each other. We get mad at each other sometimes in the heat of competition (although there’s not nearly enough competition these days), but we almost always make up. You might say we belong to the same religion: “The Church of the First Amendment.”

Nobody else wants us. OK, that’s not quite right. Some of us have family that has stuck with us through the long hours and the missed family events. They stay with us through our carping at small slights and our justified outrage at big wrongs, through our reading newspapers through meals, through our anger at all that goes wrong and our elation when small things and big ones go right.

I am fortunate to have that kind of family to complement my newspaper one.

And I am thankful to still be working as a newspaperman, especially in these trying days for our profession and the economy in general. I’ve interviewed too many people who’ve lost jobs, and too many who never found a job they loved.

I got lucky. I’m still learning and having fun. And if I’ve done a bit of good along the way, that’s all for the better.

JOHN RAILEY who grew up in Courtland, is the editorial page editor of the Winston-Salem Journal, where this column first appeared. His email address is