Monday, June 20, 2011

Movin' On

It's probably the right time.
The decision by Stephens Media to not renew my contract last Wednesday comes as our city is at a crossroad, facing a rebirth of sorts.
Thanks to the recent elections, we have a new mayor, and a new majority on the city council. In addition, the city currently has a new police chief, a relatively new fire chief, and has seen the departure of the city manager.
The high school has a new principal, and the middle school will soon have one. The police department has a new media liaison. Last year, the hospital got a new leader.
The Virgin Valley Water District has had a similar housecleaning in the last year with the departure of the general manager (who is facing trial), the chief hydrologist (who was recently released from jail on bond, and is facing more than two dozen charges of bribery and money laundering), their former attorney, a longtime board member, and the board president.
So Mesquite is poised for a fresh start. Maybe that fresh start needed a new editor at Mesquite Local News.
The Stephens Media axe didn't fall on me alone. The Review-Journal also lost Corey Levitan, the outrageous award-winning columnist who once served as "mayor for a day" in Mesquite. I know he's an award winner because Levitan won the "Best Local Columnist" award for daily newspapers from the Nevada Press Association in 2008, the same year I won "Best Local Columnist" for the small weekly division, an award I won again in 2010.
If I'm honest with myself and with you, I think I was ready to go.
For starters, I was tired of the battle.
Not the one with City Hall or the water district, or the ongoing battle of vigilance against corruption in our small town.
I was tired of battling people who were supposed to be my allies.
Before we sold the newspaper to Stephens Media in 2009, my partner Cindi Delaney and I didn't always agree, but we always respected each other. Whenever I decided to poke a stick at one of the big dogs in town like City Hall or one of the casinos, I always knew she had my back. In fact, our little office on Sandhill Boulevard was like a psychological fortress, a place where I felt safe because I was surrounded by dedicated people who believed in our unofficial mission statement: to tell the truth, even if it cost us money.
From the day we sold it, I never felt that again.
Every week, I had to battle with copy editors and supervisors whose approach to news was radically different than mine. It was a constant clash between a Joe Friday insistence on "just the facts, ma'am," and the admonition from three-time Pulitzer Prize winner George Ramos that always rang in my head from the 2007 NPA convention, when he explained that journalists need to tell a story, not just regurgitate data. As an aside, the Ramos philosophy appears to be the core of the burgeoning world of Internet journalism, where lightning fast, fact-filled news is clothed in accurate, enlightening, and engaging storytelling.
Again, maybe this is the right time. Obviously, the philosophy Cindi and I maintained wasn't the right one. If it was, we would have been financially sound and wouldn't have been in a position where we needed to sell the paper to keep it alive when the recession was in full bloom. Our philosophy made for a great newspaper, but not a profitable one.
Large corporations don't operate that way, which is how they get to be large corporations.
So again, the timing is probably right for me to be shown the door.
I've never been an advocate of something called "community newspapering," which is a concept which gained traction among newspaper companies in the early part of this decade. Under that premise, small town newspapers report on meetings and give lots of front page coverage to things like finger painting exhibitions and features on quilters.
I'm so "new school" in presenting the news, with emphasis on Internet journalism and videos and interactive commenting from readers, but I'm old school in my approach to the actual news itself. I believe in hard news, fires and wrecks, investigative journalism, and being unafraid of controversy if it's the truth. In other words, the approach used by newspapers for more than a hundred years.
Personally, I find the term "community newspapering" to be offensive. It is often foisted on smaller newspapers by big city newspapers that have this myopic Mayberry view of small towns. It's almost like they want to insist that rural communities don't have as much corruption, intrigue, drama, or heartbreak as larger municipalities, or that residents of small towns aren't smart enough or sophisticated enough to want, read, and absorb such truths.
I don't want to be a purveyor of fluff.
As I've said many times, you can't fix a problem until you admit that there is a problem. The approach of sweeping corruption and problems in a community under the carpet just to make the town look good is the best way to ensure that the corruption will continue and grow.
But I could be wrong.
On the positive side, I've accomplished just about everything I wanted to accomplish in the five years since Mesquite Local News started.
Mesquite has been one of the very few small towns of its size to have a daily newspaper online.
We currently average more than 200,000 hits a month, a staggering number for a community of our size.
Our newspaper continues to fly off the racks, with a return rate of less than 1 percent.
In four years of being part of the Nevada Press Association, we've won 21 first place awards, including two awards for Best Editorial Writing, two for Best Website, two for Best Local Column, and two for Best Sports Feature. Last year, we won the Best Investigative Story award. And in 2007, our first year with NPA, we won the coveted Freedom of the Press award. We've also received dozens of second and third place awards during that span.
I'm extremely proud of our election coverage this year, particularly the video interviews with the candidates done by Barbara Ellestad, our "Instant Issues" grid that showed where candidates stood on various issues, hard-hitting questionnaires, and even videos from candidate forums. We did everything possible to ensure that voters had plenty of information when they went to the polls.
In the last five years, we've helped expose the corruption at the water district, outed City Hall on their questionable deals and callous treatment of citizens, and been witness to the phoenix-like transformation of a police department once known for its secrecy into a shining example of openness and cooperation with its community.
But the accomplishment for which I'm most proud is our online comments section at the end of each story, the area which some council members derisively and inaccurately refer to as "bloggers."
In my three-year stint at "the other newspaper," I often joked that Mesquite's official bird was the ostrich, because so many people insisted on sticking their head in the sand rather than facing difficult issues.
In the early days of, people were reluctant to get involved or offer their opinions.
Here in 2011, the comments sections of major stories on MLN are robust and filled with thousands of comments. More people in this community are now involved and engaged. They care about what's going on in their town, and have become an active part of the dialogue and process instead of just laying back with an "I don't care" attitude.
It's been fun to watch that evolution, and I sincerely believe this community is better for it.
There are a lot of people I'll miss now that I won't be a part of the day-to-day machinations of Mesquite. And of course, there will be some politicians and bureaucrats I won't miss.
When Mesquite Local News first began online in 2006, we received many supportive comments from people who urged us to start a print edition, something Cindi and I along with founding partner Sue Hurley really didn't want to do. We knew, even back then, that the future of the news industry is online.
With the advent of the iPhone, iPad, and a plethora of new "tablets" hitting the market this year, I believe the demise of the printed newspaper will come even faster in the next decade as advertisers wise up and consumers become more tech-savvy and demanding in the options and speed of their news delivery. A print product that delivers space-limited one-dimensional news as much as nine days after it happened will become as obsolete as the telegraph and the horse and buggy.
Due to the non-compete clause in my contract, I can't be involved in newspaper writing or running a news website in the area for two years.
My life will go on, I'll take on the next writing mountain, and Mesquite will continue without me as I move inexorably toward being "Morris who?" I'll still live here, but I'll be intentionally off the grid for a while, with the exception of my personal website and a couple of blogs I'll be starting.
I'll also continue writing the Workman Chronicles each week, which you can find right here. I love humor writing, and would hope to someday be known as the male Erma Bombeck. Or the southern-accent-less Lewis Grizzard. Or the illegitimate cousin of Dave Barry.
There are so many people I'd like to thank, but this is the point at which the credits would be rolling and people would be leaving the theater, unless you happen to be watching the Oscars.
In a future column, I'll write a big thank-you recognizing as many of those people as I can.
For now, I want to thank you, the reader. Without you, I'd just be another overweight, balding, suspender-wearing lunatic howling at an indifferent moon. I've appreciated your support, your kind words, and even your harsh words when I had it coming. It's not a cheap cliche' to say that I've sincerely done all this for you over the years. I've always believed that you deserved the truth, and I can only hope that I've provided it in a creative, interesting, and entertaining way.
I also hope a few of you will stick around for the journey to come, as I continue to write and try to make you laugh here on this miserable speck of a website.
Thank you for the privilege of serving as your news guy.