Time to try something different

After 21 years at the Lexington Herald-Leader, I leave the staff March 1. I have had a great run, but it’s time to try new things.

McClatchy, which owns this and 28 other newspapers, made a voluntary early retirement offer to 450 staff members nationwide. For this 60-year-old, it is an offer too good to refuse.

I loved playing important roles at my hometown newspaper after 14 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and five years before that with The Associated Press. I enjoyed my 10 years as the Herald-Leader’s managing editor, but stepping down in 2008 to be the metro/state columnist was the best thing I ever did professionally.

Still, there are other things I want to do, such as write books, and this will give me the flexibility to do them.

At various points in my career, when I was doing well, I made a leap of faith to try something new and it always worked out. Only once did I stay too long in a job, and that taught me some lessons. A sad aspect of this leap of faith is that I am leaving full-time daily journalism after an exciting four decades.

As a reporter, I covered many big news stories. As both a reporter and editor, I contributed to some important investigations. As a newsroom leader, I helped produce good newspapers and develop the careers of many fine journalists. As a columnist, I got to tell great stories and raise hell.

The roles of reporter and columnist are different. Reporters report. Good columnists report, too, but they also offer fact-based commentary. I took that role seriously and tried to make the most of it. I praised what I thought was good, criticized what I thought was bad and tried to hold powerful people accountable to the public interest. Whether you agreed or disagreed with me, I wanted to give you something to think about.

One pleasure of being a columnist was receiving a lot of fan mail. I also heard from many critics, which sometimes led to thoughtful discussions and debates. I got a lot of hate mail, too. Most came from people repeating things they had heard on radio and cable TV talk shows. I just shook my head and clicked delete. Knowing both my admirers and critics helped me keep my bearings.

A columnist needs a good editor to support and challenge him. I couldn’t have asked for a better one than Peter Baniak. He was a young reporter when I came to the Herald-Leader in 1998, and I quickly realized he was one of the best people in the newsroom.

I plan to continue writing great stories, but in longer form. I’m especially interested in history and what it can teach us about the present and future. I also want to explore other kinds of writing and creative expression. After four decades of constant deadlines, I’m looking forward to projects that allow more time for research and reflection. But who knows, somebody may make me another offer too good to refuse.

I’m not leaving Lexington. I love my home, neighborhood and community, and my two adorable grandchildren live nearby. I plan to ride bicycles more, hike more and spend more time on photography, research, teaching and other interests. But after writing commentary for 11 years, I’m sure I won’t be able to resist hurling the occasional 600-word thunderbolt when I think I have something important to say.

I care deeply about public affairs, which is why I will continue reading and supporting the fine journalists at the Herald-Leader. Aggressive watchdog reporting and fact-based commentary are needed now more than ever.

It has been sad to watch newspapers dwindle because technological changes have siphoned off the advertising revenue that always supported good journalism. The more newspapers cut staff and content, the fewer reasons people have to keep supporting them. It’s a vicious cycle.

There are still many talented and dedicated journalists doing great work every day, but the industry has yet to find an online business model to replace print advertising. That is ironic, because there has never been a better delivery vehicle for good journalism than the internet. Journalists have no shortage of readers, just revenue. If you value good journalism, support it by buying a digital subscription.

One thing I don’t plan to do anytime soon is retire. My elder role models have included friends such as Al Smith and Thomas D. Clark who kept young and engaged through writing and public service. So I’m not saying “goodbye,” just “see you later.”

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