Friday, January 27, 2017

We know what it’s like too: the passing of editors

In my last blog I wrote about how the death of firefighter or police officer changes the atmosphere of the station. This same sentiment occurs in a newsroom with the death of a colleague. I didn’t expect to again know how it felt so soon.

Daily Local News reporter Ginger Rae Dunbar and editor Jim Callahan pose together in the newsroom in 2014.  Staff photo by Vinny Tennis. 
I first experienced it when my mentoring editor Jim Callahan died on April 28, 2015 of cancer. Most recently, the Daily Local News team experienced it on Monday when we learned that Editor-in-Chief Tom Murray died of a heart attack on Jan. 21, 2017.

In a newsroom where most of the constant chatter is from the fire and police scanner, these two editors were known as the talkers. Despite how busy they were, they stopped by your desk or waited for you to go to theirs to say hello and hold a conversation. Most of the time it was work-related, specifically about your story assignments and how you are doing with them. Other times it was about your weekend and how you spent the holidays.

I felt honored that Tom described me as a reliable reporter, and he knew Callahan taught me well. The passion we all shared for journalism is what we bonded over. Somehow the newsroom managed to carry on and still put together a newspaper in the days that followed the loss of these “go-to” editors nearly two years apart.

The hardest part about being in the newsroom after a loss is walking past their desk. It’s covered in newspapers, binders, desk supplies, memorabilia from assignments we reported on, and scattered papers. Not many of us know how to keep our desks clean because you are busy working on the next story and chasing down leads. Sometimes cleaning our desk makes it harder for us to find what we need. The organized chaos reflects our career choice rather than our life-style.

Between their untouched desks and daily presence in the newsroom, part of you half expects them to walk in the office even though you know they are gone. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking or false hope. And maybe it’s because you miss them because of the impact they had.

Tom ended everyday with the journalists the same way by saying, “Call me if you need me.” Callahan was old-school and was known for his lingo when he offered that same help. It varied from “drop me a line” (an email), or “holler if you need something” meaning give him a call so “we can yak” and talk about your story or ideas.

Talking to your editor for advice was like a child going to a parent for advice. You have a close relationship where you can trust them to help guide you. Your editor, just like a parent, would protect you and have your back. They help you mature and want to see you succeed.

Our first day without Tom in the office, the photographer and I covered breaking news – a fatal car accident and a few fire calls. Tom and Callahan enjoyed working with the reporters, regardless of the nature of the news, and asking about their progress to obtain information for their story. I couldn’t call them if I needed something. But I could take what I learned from them and apply it. I can still hear Callahan’s voice full of wisdom. I know Tom’s voice will stay with me the same way.

Most reporters at some point in their career will experience writing about death. We report on fatal car accidents, fatal DUI-related crashes, fatal house fires, fatal shootings and fatal stabbings. We also report on the sudden deaths of politicians, business owners, school district administrators, teachers and students. I have done all of the above. One of my former editors reminds me that “writing about death never gets easier.” It doesn’t get any easier. You get stronger.

Some readers may think reporters are insensitive. Unfortunately some are. Some of us fight to detach ourselves from the story. It’s humbling when the people I interviewed for such stories say I’m a compassionate journalist. I try to be sensitive to the fact that just like we love, we all grieve differently. I understand that it is a difficult time for them, and just like anyone else, I don’t know exactly how they are feeling.

Reporters have loved and lost. We know what it’s like too. That’s why we strive to honor the memory of the person that we feature in the newspaper.

                                           Rest in Peace Jim Callahan and Tom Murray
Thomas M. Murray
James "Jim" P. Callahan

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