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Rocky Mountain News
What inspired you to become a journalist?
My family suggested, ceaselessly, that I become a reporter from the time I was in high school. One big inspiration was Howard Miller, city editor of my hometown paper, the Pueblo Chieftain. He babysat me during the funeral of a relative I can't remember. But what I do remember is Howard and I played poker. He said he knew Damon Runyan, a famous columnist and short-story writer who claimed Pueblo as his hometown. Runyan and I share the same birthdate -- Oct. 4.
How long did it take you to become a columnist?
I started writing a column within three months of getting my first real newspaper job, the twice-weekly Delta County Independent. I wrote columns at every paper I worked at before hiring on at the Rocky Mountain News in 1987. Then, it took nine years to get the job I now have.
You file five columns a week. How do you stay organized and meet constant deadlines?
Deadlines are the best part of the business. If you saw my desk three months ago, you'd have said I wasn't organized at all because of the immense heap of paper. But I could pull a piece of paper out of the pile because I knew the general direction it was supposed to be. Unfortunately, when someone neat sat my desk and moved stuff, I had problems. About three months ago, we had a major newsroom cleanup. So I rely on a small flip calendar to keep track of interviews, which is very important. I also keep notes in my computer. And I sort stuff to keep it in order.
In recent months, you've written about a man who repairs wheelchairs, a former runaway teen who now reaches out to people in shelters or on the streets, and a 94-year-old being honored at the local Italian Festa. How do you find these folks?
Many times, people find me. My direct phone number and e-mail address are listed at the end of my column. And I get tips from both. I get snail mail tips. I get suggestions from my editor. Colleagues send column ledes my way. And when I'm away from the office, even on days off, I'm looking for interesting people.
How do you get people to talk about themselves?
This is something I never learned in any class in any school I'd ever been in. I try to make my interviews visits instead of interrogations. I share stuff about myself if I think it will ease. The best suggestion I have for interviewers is to be genuinely interested in the person you're interviewing. They can tell if you're not. So they won't feel like talking. I also remind people that I'm not very bright so they'll have to explain stuff to me. And they usually try to be very helpful. I also generally start with some nuts and bolts, especially the correct spelling of their names. This is an important part of the job, getting it right, and it shows people that I'm there to be accurate. Also, when I miss part of a quote, I'll say something like, "Wait a sec. I got most of what you said.'' Then I'll reread them the part of the quote I got, and ask them to fill in the blank. This works good in school, too. It shows a teacher that you were paying attention. So the good ones will fill in the blanks for you.
Is it hard to write to a specific length?
I hate to answer this question because it gets me to thinking how difficult this job can be. I write a short column, roughly 91 lines. The hardest part comes in what I have to leave out. How difficult is writing to length? Now you know why I'll wake up at 3 in the morning, stressing over what I could have put in instead of what I did put in. But I really know I'm in trouble when I write 10 lines over. Then I know I haven't tied the column together and that I rambled. Cutting two or three lines isn't too hard. Cutting 10 is because I wonder what the heck I was thinking when I should have been thinking column.
Is your column edited the same way a news story is?
I suppose it is. My editor checks for accuracy. He -- in this case, my editor is a he -- will make suggestions and then send the column back to me for my approval or comment. Most of the time, if he makes a suggestion, I go along with it because he's supposed to be the readers' representative. If something is unclear or clunky to him, it will be to the reader as well. A lot of times, we work together on a streamline. For example, my boss will suggest a word change. I'll think on it and come with an alternative to his suggestion, which makes the column better. We agree and it goes that way to the copy desk.
Do you hear a lot from readers?
Yes and no. Sometimes, I get so many calls it takes all day around writing my column to return them. Sometimes, I don't hear anything. And sometimes, I'll hear something months later.
What advice do you have for teens who want to make the columns in their school newspapers more interesting?
Write yourself out of the column. We all make the big mistake of trying to dazzle readers sometimes -- look how brilliant I am, look how clever I can be. What we should be doing is trying to inform. Make your points clearly and quickly. If you ramble, you lose the reader. How many of you stay alert through droning lectures?