My Thanksgiving list each year, thankfully, is lengthy, but this year I’m looking back — to Thanksgiving 1990. We’d just moved back to Oak Park after a long sojourn out of state — first Colorado, then Michigan. In fact, we moved back 10 years to the day, a perfect circle that seemed, at the time, Odyssean — a somewhat inflated view, admittedly, but that’s the romantic in me.
We moved in with my parents temporarily — one more mitzvah from the roomy old Gunderson home at Jackson and Elmwood where I grew up. I’d been writing freelance articles for Wednesday Journal through the fall, getting reacquainted with my hometown (seems you can go home again) when a few days before Thanksgiving, Dan Haley called me into his office and told me the Forest Park Review editor had resigned abruptly. They needed someone to put out that paper — holiday issues, heftiest of the year, double the normal size. He said it was a great opportunity for the right person.
“I have no idea if you’re the right person,” he confessed, but we agreed on a trial run. Since I had never written a news story, I had no idea if I was the right person either. In fact, I was terrified — so terrified that the first story I wrote, about the triennial Cook County tax assessments (first I’d heard of them), won an award the following year from the Illinois Press Association.
Thus began a 20-year odyssey in community journalism. When I started, we were still pasting copy onto boards using hot wax, then driving them out to Elgin to be printed. I wasn’t doing that, of course. I had my hands full just filling the vast gridirons of empty news pages facing me each week. For the first few months, I actually wrote my stories longhand, then came in Tuesday morning (after three hours of sleep) and typed them in. I didn’t exactly hit the ground running.
But I learned and adapted, just as Wednesday Journal learned and adapted, converting to “pagination” and becoming digitized in every way imaginable (and unimaginable in 1990). I witnessed quite the transformation in this industry, and it ain’t over yet. Reports of journalism’s demise, I suspect, have been greatly exaggerated.
I look back on these last two decades as a very long apprenticeship. Sometimes it felt like indentured servitude. But if I had to serve time, I’m glad it happened here. Garrison Keillor needed to invent Lake Wobegon. Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park actually exist. I can’t think of a better place to raise and educate our son, get a taste of homeowning, and become a community chronicler.
In the process, I learned the reservoir of stories is inexhaustible (though I am exhaustible), that telling stories is an essential function of civilization, and people are as hungry as ever to hear them.
As journalism rushes headlong toward reinvention (our “aggiornamento” or updating), we need to remember “resourcement” (returning to the source). Telling stories truly and well will be the salvation of journalism, no matter how formats evolve. There is a power to authentic storytelling that packaging can only enhance. With all due respect to media theorist Marshall McLuhan, the medium is not the message, and the two should never be confused.
Those of you familiar with me know I’ve always felt restless within the constraints of traditional journalism. I believe there should be a balance between advocacy and objectivity. Both have their place and both can co-exist within these pages. What I like best about my job is when I walk out of the office and into someone’s life. Nothing beats the feeling of telling another person’s story. It’s like walking on hallowed ground — makes you want to take off your shoes. I’ve learned that people are rarely as ordinary as they think (see this week’s profile of Jean Sullivan).
In a nutshell, that’s my philosophy of community journalism: Everyone has a story, everyone’s story is worth telling, and telling those stories is a privilege that should never be taken lightly.
To become an authentic storyteller, you have to appreciate the people and places you’re writing about. At my best (and I’m not always), I see my “job” as preventing readers from taking this marvelous eruption in time and space — peopled with remarkable lives — for granted. My hope is that you feel as nourished after reading an article as I do writing it.
I never expected to be here 20 years. So much has changed — and so much hasn’t. Since 1990, many have moved out, and many moved in. Many have been born and many died. Think of all the new buildings — and all the new cellphones. Think of all the former apartments converted to condos — and the housing prices that spiked and fell. In 1990, downtown was a ghost town. People weren’t comfortable walking there at night. Look at it now. A community is a dynamic, ever-changing canvas. So it’s good once in a while to look back.
I don’t know what the next two decades hold or where I’ll be as it unfolds, but I do know one thing: I could not have had better companions on this journey.