Richard says, ‘Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen’ to journalism

Waving goodbye

Richard says to journalism: “Goodbye, farewell, and amen.”

If Don Meredith were still alive and working on television, he’d probably have this to say about my career in journalism: “Turn out the lights, the party’s over.”

All good things must end, and that includes what I like to jokingly call “my so-called career in journalism.” My final day with the Highlander was Friday, Dec. 28. I am “retiring” from newsrooms to work in broadcasting and to pursue freelance writing, blogging, and my dream job: fiction writing.

I began working as a journalist, a mix of full-time, part-time and freelancing, in 2000, after I left the U.S. Army. It was a huge risk as it meant taking a major pay cut from my military job.

My career has taken me to San Antonio, South Dallas County, Canyon Lake, up to Michigan in Lapeer County and then north Genesee County and south Saginaw County, then back down to Texas at the Fredericksburg Standard and then here at the Highlander.

It’s been an interesting ride filled with many crazy stories:

…I emailed Kinky Friedman through his website, back when he was considering running for governor of Texas. I was so surprised by his phone call a few days later that my initial reply was an astonished, “THE Kinky Friedman?!”

…A friend whose father posthumously received the Medal of Honor in Vietnam by throwing himself onto a live grenade. The friend described the Army’s highest honor as “just a piece of medal and ribbon” and said he’d rather have his father alive.

…A Vietnamese friend who made it out of Saigon as it fell in 1975 and was rescued on a boat near the Philippines. (To this day, he still refuses to call it Ho Chi Minh City).

…Doing sports gathering part-time for the San Antonio Express-News and grimacing when we’d get calls from Kenedy, Karnes City, or Poth. All Polish towns. Try correctly spelling Dworaczyk, Włodarski, or Pieprzyca.

…David Newell, who played Postman Mr. McFeely on Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, told me that Fred Rogers off camera was exactly the same as the loving, compassionate Mr. Rogers on camera. Newell also told me this tidbit: Rogers was color blind and could only see things in black, white and gray. His favorite sweater was the red cardigan: not because of the color, but because it was most comfortable.

…Then there was that township meeting outside Clio, Michigan, where a man hooked up to oxygen became angry about something said by the township supervisor and challenged the supervisor to a fight.

…A few union guys complained I was too conservative. Never mind that liberal columnists in Michigan—which barely went to Pres. Donald Trump in 2016—are a dime a dozen.

…While covering a wrestling tournament in a certain rural Michigan town, a parent took me aside and whispered, “You should write about our school sometime. If the state knew how awful the academics were here, they’d take away our accreditation.”

I’ve long suspected she wasn’t joking.

…Then there was the time I took pictures at one football game and a player was injured. His previous injury in his other knee hadn’t completely healed. One mother angrily told me the coach had a reputation for “encouraging” kids to play when they shouldn’t.

Back here in Texas, there were plenty of memorable assignments:

…Ray Martinez, the retired Texas Ranger who helped take down Charles Whitman in 1966. Martinez, who spoke to me on the 50th anniversary of the event. Before going in, he said a prayer of absolution. When he returned, he came out without a scratch.

…One of the most ominous stories I’ve covered was a feature on a movie regarding a famous grave in Fredericksburg. The young girl, found dead and then buried in September 1927, remains unknown. To this day, nobody knows who killed her or why. Her name is known only to God.

…Shortly after I started at the Highlander, I interviewed Chase Parker, grandson of three-time Oscar nominee Eleanor Parker and nephew of actor Paul Clemens, as he was in Burnet shooting parts of a Civil War era film titled American Fishtrap.

That’s all, folks!

Despite all the excitement in sports coverage and the people I’ve met as a news and features writer, in the past two years I’ve thought a lot about what I really want to do in life.

At the top of that list is fiction writing.

I have two published short stories and have many unpublished short stories in various phases of development. Then there are two novels I’m working on. I also have four blogs and write about writing, current events, Christian issues, and, sometimes, satire.

Someone once said, “You don’t want to spend the rest of your life thinking of chances you never took.”

Starting at the first of the year, I’ll work full-time in broadcasting and then work a second job to make ends meet. When not working, I plan to focus on fiction and blogging in hopes that perhaps someday, I can be successful at it. It’s my dream. I’ll turn 46 in February and even if I don’t achieve it, I don’t want to look back 30 years from now and lament not trying.

Goodbye, my fellow journalists and to those who have enjoyed what I’ve written for the Highlander and Burnet Bulletin. The journalism train has stopped, and this is where I get off.

Post comments here or email them to: richardzowie@gmail.com. 

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What is the future of journalism?

A certain newspaper closed down a few months ago. Besides a major lack of local reporting (the lifeblood of just about every newspaper, since residents want to know what’s going on in their area), one fatal blow to this paper was its publisher’s refusal to get a website.

Not only did they not web-publish, but they also had NO website.

I found it flabbergasting, especially since when I began in journalism in 2000, even then the newspaper (the Kelly Observer) was already publishing online. These days, you have to at least have a website. Otherwise, people think you are as ancient as a vinyl album. Once you have a website, figure out if and how online publishing can work.

One newspaper I’ve seen back home in Texas has a three-part subscription plan: 1) Print newspaper only; 2) Print and online newspaper and 3) Online newspaper only. #1 is for the old-school types who prefer a printed newspaper and don’t like online news. The second is for those who like both and the third is for either those who prefer online news only or for those who live far away and can only access fresh editions online.

Furthermore, the newspaper has this policy: if you don’t have an online subscription, you can read only the first paragraph. Once you buy an online subscription, you are issued a user name and password and can then read whatever part of the newspaper you want.

Other newspapers, such as the Flint Journal and the San Antonio Express-News, make their news available to anyone who accesses their sites without a subscription. I don’t know how well or if this works. I do know the Journal has in recent years past been doing a lot of layoffs; maybe there’s a connection, and maybe not.

I read a lot of online news and also access news through my cell phone. But, I must admit, I really like sitting, relaxing and reading the print edition. Besides news, sports, entertainment and comics (my current favorite is Luann), I also like to do the puzzles in the comics section.

I’m 40. In 50 years I will be 90. I don’t know if I will still be alive, but I do feel print newspapers will definitely be dead. Fortunately, for all the old-school types who prefer print news, they will probably be deceased also.

Richard Zowie is a journalist, columnist, blogger and fiction writer. Post comments here or e-mail them to richardzowie@gmail.com.

Ten years as a writer

From A to Zowie

Ten years as a writer

By Richard Zowie

Ten years ago, as I drove down to Prime Time Military Newspapers near Lackland Air Force Base on San Antonio’s southwest side, I was nervous. For months, as I prepared to leave the Army, I’d occasionally e-mail the publisher ask if any journalism positions were open. Each time she’d tell me they didn’t have any but that my writing samples looked very good. As my discharge drew closer without a job lined up, I worried what the future held. A few days before the publisher had called, and I interviewed with her.

Now it was time for the second interview with her and the publisher and editor of the Kelly Observer. That interview went very well, and just a few days after my Army enlistment officially ended on February 21, 2000, I began my writing career as a staff writer for the Observer. And then, a year later, as a columnist for the Beeville Bee-Picayune.

That was then: today I work at the Genesee County Herald in Clio, Michigan (a small town about 20 miles north of Flint). It’s actually two newspapers: one edition covers the northern Genesee County areas of Mt. Morris and Clio and the other edition covers the southern Saginaw County areas of Birch Run and Bridgeport.

When not doing that, I also work on freelance assignments and try to refine my fiction. Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of being published in a few places: Air Force News, the San Antonio Express-News, and Recreation Management magazine.

Over the years as a writer, I’ve had a chance to work with many wonderful people, along with some who have taught me a lot by teaching me how not to do something. Along the way I’ve stepped on my share of land mines.

Over these 10 years, here are what I consider the Three P’s of Journalism: Be Professional. When talking to someone, stay with the topic at hand unless perhaps a side comment can somehow lead to the person revealing great information for your article or information that could lead to a future article.

Be Polite. Treat those you deal with in a respectful, friendly manner. It goes a long way, especially if the person has had bad experiences with the media in the past.

Be to the Point. Assume the people you deal with are very busy. Once you introduce yourself, get down to business. When done talking to them, thank them for your time and leave it up to them to leave the door open for further comments.

Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of writing some memorable stories. Among them…

…During Air Force Day at Dallas Cowboys training camp in San Antonio’s Alamodome in 2002, I got to briefly interview Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. Was I nervous? Does it get hot in Texas summers? …

Earlier in 2000, I wrote an Express-News Memorial Day feature article of an Army buddy whose father posthumously received the Medal of Honor in Vietnam by throwing himself onto a grenade.

I’ve also in my ventures met a kidney transplant recipient who, after 15 years, needed another kidney and learned his medical insurance wouldn’t cover the cost. Then there was the 102-year-old lady, whose secret to longevity was dipping snuff (I kid you not).

Sometimes I’ve even met a few famous people. For one unpublished feature article about his minister-at-large position at San Antonio’s Oakwood Church, I interviewed San Antonio Spurs star and NBA Hall of Famer David Robinson. (Being 5’8”, I barely came up to his waist). About a year ago, I interviewed and took pictures of Marlon Young, the lead guitarist for Kid Rock’s Twisted Brown Trucker band. Young was very friendly.

Years ago in the Bee-Picayune, I wrote about writing and said this: writing is an art, not a science. As I’ve continued to grow as a writer, I feel that’s a comment that must be modified. Writing is a science in that you must learn the fundamentals, grammar rules and spelling. But it’s also an art in that you must develop your own individual style. It’s difficult to practice your art if you don’t have a grasp of grammar or if you can’t spell words.

Where would I like to see my writing career go in the future? In a few directions: journalism, blogging (which I suspect is where journalism’s slowly going) and fiction writing. Perhaps I’ll have those things to report on in 2020 when I write about 20 years.

In closing, here’s my favorite story in the past 10 years: While working at a newspaper in Comal County, we had a weekly question we’d ask of local residents for our Word on the Street segment. One week it was asking if people voted, the other week whether they planned to buy former President Bill Clinton’s then-recently-published autobiography, and so on. Some residents would decline to pose for a head shot while others would give their first name only.

One lady gave a great answer to one of the questions but then declined a photo or to even give her first name.

“Are you just shy?” I asked her.

She laughed. “Not really, but I do have a few outstanding warrants for my arrest, and the authorities don’t know I’m here in Canyon Lake.”

Richard Zowie grew up in Beeville and now works in Michigan as a writer. Post comments here or e-mail richardzowie@gmail.com.

Are websites and blogs the future of journalism?

My gut response would be yes.

When I began my career as a writer back in 2000, we did our writing on PCs and our layout on Macs. We took photos which then had to be processed at a local lab. The pictures would then be scanned and laid out. Once we published the print edition, a gentleman would put out the website edition. Sure, there were lots of websites in 2000, but it seemed amazing for me that our newspaper could also be read online. After all, isn’t it called a newspaper? To me, it seemed a little like science fiction.

My, how things change.

These days, more advanced computer programs are used for writing and laying out a newspaper. Photos are taken with digital cameras, meaning the photos can be instantly viewed and downloaded instead of waiting an hour or so for the lab to have them. After the print edition is completed, then the web edition is put out.

Some newspapers that have websites are extremely reluctant about putting their news online while some newspapers (such as the one where my sister works) don’t have a website at all. Here’s the concern of many newspaper owners: if we put the news online and let people read it for free, what motivation will they have to buy the print edition?

Can a publication have both a newspaper and a website? Yes. I think the best way to do the website is to make it accessible by username and password for subscribers only (perhaps two types of subscriptions: one for those who want a subscription to the print edition but access also to the web edition and another for those who want access to the web edition only). Everyone else can read a teaser of each story but then is prompted to become a paid subscriber to read the rest of the story. Whether or not this business model will actually work remains to be seen.

Having a news publication online is especially convenient for people who live hundreds or thousands of miles from home and would like to find out what’s going on in their hometown. True, they can always wait for the print edition to be mailed to them, but some don’t like having to wait for the paper arrived and see that it was what happened two weeks ago. They want to know what’s going on right now.

Some news publications are choosing to go more towards web editions and less on print. The Christian Science Monitor is online only while some daily metros, like the San Antonio Express-News, are available in print form inside the city only. This past summer, the Flint Journal dwindled down to become published only a few times a week in print. That is only bound to increase with newspapers finding it more and more difficult to make money off their print versions.

More recently, while getting photos at a high school basketball game, I encountered a man sitting and observing the game while typing at a laptop. He told me he was with the Saginaw News and was doing doing live blogging of the game. Others who don’t even work at newspapers (such as Matt Drudge) have their own websites where they can write about things going on and upload links where people can read about a story posted in another paper.

I suspect that in about 50 years there will be few, if any, print-edition newspapers around. Perhaps they’ll cease from being called newspaper and will instead be called newsblog or newssite or newsnet. With the cell phones that now have internet access, this is becoming more and more likely. It’s easier to access a website than it is to go out and buy a paper and sort through a bunch of sections to get to where you want.

A colleague (more like a mentor) tells me he hopes that blogs don’t become the future of journalism since they are merely opinion gathering and not journalism. For some, blogs are popular because they have on faith that when they read in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Houston Chronicle, Miami Herald, Kansas City Star or other mainstream newspaper is really accurate, fair or balanced. They figure someone who’s a decent writer but not a professional reporter couldn’t do any worse. Sometimes that might be true, other times it is not.

Besides that, some argue that with blogs there’s no way to really regulate what they post. The day could very well come where laws will be passed stating that any news website must pay some sort of fee and be licensed in a way where they are expected to follow rules for fairness and accuracy, and where they can be held liable for publishing libelous comments or stories.

That’s a great point, but these days it’s far easier to start a web news site than it is a newspaper. To start up a newspaper requires a huge investment of capital, followed by securing advertising and hiring the right people. Most recently, the Detroit Daily Press tried this and failed miserably; some former workers allege they were never paid for their work. To start up a website costs only the fee to buy the domain name and to hire someone to make it look nice online while you have the task of uploading news. Blogs, such as the ones here at WordPress, cost nothing unless you want to upgrade. It’s far easier to run web-based news than it is print.

It’s 2010, and it’ll be fascinating to observe this decade whether or not newspapers will make a comeback. My guess is that as the older generation passes on and the computer generation becomes more rampant, we may very well see the day where printed newspapers become as archaic as typewriters.

Richard Zowie has been a professional writer for almost 10 years and has been published in the San Antonio Express-News, Recreation Management magazine, Flint Journal’s Flint Community Newspapers and various web-only sites. His opinions are not necessarily reflected by his past and current clients. Post comments or e-mail richardzowie@gmail.com.

Go where the story leads you

Early on in my professional career when writing feature articles, I learned to keep an open mind when it came to pursing a story and take the story where the quotes and facts lead you. After all, isn’t it easy to try to sway the story a certain direction?

Back around 2001, I wrote a feature article for the San Antonio Express-News about POW/MIA bracelets. As I researched and interviewed, I expected to find an overwhelming amount of people with them along with a huge outcry over those who were still unaccounted for. I found one soldier in San Antonio who collected and wore the bracelets who was willing to be interviewed. I also interviewed two former POWs who both told me they did not believe anybody was left behind.

More recently, when I first wrote my feature on Walmart two years ago, I fully expected to interview one infuriated store owner after another, each sounding off on how Walmart has ruined downtown Clio, Michigan. I found only two like that, and neither would go on record.

And, of course, you’d be really surprised what fascinating tidbits you can find when interviewing somebody. I recall interviewing one horticulturist (I won’t say who or where since I’d like to have an exclusive on this someday) who’s also a professional chef. One of his clients: Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler.

Then there was the Air Force lieutenant colonel who was headed to New England to run the Boston Marathon. The surname of this Boston-born and bred colonel was Richard; he was of French-Canadian descent and was a third cousin of Montréal Canadiens hockey star Maurice “Rocket” Richard.

Also, when interviewing a young, rising country star in Clio, Mich., his mother mentioned he’d recorded a duet with country music star Mel McDaniel. “Ol’ Mel”, I remembered, was one of my Dad’s favorite country music artists. A message on his website, and a few days later, I phone interviewed Mr. McDaniel for the article. Ol’ Mel couldn’t have been nicer.

A Night in the Life of a San Antonio Express-News sports gatherer

One of my favorite jobs I’ve had in newspapers was as a sports gatherer for the San Antonio Express-News. Around 2003 and 2004 I freelanced for them, working from 9 p.m. to around 2 a.m. My and others’ jobs was to take phone calls from high school coaches regarding games, the scores and stats. Fall was for high school football, late fall and winter for basketball and the spring was for baseball. The fall season was the most hectic since high school football is…well, if you’re from Texas you know exactly what I’m talking about.

I loved the Express-News newsroom. It was quiet but very busy. Some chatter but everybody seemed to be chasing down stories. David Flores, the high school sports editor, was a wonderful man. I also liked Tom Orsborne, who covers the Dallas Cowboys for the newspaper.

At 9 p.m., I’d arrive. I remember the first few weeks were pretty hectic as I took the wrong exit and wound up in another area of San Antonio. Then, I found the building that housed the E-N and had a fun time trying to park. Downtown San Antonio at night can be a little creepy.

Around 11 p.m., the game calls would start flooding in. Basically, you listened carefully as the coach gave the final score, told you who scored when, the basic stats. I remember always getting nervous when we’d get scores from Polish towns like Poth or Karnes City since the surnames were hard to spell. You know…Wojciechowski, Pieprzyca, Dworaczyk.

Once you get all the data, you quickly double-check the data with the coach. Then you enter it into the main computer for the people in layout to get to, print it out and put it onto the pile. If you’re handling a call about one of the San Antonio powerhouses like Churchill, Reagan, Madison or Central Catholic, it was best to let the news room know right away. We’d get reports from as far away as Ben Bolt, which is down in south Texas about 100 miles north of the Mexican border.

Around midnight, things would die down. It was fun to relax, gather your bearings, and watch a little television. Sometimes it would be local sports channels and other times it would be ESPN’s Sports Center.

When possible, it was fun to chat with some of the local reporters and other E-N staff members and just see how things were going. I remember David told me a little about how he was once banned from the Alamo Stadium press boxes because the then-USFL occupant San Antonio Gunslingers accused him of negative coverage. So, he covered the game from the bleachers. Funny stuff.

There was even one time where I got to attend a football game with one of the high school football beat writers. I learned a lot by observing him. Raul would make note of every play, who did what for how many yards, anything interesting that happened in the play. Immediately after the game, he’d head down from the press box to the field to interview both coaches. Then off to the newspaper to get it written for the morning paper.

One fringe benefit was getting to take home a free copy of the previous day’s paper. I always liked the Friday issue with the Weekender section, so it was an added bonus.

Sometimes I’d head home by midnight but on busy nights, I usually was out the door by 1 a.m. Sometimes it was fun to get done at 1 a.m., be in bed by 1:30 a.m. and then get up around 6 a.m. to get to work at the radio station. But I had the time of my life doing so.

Looking for employment as a writer

Recently, I was laid off from the newspaper where I work due to financial cutbacks. I hope to continue working as a writer since that’s what I enjoy doing and it’s also what I’m good at.

For nine years I’ve worked both as a full-time and freelance writer. On the editorial side, you name it and chances are I’ve done it: news writing, feature writing, sports writing, opinion columns, some investigative reporting, photography and layout (both for the print and online editions). I’ve interviewed countless people: besides the township supervisors, trustees, school superintendents and officials and sports coaches, I’ve also interviewed Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones, Marlon Young (Kid Rock’s lead guitarist), retired Purdue University men’s basketball coach Gene Keady and songwriter Billy Joe Shaver.

Software I’ve worked with includes Microsoft Word, Pagemaker and Photoshop. I’ve also worked both on PC and Mac computers.

My work has appeared in the San Antonio Express-News, Air Force News, Flint Journal Flint Community Newspapers, Michigan Associated Press (for broadcasting) and in Recreation Management magazine.

Here are links to my resume and writing samples. References will be made available upon request.

Richard Zowie

richardzowie@gmail.com