Exactly seven years ago Wednesday, I began my professional career as a journalist, with my first day as a general assignment reporter on July 16, 2007, at the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza.
And, it took me exactly two days to be called into my editor’s office for my first lesson in how I screwed up.
My first assignment was an update story on Incline Village’s “Independent Incline” effort, which at the time took on a much-smaller and far-less-organized form of a similar endeavor these days to incorporate Olympic Valley.
Long story short, Incline wanted (and many residents still do) to be its town so the tax-hungry grip of Washoe County could loosen. The simple thought: more local control, and more tax money stays in the community.
I did my research, called the appropriate sources and set out to write the story. Of course, no article like that would be responsible and objective without comment from the county. So I made two calls, didn’t get comment by my deadline, and ended the story with this line:
“Washoe County Manager Katy Singlaub and Washoe County Community Relations Director Kathy Carter were contacted for a statement, but a county representative said Tuesday that officials were too busy to comment.”
Well, as you can imagine, come Wednesday the 18th, Katy (now Katy Simon) and Kathy (who’ve both since moved on from the county) weren’t too excited to see that.
My editor was called and told the full story — due to impacts of the county’s assistance with the Hawkins fire at that time, they were, no doubt, not prepared on a short deadline (as I recall, I gave them about 1 hour) to comment on my story.
Of course, me being new to the area, all I heard from the county rep was “busy,” so I rolled with it. Was it technically true? Yes. Was it responsible for me to report it that way? No way, and my mistake was called out in a long letter to the editor in the July 20, 2007, edition.
I was furious. My 23-year-old pride? Crushed. I was corrected and publicly called out less than a week on the job. This was not the plush life I experienced at my college newspaper, I remember thinking in a sulking state of mind, where I won awards and documented a Court TV-covered murder trial and chronicled the 2006 Central Michigan football team (coached then by now-Notre Dame leader Brian Kelly).
There’s a great line in the movie “Rounders” — the before-poker-became-so-commercial film from 1998 starring Matt Damon and Ed Norton and featuring that memorable “Teddy KGB” Russian accent from John Malkovich — that goes: “In ‘Confessions of a Winning Poker Player,’ Jack King said, ‘Few players recall big pots they have won, strange as it seems, but every player can remember with remarkable accuracy the outstanding tough beats of his career.’”
Over my short career, I’ve won awards, including 2008 Journalist of Merit honors from the Nevada Press Association, along with a handful of first-, second- and third-place honors from the Nevada and California Newspaper Publishers Association contests.
But those “big pots” pale in comparison, both in volume and impact, to my “tough beats” — countless corrections, clarifications and tense phone calls and meetings with sources and public officials who’ve been misquoted or misrepresented by the newspaper. Believe me, I remember just about every one of them.
Looking back seven years ago, I can now chuckle, because I know it was a needed lesson for me, one of those “come to Jesus” moments that I hope every junior reporter learns quickly on the job. I firmly believe anyone’s ego needs a good beating from time to time.
For me, it’s because of those tough beats — coupled with one’s ability to learn and grow from them — that help truly define a journalist and a newspaper’s integrity.
We’re never going to be perfect, but if we can work with people in our communities to report things accurately, and correct mistakes when appropriate, that goes a long way to gaining credibility. And that means a heck of a lot more to me and us as a business than any commemorative plaque or award.
Kevin MacMillan is managing editor of the Sierra Sun and North Lake Tahoe Bonanza newspapers; he may be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Kevin1MacMillan.