I was honored last week to present an hour-long program for the members of the Pine Belt Chapter of the Public Relations Association of Mississippi.
The topic was about writing feature stories and how to find them in the organization that you represent.
I always enjoy getting to visit with groups like that – particularly when it gives me an opportunity to talk about writing, something that has been a passion of mine for the last 20 years.
Unfortunately, in my role as publisher, writing opportunities seem to be few and far between as I juggle the other responsibilities of publishing three weekly newspapers, a couple of monthly magazines, and other publications.
As a high school and college student, writing always seemed like a chore more than anything. n fact, I rarely found joy in anything I wrote. Looking back, I think that’s probably because i was being forced to do it.
The best I can recall, the very first thing I ever had published in a newspaper – other than a letter to Santa Claus that I wrote in the second grade – was a letter to the editor I penned during my junior year in high school.
As a member of the infamous “Riot Squad” student spirit section of my high school, I took exception to a letter that appeared the week before in which a local curmudgeon was (unfairly) critical of our antics during an annual week-long basketball tournament.
I took him to task for jumping to conclusions and making carte blanche assumptions about our entire group based on the actions of a few bad apples.
My letter was a good enough letter to generate a follow-up response by the curmudgeon and good enough to catch the eye of the newspaper’s managing editor who would later offer me my first real job in the newspaper business.
It was six years or so after that original letter was published and I had just moved back to my hometown when I ran into the managing editor in the local grocery store.
There was an opening in the news department and after exchanging pleasantries, he suggested – based on the strength of that original letter to the editor – that I throw my hat into the ring for consideration.
I could write a story of my choosing, he said, and if I enjoyed the experience – and if the fruit of my efforts was any good – then I could join the news department as a cub reporter.
With no formal training as a journalist, I was hesitant, but without a solid lead on a job, I decided to give it a try.
After some consideration, I narrowed my sights on a local middle school science teacher who was retiring after some 30 years in the classroom.
Dean Robertson only stood some 5’6” tall and he had a high-pitched, cartoon-esque voice, but it didn’t stop him from commanding a classroom or an athletic team.
In addition to teaching middle school science, he had also been a high school wrestling coach and a football coach and despite his small physical stature, he was a giant among men.
The story appeared on the front page of the Sunday newspaper and by the time I walked into church later that morning, people were already congratulating me for a job well done.
Somehow I had managed to capture his story in a way that resonated with our readers and just like that, I was hooked.
It was my first published piece as a “professional” journalist and nearly 20 years later, I still get a rush being able to tell people’s stories.
Not all of my efforts have been as good as that first one, but I’ve managed to hit a few home runs during the course of my career and I’m far from retirement.
In the coming year, I’ve made it a goal for our staff to be more active in our feature writing.