GREEN BAY – Newspapers stimulate and inform, entertain and challenge, inspire and keep a watchful eye over our democratic system of government.
They’ve also constituted my full-time working life for just about 43 consecutive years. A newspaperman is what I am, and I consider myself extremely fortunate to have chosen journalism in my early 20s, landed a job and been able to make a career in it.
Why am I leaving Milwaukee, where I joined The Journal in 1991 and then the new Journal Sentinel in 1995?
My wife, Pat, and I have reached the age (65) where we want to taste life without my deadlines hanging over us.
George Stanley, the editor of the Journal Sentinel, and JS sports editor Mike Davis attempted to convince me to stay. I’m not sure I hold two journalists in higher regard, and not for one minute did I lead them on. They were stunned, but as I told them I wouldn’t have lasted this long in the business without being able to keep a secret.
I wouldn’t trade my years in Milwaukee for anything. People always told me you’ll know when the time is right to get out, and now I know.
My golden rule was never to leave a job that you love. For the first time, I have broken that rule.
It was my good fortune to grow up in a home with parents who stressed education above all else, and reading newspapers from front to back was a big part of that.
For many of my formative years, the McGinns subscribed to newspapers from Minneapolis, Chicago and Detroit. They’d arrive days late in the mail, but the hometown Escanaba (Mich.) Daily Press was on the porch every day after school.
For a time, I was a carrier boy delivering the Milwaukee Sentinel at the crack of dawn.
To this day, I buy several newspapers, spread them out on the kitchen table and delight in the array of content.
“Since my teenage years, up to this very moment, one of the highlights of every day comes right before I stoop to pick up the morning (or afternoon) newspaper,” my friend and former colleague, Bob Wolfley, wrote me last week. “Or stick the coins in the box before I peel off the top copy.
“That thrum of anticipation. What’s inside? What’s news? What are those talented, smart, energetic professionals going to tell me about the world around me? That right-before-feeling, sacred as it is fleeting.”
Wish I had written those words, Bob. The allure of newspapers stays in one’s blood. Each day is different. A winner and loser can be determined daily by comparing your copy to someone else’s. What you are is what you wrote.
As a college student, I and two other sportswriting hopefuls surrounded Roy Damer of the Chicago Tribune the night before a football game. We asked him what made a good sportswriter.
“It’s easy, boys,” Damer said. “No matter the assignment, every single time you sit down at the typewriter, try your hardest to produce the best possible story.”
I never forgot Damer’s advice. I didn’t want the subscriber or the citizen buying the paper at the newsstand to be disappointed because of me.
Since my departure was announced last week I have been touched more than you can possibly imagine by the hundreds of emails sent by readers.
When you’re writing late at night in a press box or, more recently, working on the NFL draft series into the wee hours of the morning, you never think of who might be reading it the next day. After finishing one story, my thoughts immediately would turn to what I would do for the next story.
People have told me how their bond with a parent was strengthened with endless talk about my columns. Some educators have used my approach to beat writing with their students. High school coaches found value in things I’ve written. One man said that as a child he learned to read with my stuff.
When Sam, my 6-year-old grandson, read a portion of the defensive line draft story to me over the phone last month, I lost it. That was the first time I had ever heard him read.
Certainly, remaining on one beat for as long I did had its advantages. For one, as the years passed by, I felt able to make assumptions because of the large faithful readership that devoured every word.
So “bad” runs, 3- and 5-techniques, 40-yard times, Wonderlic scores and two-gapping became part of everyday writing. If some scout said some player was “just a guy,” I think everyone got the gist.
For about 20 to 25 of those 33 full-time years on the beat, I competed for every shred of news. In the last decade, my role became more of an analyst, columnist and personnel information-gatherer mainly because of the presence of Tom Silverstein.
Once robust competitors in the Journal vs. Sentinel era, we suddenly became partners when the papers merged. We were covering the same team but, as the years went on, our roles became well-defined.
Tom is a dogged, well-sourced reporter, a gifted writer and a true friend of the workingman as president of our newspaper guild. Our 23 years sharing a beat could be a record that will never be broken.
I trust Tom and his judgment implicitly. My hope is that my departure will showcase him and his many talents to an even greater degree.
During the years when I was raising children, Tom covered me countless times to enable me to coach youth baseball and softball or attend my kids’ games or other events. I haven’t thanked him enough for that.
Because Tom and my many other gifted colleagues on the beat were covering the news of the day, it freed me to be creative and experiment with various analytical approaches to pro football. I had the time to research and think deeply before I wrote.
Their coverage of press conferences, practice and the locker room allowed me to stay fresh and challenged throughout my career.
At the same time, I will be forever grateful for editors and managing editors Marty Kaiser, George Stanley and Steve Hannah in Milwaukee and the late Larry Belonger in Green Bay for standing behind me always.
At a previous job, I felt I was hung out to dry by management after a head coach called to gripe and threaten following one of my columns. Not only did that moment serve as a lesson learned and never-ending source of motivation, but it also was a constant reminder of just how good I had it in Milwaukee.
I also was privileged to have tremendous relationships with almost all of my sports editors. My first, the Press-Gazette’s Len Wagner, was a wise but tough supervisor who was perfect for a green, eager kid covering preps, small colleges and fastpitch softball and loving every second of it.
Of course, I would have gone nowhere had it not been for the hundreds of personnel men, assistant coaches and players who gave of their precious time to teach me the ins and outs of pro football. The process was simple, really: as I learned the game, I passed it along to readers.
There’s no need to thank them here. They all know who they are because I have gone to great lengths to thank them all profusely over the years.
The end result became my thoughts tempered by those of the football people that shared their expertise so generously. I did read and benefited significantly from the work of my colleagues; otherwise, I stayed away from other print and electronic coverage, state and national, to avoid groupthink at all costs.
If you bought the newspaper, I figured you deserved my opinion. That’s the main reason why you seldom heard me on radio or TV. My newspaper always came first, second and third.
Of course, I’m a dinosaur. I’m not real keen on cell phones. Michael Cohen undoubtedly became sick and tired solving my technology issues. Facebook isn’t my thing.
But, hey, when my boss, Mike Davis, wanted me to tweet and do chats and video, I quickly saw the light. Once Tyler Dunne, my young running buddy for four years on the beat, hatched the idea of a podcast, it became a frequent and, I will now admit, very pleasurable part of the job.
Never once did I go back and listen to my blabbing done in cahoots with Mr. Dunne and, for the last two years, the young Mr. Cohen. Even some fellow seniors emailed to say they found it a fun if not indispensable diversion, so I just went with the flow.
We’re relocating to Ann Arbor, Mich., home of my alma mater and where Pat and I have many friends.
Some say writers never stop writing. That might be true, but my full-time, beat-writing days are finished.
We’ll see. I have keen interest in a large number of sports, from preps to pros, and there certainly are many of them in southeast Michigan. Writing about pro football in addition to coverage of games and events holds considerable appeal.
There’s also family, reading, taking classes, teaching, volunteering, getting in better shape and a hundred other things on my mental to-do list. Just not having to meet my own standards sounds delicious.
Let’s just call it semi-retirement for someone who couldn’t have been happier or more proud working for the newspapers in Milwaukee.
Bob McGinn can be reached at email@example.com.