"I love the Flyer! What do you do there?"
Going on 23 years, I still get that at least once a year. Life's way of keeping you grounded. The answer is soon to be "not much," but first a little background.
It was 1990, and the speaker at the Peabody was talking about the promising prospects of free "alternative" weekly newspapers. Bob Roth, founder of the Chicago Reader, was wearing boots and jeans and had a beard and a ponytail. So far so good. He said something about the typical alt-weekly reader buying several CDs every month. Lotta money, I nodded.
Of course, he was talking about compact discs, not certificates of deposit. For someone whose music collection was still vinyl, it was an early sign of a challenging marriage. I had recently turned 40, and publisher Ken Neill was looking for someone who could write it long or write it short and keep the newborn Memphis Flyer edgy but out of trouble while its grown-up sibling, Memphis magazine, paid the rent. I bit. First suggestion: It is not a good idea to have a local feature called "Rumor Mill."
A free paper, competing with one of the most profitable dailies in the country. Fat chance. Over the next 15 years, 16-page papers would become 28 pages then 44 pages then 96 pages a few glorious weeks. Party!
Dick Hackett was mayor, Harold Ford Sr. was between trials, and Willie Herenton was an unemployed former superintendent. "Free" was still the exception and not the rule in news, and strip-club ads supported this and other weekly papers. Facebook, Twitter, blogs, pay walls, and trolls did not exist. Our most faithful correspondent wrote upbeat weekly letters to us in longhand. Penmanship and notepads had not disappeared, the internet was a few years away, and a Rolodex and a reverse city directory were handy things to have. And the women who are now our advertising director and operations director were babysitting my children.
What, exactly, did alternative mean? The punk rocker who took a dump on stage at the Antenna club and the bond trader at First Tennessee who called a colleague a "f---ing goombah" and got sued over it were about to test our definition. Absent smartphones, the Flyer had the scoop.
"Tell me something interesting I didn't know," suggested Henry Turley. His sequel, equally wise, was, no matter who you are, "sooner or later, people get tired of your bullshit."
Soon enough, big news came along, like the Herenton cliff-hanger election, the casinos, and the Ford trial and acquittal, that let us show our stuff. The beauty of working for a company with multiple "platforms" — as we now say at Contemporary Media Inc. (MBQ magazine and memphisflyer.com joined the print paper and Memphis) — is the ability to change gears from a 10-part series to a 4,000-word story to anniversary issues to books to columns and blogs, which we once called "Bobs."
At some point, I decided I had earned pundit's rights. A cartoon I saved for years showed a columnist blindly tossing a dart at a board that read, "Today I am an expert in," with slots for nuclear physics, medicine, stocks, sports, government, and international affairs. I replaced it a few years ago with a "Doonesbury" strip wherein aging reporter Rick Redfern is asked by his son what he does if he has nothing to say, and he tells him, "Say it anyway, four times a day. I don't have a pension."
There's a lot of truth to that. "Reacher said nothing" is a good narrative device in Lee Child's tough-guy fiction, as well as excellent advice in real life, unless your job includes feeding the Web beast. Good writers are usually great reporters and interviewers — Jackson Baker, for instance. Whether selling or writing, this is an in-your-face business. I hope it lasts.
Doing work you would (sometimes) do for free and making enough to raise a family is not a thing to be taken for granted, especially when allowed to do it without fear or favor or interference. I sincerely thank my present and past colleagues, our board, advertisers, and especially our readers. The term "alternative weekly" needs to be redefined, and fresh horses are key to any going concern. The next hire should have a thousand friends and followers and zero CDs.
I have a half-finished book and some other things I want to do. I'm younger than half the dudes in the geezer bands playing Tunica. Ken Neill, a friend indeed, has offered to call me a contributing writer until I turn 65 next year and make a killing in Social Security, Medicare, and day trading.
What? No killing? But I'm an expert!