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Journalism is a matter of heart

POSTED: April 17, 2011 1:30 a.m.

An old Gainesville resident drove his big Ford truck right up to me recently at Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport.

I was standing in the parking lot waiting for a city police officer to tell me and a colleague the details of a minor plane crash, if there is such a thing.

The man, once a pilot himself, cast his eyes to the out-of-whack, twin-engine training plane just off the landing strip. He explained a good bit about the hobby, the craft and his own journeys across the country.

As an aside, he also nodded to this column and this county. He said he thought it was interesting to read an outsider’s perspective in the newspaper.

That didn’t offend me in the least, especially when he added with a grin, "It’s true. Our politics in Hall are colorful."

So I am learning. After just four months, I can say with authority that working here has been a steep challenge. It’s a daily test, the likes of which a gardener surely faces when tugging at the most stubborn weeds.

For guidance on how to do my job with integrity, I turn to a dead man and no one else. He’s my grandfather.

I was 8 when he died and simply thought he’d been the mayor pro-tem of Savannah all his life. Then I opened the drawer to a side table in my grandmother’s home a couple months after he passed away in 1983. A column of his appeared.

The small clipping was wedged in with a bunch more of his errant papers. The words "City Beat" were printed on top and his name beneath it.

"What is this?" I asked my grandmother.

Her answer implanted curiosity. I followed it after college, moving from Miami to Savannah where I researched every bit of his 32 years covering the city for its Morning News in a daily column and as editor.

To do this research, I spent seven years working as a reporter for that very newspaper, then home to a first-rate investigative team dedicated to exposing corruption. But that’s another column.

My grandfather resigned from the newspaper over a conflict-of-interest battle with management. He then went on to run for office and was elected four times as city alderman.

He died rich in character, not money.

People I interviewed 20 years after his death still recalled a punctual man, whose wit complemented a knack for straight shooting. Most of all, he was someone they relied on as a voice for the underrepresented. He spoke for the folks who otherwise would’ve been swept aside as the chorus of establishment chirped on in their business-as-usual kind of way.

My grandmother said he was guided by the notion that people should do the right thing. That’s all.

This came to me recently when a clerk told me she couldn’t advance to reporter status because she needed a bachelor’s degree.

Not true. My grandfather’s legacy taught me that the very best reporters have a rather simple tool box. It should be filled not so much with AP Style notes and tsk-tsk memos about common grammar mistakes.

Rather, a reporter should be driven by curiosity, compassion and common sense. More than that, they should be strong in character with the conviction to print the facts, especially when they reveal what’s right, from what’s wrong.

It’s not an easy job.

That came through in his resignation letter, which I found buried deep in a file cabinet at the public library in Chatham County — another paper trail I discovered.

There were no hard feelings between my grandfather and that 26-year-old publisher who allowed him to walk out the door nearly 45 years ago today. My grandfather went home satisfied with the fact he did his job. And he did it well.

 

Erin Rossiter is a reporter for The Times whose columns appear on Sunday’s Life page and on
gainesvilletimes.com.



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