New Orleans, Revisited
Tomorrow I’m headed to New Orleans for E&P’s annual conference and show, from which I’ll blog as I’m able and as events warrant.
If you’ll forgive a navel-gazing detour, though, this trip to New Orleans will be rather evocative personally. You see, I got my start in journalism as a 20-year-old summer intern for the Times-Picayune in 1989, and it’s amusing and a bit embarrassing to recall just what a rich shade of green I was.
I arrived with nowhere to live and only a vague awareness that I would need to find a place to do that — my solution was to get a copy of the classifieds and tramp concentric circles around the French Quarter looking at the very cheapest listings. As everybody but me could have figured out, this led to some illuminating adventures in real estate. On Day Two of this odyssey, I wound up ascending the shaky stairs of an apartment building on Iberville behind an improbably squat, massive woman who was wearing a muumuu whose colors had leached out around 1979 and smoking an enormous cigar. If memory serves (I was a little shell-shocked by then), the room she showed me was spectacularly squalid, one of several off an even more squalid hallway with a common bathroom. As she made halfhearted representations about the selling points of the room in her broken-glass-and-gravel rumble, the other doors on the hall opened one by one, Whack-a-Mole style, and the faces of young men appeared for a split-second before disappearing again. “Rent’s due in cash first of the month, no exceptions,” she said, then whirled around with her cigar trailing an arc of smoke, to bark “BECAUSE MOST OF WHAT WE GET AROUND HERE IS STRIPPERS AND QUEENS, AND THEY DON’T PAY!” At which point all the doors shut and it became extremely quiet. I decided this wasn’t quite what I was looking for and wound up (through typical dumb luck) subletting a beautiful, furnished railroad apartment on Esplanade from a Times-Picayune reporter who was away for the summer, but part of me wishes I’d taken the Iberville room. I certainly would have had plenty to write about.
I missed out on the Iberville life, but that summer I started to learn my craft from some awfully good and amazingly patient people. Jim Amoss kindly gave me a chance and then remained friendly and supportive while I repaid him with the kind of gaffes that 20-year-olds don’t register at the time but their older selves remember wth horror. Kris Gilger was the first editor every kid reporter should have — she was ferocious and exacting and I was scared to death of her, but she was also a fearless advocate for her reporters, no matter how wet behind the ears they were. Jed Horne would sit me down daily and quietly but firmly poke holes in my story and help me fill in the frustrating gaps between what I’d written and what I’d been trying to say. They, and many others in that newsroom, helped me find myself as a reporter and a writer and as a person. They were tough when it was called for, and endlessly encouraging, and kind to my mistakes.
Leaving New Orleans in the fall of 1989, I assumed I’d be back for a career there, following the obvious progression from youthful writer of long, deeply moving features to whiz-bang young novelist to learned gray sage. That never happened, for various reasons, though I did return for a second summer as an intern, and I did get to write some of those features. OK, at least they were long — I’m not sure about the “deeply moving” part.
I’d never imagined that I’d wind up in Washington, D.C. working for trade publication specializing in indoor air quality, of all things. The subject was about as exciting as I’d expected, but it was invaluable experience — I wrote more than 20 stories a week sometimes, learned the basics of laying out a paper and always had to think of what we did as a business. I had no inkling that from there I’d wind up in New York City, rewriting skeletal wire copy about something called mortgage-backed securities for an online experiment started by the Wall Street Journal. (In 1989 I doubt I’d even heard of the Internet.) I had not the faintest idea that my WSJ.com stint would turn into 13 years of being a reporter and an editor and a manager and a projects guy, that I’d get to write a weekly column about technology and a daily one about sportswriting, and that I’d be given an education by way of never-ending experiment in making a newspaper work in the online world. I didn’t dream that being a New York Mets fan could lead to blogging about that team for a surprisingly large audience that would become a cherished community. Nor could I have imagined that I’d find my way to EidosMedia, where I’d work with world-class technology to produce newspapers for a new era and help editors at those newspapers work more efficiently to meet that era’s challenges and find its opportunities.
My 20-year-old self would have found that career path bizarre, but then it’s a rare 20-year-old who understands that most career paths will have plenty of unexpected loops and turns.
Anyway, it all began in New Orleans in 1989. Now, in New Orleans in 2009, I’ll be eager to get some clues about where this industry is going. But I’ll also, inevitably, be thinking back to how I began, in that same place, literally half my lifetime ago.