Ode to the toughest editor in the world

This is not a column about sports, so if you come to this site strictly for that and that only, stop reading right now.

Instead this is a column about the newspaper/media business and the people Lewisyou meet during your travels in this crazy profession.

I had quite a shock dealt to me this Saturday as I was covering the Shelby/Schoolcraft playoff football game. I ran into an old friend at halftime and he had some awful news for me.

In case you don’t know, I worked for 10 years for Shoreline Media, a collection of three newspapers – the White Lake Beacon, the Oceana’s Herald-Journal and the Ludington Daily News.  After I graduated in 2002 from the University of Michigan, my family and I decided to make the move back to West Michigan, and after a brief search I landed stringer jobs at the White Lake Beacon in Whitehall and the Muskegon Tribune in Muskegon Heights. I wrote sports for the Beacon and governmental news and feature stories for the Tribune.

It was a rough period, as far as money goes, but it wasn’t long before I started working for the Beacon’s sister paper in Hart, the Herald-Journal.

I fondly remember meeting the Herald-Journal’s former editor, Mary Sanford, when I went to interview for a staff writer’s job in late 2004. She was brash,

Former Oceana's Herald-Journal editor Mary Sanford.

Former Oceana’s Herald-Journal editor Mary Sanford.

head-strong, belligerent, and didn’t suffer fools gladly, all of which I surmised after knowing her for just 10 minutes.

Somehow I impressed her enough to land the job, and what followed were the most grueling, most exhausting and most challenging three years of my life.

Mary was tough but also fair. She was moody and cantankerous, but she also never failed to crack the perfect joke or give you the encouragement you needed when you needed it most. She adroitly edited copy with a master’s touch, and she somehow conjured enough quality stories to fill what I considered one of the best small-town weekly newspapers in the country.

Like all the great coaches I’ve ever had, Mary was a person that, though hard on you when you didn’t measure up, you wanted to please. Put simply, she made you the best journalist you could be.

By late 2007, I moved on south again to the Beacon so my commute from Muskegon wasn’t so long and expensive.

Deep down I always regretted the move because, one, I love Oceana County, and two, I felt like I was letting down Mary and the rest of the staff at the Herald-Journal. See, earlier that summer, Mary was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer called multiple myeloma, and she’d spent most of the summer at the Mayo Clinic. We were in shock when she told the staff of her condition; she was crying, which unnerved us all because, let’s just say, Mary was never someone you’d call a cryer.

This was serious; we thought she might not make it through the year.

She did make it through her opening round of a bone marrow transplant from her sister, but, though still tough as nails, it was as though the wind had been taken from her sails. She soon stepped down as editor of the Herald-Journal, replaced by Andrew Skinner, who continues at that post to this very day.

I actually applied for that editorship in the fall of 2011, soon finding out that I apparently wasn’t what they were looking for. During the interviewing process, Mary came down to see me at the Beacon, for what I later realized was a sort-of interview Part 2. She grilled me for awhile, but the conversation soon turned to her improving condition and my two little girls. She beamed when I told her about them, and told me I was as good a father as I was a writer. I still cherish that conversation.

It was the last time I ever saw her.

So, this weekend during halftime of the Shelby game, I ran into Mr. Skinner. We chit chatted for a moment, until I asked him about Mary.

“How she doing,” I asked him, and I quickly noticed his face empty of color.

He stammered a bit and then said, “Oh Mark, Mary died this summer.” She had returned to the Mayo Clinic for some sort of radiation treatment, caught an infection due to her already reduced immune system, and died.

I was floored, not only because of the news of her death but also because not one in my former employers, including the publisher, the editors, all the people with whom I was on staff told me about her passing or the date and time of the funeral.

So I didn’t go…because I didn’t know about it.

Apparently, when I was ‘let go’ I was really and truly let go.

But doesn’t that do a good job of summing up the present state of the newspaper business, which is (believe me) filled to the gills with baby boomers biding their time until they can retire in comfort while the people coming after them are left with the mess? To many of them, you and your writing skills are a dime-a-dozen, like an Appalachian mountain that can be mined and then left in ruins.

That attitude was why I was let go in the first place. And the same goes for all the guys on the Local Sports Journal staff whom were let go from the Muskegon Chronicle.

Sure, lots of businesses are like that, cruel and exploitative. The difference, at least as far as journalism is concerned, is that the profession requires you to give your heart and soul to the effort, to be tough and sensitive, to be paid a pitiful wage while the higher-ups live fairly charmed lives, to be part of at team that isn’t always the most popular group in the paper’s subscription area.

On second thought, maybe journalism isn’t that much different from other professions.

Owners and publishers of traditional newspapers often expect you to surrender your life to them, only to forget about your contributions when the worm turns and they start to feel like they can do without you.

Frankly, I’m disgusted by it, and I think their attitudes are laid bare to the world when you consider the kind of product they are trying of late to sell us. It’s junk journalism at its lowest. (I swear I once heard an executive call news copy, “Stuff to put around ads.”)

And deep down, I’m certain that Mary felt the same way about the industry. But now she’s gone.

But we’re still here. And we aren’t going anywhere until we say we’re done.

That’s why I have thrown my weight behind Local Sports Journal. It’s all the good parts of doing media without all the idiotic, groupthink, pad-our-wallets-until-the-ceiling-crashes-upon-our-heads attitudes. We do it because we love it and that’s why we’ll continue doing it.

And for that reason, I’m positive Mary would be proud of our efforts here at LSJ.

So, goodbye, Mary. There will never be another one like you…

…unless we have the courage to be more like you.

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