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Robert N. Jenkins reflects on journalism and looks ahead to retirement

Why is this man smiling? He’s hours from retiring, and looking back on a career that included Watergate — he designed that front page — the end of the Vietnam War, neighborhood news and travel writing.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Why is this man smiling? He’s hours from retiring, and looking back on a career that included Watergate — he designed that front page — the end of the Vietnam War, neighborhood news and travel writing.

The dwindling days of summer are a tough time to find out if I am a responsible adult.

As responsible, at least, as my sons were when they left home for college a few years back.

The parameters are different, of course. Then teenagers, the boys had class schedules to remind them of when they were supposed to be where, and professors gave them outlines detailing homework and test dates.

But for me, for the first time in more than 43 years, I won't have a schedule to follow or deadlines to meet. No work ethic to obey.

That's one of the obvious results of retiring, as I will at the end of this month.

My decision to end my career came suddenly: The St. Petersburg Times urgently needs to cut costs and sweetened its pension offering for veteran staffers.

Why the cost-cutting? After all, the newspaper still serves our readers. The last six-month audit showed we increased our circulation to strengthen our position as the top-selling paper in Florida.

But a perfect storm is lashing print journalism, involving: a weak economy, decreased advertising, much higher costs for the paper on which we print, and online competition that didn't exist a dozen years ago.

And just like a perfect storm, no newspaper yet knows how to harness for commercial success the "social journalism'' phenomenon of personalized Web sites and blogs.

But back when I opted for a journalism career while a 17-year-old high school senior, I had no idea what the profession would be like, nearly a half-century later.

After earning a B.A. in journalism and following two two-year stints in Michigan and then on Long Island, I followed a smart friend's advice and applied for a job in March 1969 at the morning paper in someplace called St. Petersburg.

Then-managing editor Bob Haiman told me I'd be most useful here as an editor of other people's articles — and I'd need to learn to design the pages on which these stories would fit. But Haiman also promised that if I didn't like the job after six months, I could go back to being a reporter.

It took me only 18 years to accept that writing job — as the paper's first full-time travel editor. Before then, I got two jobs that were even better than seeing the world on the company's dime:

• Pulitzer winner Gene Patterson, who had become editor of the newspaper, made me the fellow responsible for national and international news coverage.

In that job over more than five years, I presided over the A section's report on the Munich Olympics massacre, Watergate, the end of the Vietnam War, two assassination attempts against President Gerald Ford, the near-tragedy of Apollo 13's failed mission, the OPEC oil embargo.

I understood that we were relating and explaining history to our readers.

• A while later, I got to spend four years as assistant editor of our bureau in Clearwater, from which the Times produced three daily regional editions. The readers of those sections called us with tips on everything from suspected municipal corruption to the proverbial cat up a tree.

And in that job, I came to understand how important a responsive newspaper is to its community.

I still consider those two assignments more personally rewarding than the plum that is travel writing and editing. When the Times had me create its first weekly Sunday travel section, I did not have a passport. Sounds silly — except that about 70 percent of Americans still don't have one.

And except for increased security at our borders following 9/11, that percentage would be higher.

I think I know why so few of us leave the United States to see what else is out there:

After World War II, America was the dominant power. Its citizens came to believe that because we had so many advantages, the world rotated around us. If so, there was no need to go look at other places, other people, other cultures.

The phrase "ugly American'' was taken from an acclaimed 1958 book of that title portraying how dismissive we were of the rest of the globe. But by the time I got to be travel editor, in 1987, the world was a much different place.

And it was clear to this child of Cold War duck-and-cover drills that while many might fear us — a wealthy woman in Brazil asked me when the United States would be invading her nation — too few admired us.

Which was the most important lesson I learned in the Times job I held the longest, 19 years.

For the past 2 1/2 years, I've been editor of LifeTimes, our magazine about living well after 50. Although I already fit into what the boss editors believed was its target demographic — "older adults'' — I never read the magazine's predecessor, titled Seniority.

That was because, like many Times subscribers, I didn't consider myself "senior.'' As I wrote when explaining our name change, the days had long passed when "senior" had the positive connotation of someone with wisdom earned through life's experiences.

Instead, the word had almost become a pejorative, short-hand for the old people pushing their grocery carts too slowly or driving their cars too slowly.

But when I went on speaking engagements, to explain how we were rejuvenating Seniority into LifeTimes, some devoted readers of the magazine all but pleaded, "Don't forget about us.''

And so in this last job, I learned that while some of us marvel at technological advances and embrace each cultural phenomenon, others feel left behind.

It was a reminder how important the newspaper can be in the lives of everyday folks.

Which is why I chose journalism so many years ago.

Ultimately, it was my good luck to land at one of America's great newspapers. I've been privileged to be a part of the newsroom that has won six Pulitzer prizes, and to know great reporters, storytellers and photographers whose work draws readers into the paper.

Now, like all of you, I'll know what the newspaper holds only when I open it up each morning. I'll do what so many other retirees plan on doing: take some college courses, catch up on my reading, try a few hobbies on for size, volunteer.

And I plan to write, certainly travel articles, maybe other topics.

But for the first time in more than 43 years, I won't have an office to report to, no daily or weekly deadlines to meet. It'll be revealing to see how responsible I can be.

Robert N. Jenkins reflects on journalism and looks ahead to retirement 08/25/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 26, 2008 6:16pm]

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