1. Opinion

Joe Henderson: I'm proud to be a newspaper guy

Joe Henderson
Published May 7, 2016

Some people want to teach, or coach, or wear a suit and make important decisions. I wanted nothing more from my professional career than to be known as a newspaper guy. I couldn't imagine doing anything else.

That's not because I lacked ambition, but rather because I had found my calling at a place named the Tampa Tribune and in a city that came to be my home. I wouldn't have changed a thing, except maybe the ending that came Tuesday when we were bought by the Tampa Bay Times and closed. But hey, my run spanned from glue pots and manual typewriters to Twitter, lasting 41 years, eight months and 15 days. I call that a win.

There wasn't a day I didn't want to come to work. I might miss something.

I should have known what I was getting into from the beginning. My job interview took place in a room at the old Hilton Inn in Gainesville. I dressed up real fancy, hoping to land a spot in the Tribune's sports department. The Trib's late, great sports editor Tom McEwen was there to write a column about his beloved Florida Gators. He wore a T-shirt and underwear and had a manual typewriter on his lap. I tried not to look surprised.

The interview lasted about five minutes. He sent me to the Trib's New Port Richey bureau, which was basically a storefront where too many people crammed into a small space and tried to make magic every day. I was home.

I think every newspaper has its share of characters, and the Trib was no different. I smile thinking about my old sports department colleague and columnist Martin Fennelly, who managed to turn rumpled shorts and stained T-shirts into a fashion statement. Trib management finally gave up trying to change him because he is so doggone good at what he does. We even started running promo ads of Martin decked out in his standard clothing under the heading "Fashions By Fennelly."

Ken Koehn, who became the Trib's last managing editor, had a laugh you could hear two city blocks away and a heart that beat for us all. He had a gift for outrageous statements and we used to joke that he had a standing reservation in Human Resources. During preparations once for a hurricane, Ken, then a reporter, remarked how dark it seemed outside already. Uh, Ken? That's because the windows had been boarded over.

There was a publisher named Doyle Harvill, a profane, chain-smoking, tail-kicking giant of a man. A former managing editor introduced him to the staff by saying something like, "You don't have a new boss. I have a new boss." Harvill, a scowl on his face and gravel in his voice, said, "Forget what he just said. I'm going to be involved in the newsroom up to my eyeballs."

He was, too. He would tell us constantly, "Don't let the taxpayer get ..." Uh, sorry, I can't print that last word. I feared him and I loved him. He was a newspaper guy.

So was Larry Fletcher, a former deputy managing editor. A brilliant writer and editor, he could take your words, massage them, and make you believe that strong piece of journalism with your name on it was actually your creation.

We are a family. We came to know each other, care for each other, and cry for each other. You might have gone on to another job, but you never left the Trib.

People have called us the feisty underdog in the three-decade newspaper war with the Times.

I don't look at it that way. I think we were just feisty.

And as our resources dwindled under the inexorable economic pressure that finally crushed us, we carried on.

On the day we closed, people still were working on stories and calling sources up until the moment it was time to say goodbye. I took a few moments to soak in a lasting view of the newsroom as people cleaned out their desks and called their families to say they'd be home early.

There were hugs and promises to keep in touch.

There were the memories of the things we did, the stories we wrote, but mostly of the people who worked alongside us. That's something that can never be bought or closed.

Newspapers matter, maybe now more than ever.

Reporters expose the crooked, the scallywags, the phony and the policies that affect your life. They are the firewall between you and those who don't have your best interests in mind.

They provide the record of history. They provide the context.

The Trib did that honorably. The Times will continue to do so.

That's what newspaper people do. It's why I am proud to say I'm a newspaper guy.


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