Jay McInerney’s iconoclastic first novel hit bookstores when I was in high school. Bright Lights, Big City was a literary Bat-signal for a teenager trapped in the two-lane hinterlands of Northeast Mississippi.
In 1984, 17-year-old me was determined to be the next great newspaper writer. After the suits recognized my skills, I’d be bumped to the newsroom to edit others’ copy. Ultimately, I’d have the reigns over the daily ops and be a Big Apple legend.
Instead, I walked away at 47.
Once upon a time, ol’ Uncle Bubba swept the annual press association awards – best column, best feature, best news story, best section – and that got me a chicken dinner (with dessert being a job offer from a larger newspaper).
After that, the rungs on the ladder seemed to be stepping stones: writer, editor, executive sports editor. I was on my way to challenging Pete Hamill.
Community newspapers have one objective: serve the communities. When tornadoes begin dropping from the sky, there are no departments in the newsroom. Long story short: After gathering info at a church that was struck and where a woman died, a photographer and I returned to the newsroom. The managing editor called everyone together for a rundown on potential stories.
He went right past me while going around the gaggle of reporters. I raised my hand, and he said this: “Cross, what do you have; you’re in sports.” The ignorance merely reinforced my already-low opinion for his newsroom management.
I knew bigger and better was somewhere out there. Sure enough, there was an opening at the Green Bay newspaper. As a lifelong Packers fan and a team shareholder, I wanted to apply. The chance to set the tone for covering the Packers was a heady proposition.
But Gannett rules said you had to have your executive editor’s blessing to chase another gig within the company. After being told, “Nope, not gonna let you do that” (and being genuinely pissed off for the first time in my career), a call from Atlanta changed my life. Three weeks later, we moved to Georgia.
It was a bittersweet move from Tennessee, where I was born and ultimately wanted to retire. But the chance to surf the World Wide Web was the opportunity of a lifetime. That some were saying the Internet would never last, it made me more determined to make my way.
What followed – from NFL drafts to Dale Earnhardt’s death to 9/11 to Pete Rose’s confession to being a voter for the inaugural NASCAR Hall of Fame class to college football national championships to March Madness – was a lifetime of experiences crammed into 15 years. … It was the big leagues, even if Ted Turner was no longer the ship’s captain.
I also learned the sordid side of Corporate America, where the Peter Principle thrives and a corporate credit card is used by married men to woo “civilians” in strip clubs. All the while, good people are cut from the payroll for no other reason than they are experienced. (And yes, experience costs money; salaries are controllable on P&L sheets …)
So, I turned in my notice, worked my final three weeks, and walked out without a second thought. It was the best decision I’d made in 25 years of journalism. … I refused to run content based off an Excel sheet. I also do not worry about doing more with less, as bean counters believe a news org can do. (Spoiler alert: It cannot and still be effective, much less relevant.)
Walking across the bridge to the parking garage, it popped into my head: New York, you’ll never know. Bright Lights, Big City was replaced by fire pit lighting in #TheBurg.
We spend our days in Tennessee, with less traffic and more life. But unlike McInerney’s Jamie Conway, I married Amanda.