Oliver: Sometimes long careers can be forged from newsprint and ink

Joan Oliver
Joan Oliver

A nervous young woman walked through the doors of the Northwest Herald for her first day of work on June 25, 1990. She had just graduated from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University a couple of weeks before.

This was her first “real” job, though she had put in time at the Daily Northwestern and had been an intern at the Kansas City Star.

This, though, was different. Beyond a paycheck, it represented the start of a career she hoped would last a long time.

She had been hired to work on the night copy desk. She would edit the stories that reporters would write, design the pages where those stories would appear and write headlines.

Back then, finding a job in journalism wasn’t all that easy, much like it is these days. And the usual route was to work a couple of years at one paper and then move on to another, preferably larger one.

When a couple of years had passed, she was asked to take over the duties of the front page of the newspaper. Her first front page was the night the Persian Gulf War began.

Every time it seemed to be time to move on, something made her stay. Usually it was a fresh challenge to overcome. Give it six months, she’d say to herself when things got difficult. If it’s still bad then, it will be time to leave.

Time and time again, things did get better. So she stayed.

The newspaper business over the years has been a place of constant change. The way the paper was assembled went from manual labor to being done on computers. So there were computer programs to master. The look of newspapers changed, too, so there were design techniques to absorb and employ.

All the while, the world saw changes, too. She marked her next 12 years by the news on the front pages she assembled.

The Chicago Bulls won six NBA championships. The White Sox won the World Series.

Presidents would come and go. There were impeachments and hanging chads and election nights that dragged on into the wee hours of the morning.

Then there was Sept. 11, 2001. That one nearly broke her. So many horrific images coming across the Associated Press picture feed. So many heartbreaking stories of those who lost their lives that day.

More changes at the paper brought changes in job duties. Although still on the night copy desk, she was put in charge of planning front-page packages as the presentation editor.

Eventually she would be able to lead her fellow copy editors as the night news editor.

More changes at the paper upended her world when she was asked to work during the day and supervise reporters. This, after 17-plus years of working night shifts.

Once the feeling of jet lag wore off, she found she liked the work and the chance to talk to readers. She even occasionally got to write a story or two.

One of the scariest tasks was to write a weekly column. How would she come up with something to write each week? What if readers didn’t like her?

Twelve years later, she’s still at it. That, despite leaving full-time work and rejoining the night copy desk on a part-time basis.

Meanwhile, the news just keeps on coming. So do the changes. Because of the pandemic, most of the paper’s staff works from home and half of the night copy desk works at a different location.

Still, she walks through the same doors at the Northwest Herald that she has for so many years.

Perhaps you’ve guessed the identity of our young journalist. She isn’t young anymore.

She is I, grayer and hopefully wiser.

Thirty years have passed. I’m happy they have been here at my hometown paper.

Home is where the heart is. That just may be the reason I never wanted to leave.

• Joan Oliver is the former Northwest Herald assistant news editor. She has been associated with the Northwest Herald since 1990. She can be reached at jolivercolumn@gmail.com.

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