Opinion Columns & Blogs

November 16, 2013

Judy Sly: After 40 years, it’s on to a new adventure

My grandmother taught English. My mother taught English. I was supposed to be an English teacher.

My grandmother taught English. My mother taught English. I was supposed to be an English teacher.

But in the eighth grade, my friend Cheryl and I started a mimeographed school newspaper at Creswell Middle School and from that point on, being a teacher never entered my mind.

Next week, I’m calling it quits after 40 years in the newspaper business, all but three months of that spent here at The Modesto Bee.

I didn’t plan to stay here. For one thing, it was too hot in Modesto for this third-generation Oregonian. But then I started having fun as a reporter, and it made sense to hang around while computers were introduced – because that would be a useful skill to take to the next newspaper.

In 1976, I was assigned to cover the community’s celebration of the Bicentennial. That’s how I met Dick Lang, who chaired Modesto’s Bicentennial events. He used that leadership role as a springboard to elected office, first the Modesto City Council and then as mayor.

At a Bicentennial party, I met this city planner. And the next thing you know the years are flying by. Marriage, two kids, great opportunities at The Bee, changing seats every few years, from reporter to editor and then back to reporter and back to editor. Then the boys were in elementary school, thriving with excellent teachers, and then junior high. Then the in-laws moved to Modesto, to be closer to us, and, well, you know how it goes.

The next thing I know, it’s 2013, and time for the next chapter. We want to travel, but we’re not moving. Modesto is home.

Being a journalist on a local newspaper gives a person a front-row seat in the bleachers of community life. It also allows you to meet this remarkable assortment of interesting people. Modesto, once touted as on the way to everywhere, has a lot of remarkable people.

When I first joined The Bee, Modesto had just elected the first woman to the City Council. Peggy Mensinger went on to become our city’s first woman mayor as well. Some leaders – actually only a few leaders – leave legacies. Peggy left one in the way the city handles growth. It’s so appropriate that a bicycle/pedestrian trail is named in her honor.

For the last 10 years, I’ve served as editor of the Opinions pages. I’ve always tried to like my current job best, but that has been easy to do in this position because it is fascinating – yes, in its own way fascinating – to watch groups of people deal with challenging problems. Who rises to the challenge? Who succeeds and why?

Governing is tough. It’s hard to lead people who don’t always want to be led or who have elephant memories for the mistakes of the past, even small mistakes that were corrected.

Government financing has gotten so complex that most citizens couldn’t figure it out if they wanted to – and they don’t want to. It doesn’t help that too many in government talk in a foreign tongue – acronyms.

I will miss many things about working at The Bee – my newsroom colleagues and others in this building who work long and hard in the face of the many challenges facing newspapers.

One thing I won’t miss is the phone calls in which the person says, “you must agree with that letter to the editor or you wouldn’t have printed it.” Let the record show that I’ve OK’d hundreds, maybe even thousands, of letters I didn’t agree with. My assignment has been to get people’s views in the paper, even some of the crazy and unfair views.

It pleases me that many readers say they turn to the letters first, because it is entertaining – or even makes them mad. Years ago, a Bee reader poll showed that letters were the second most popular thing in the paper, right behind Ann Landers.

As a journalist, and especially as an editor, there are a few things I wish I had done differently. I’ve been in the business of asking questions, but on some issues we didn’t ask enough questions.

Back in 1999 and 2000, we should have been asking questions about those public employee contracts that included modest pay raises but better pension plans. In retrospect, who would believe the line that those generous pensions “won’t cost a thing”?

We should have asked, too, about school bonds. Not just how much it would cost the typical homeowner per year, but, far more important, how many years they would be paying for those beautiful new campuses. We’ve gotten smarter about that, but there might be other questions we’re not asking.

People ask me whether I think newspapers will survive. I do, though not necessarily on paper. People need information about their communities. Blogs are fine and heaven knows I think people are entitled to their opinions, but most blogs are just opinion, too often short and absent of facts.

Residents need a reliable place to go for information – news stories, photos and even commentaries – about their community. Once I’m a civilian again, no longer working here, I know where I’ll be looking for that information – in The Modesto Bee and on modbee.com.

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