Nan Austin

Time to write a new chapter

I have been known to reflexively shake hands at parties saying: “Nan Austin, The Bee.”

More than a job, journalism has been my journey for 40 years, a third generation with printer’s ink in their blood.

I joined The Bee as a copy editor 29 years ago on a flexible schedule that allowed me time off when my young wheelchair rider had hospital stays. I signed on for a reporting slot in 2010.

Now, it is time to write a new chapter. I took a voluntary retirement along with Bee stalwarts Jeff Jardine and Ron Agostini.

My time in newspapers started at age 6 with a move to Turlock. My grandfather Lowell Jessen co-owned the Turlock Journal. Mom Diane Chittock worked as a city hall reporter.

I grew up watching the presses roll, hearing the clacking of the wire service machines. My first paying gig was typing delinquent tax rolls into a punched-tape feed for legal ads. Later I wrote food articles on the favorite recipes of local farm wives, and joined the staff full time in college.

Every morning I called a dozen agencies for the latest bloodshed, spelling my name for every new voice. N-A-N-E- T-T-E became just Nan at The Bee, so much easier.

I wrote stories on an Underwood manual typewriter, my phone crooked in my neck. Editing was with a soft pencil, striping through typed words, arrows pointing to scribbled replacements. Moving paragraphs meant ripping strips of paper and taping them in the new order.

Fast forward to smart phone videos, search engines and readers hailing from Modesto to Manchester. Front page news may become as quaint a phrase as an E-ticket ride, and I will miss them both.

There is serendipity in scanning to an oddball story about an ancient seabed – something I would never think to Google – or following the heart-stopping win of an underdog school team.

Hometown papers built community.

I came into journalism as Watergate had galvanized the country behind reporters. I am leaving as political subterfuge – each side claiming by the other – has brought journalism back into the spotlight.

I would argue the dry and dusty duty of parsing the health care bills matters to our daily lives as much as the international intrigues, but both raise the profile of a profession that strives mightily to do right.

I chose education reporting because after so many years as a mom volunteering in classrooms, I did not feel those stories were being told. In 2010 the Great Recession slashed school budgets, while the expired (but still in effect) No Child Left Behind Act waved a scolding finger at basically everyone.

Over the next seven years, in hundreds of classrooms, I wrote of best practices and aha moments captured in wide eyes and kid smiles. It is those stories that come to mind looking back over the more than 2,000 I’ve written.

The energy and insight of high school students lets me know there is a tomorrow. The quiet reflection of a star Gregori athlete who found his best self through an autistic friend will always stay with me. Those who see kids with disabilities as best served elsewhere have no clue how such attitudes have deprived general ed students.

Talking to Elliott High kids broke all my preconceptions of alternative education students. Several said they chose the school after being bullied at the large Modesto high schools. Others had life crises or admitted they messed around and fell behind. Most found acceptance and purpose at the starkly bare campus so overlooked even its eagle mascot moved on to a shiny new campus.

I also had a front seat for school budgets, bond debt, layoffs, board elections and contract stalls – all the grown-up disputes. Met those with a healthy skepticism and an Excel spreadsheet, knowing adults on both sides would call me biased toward the other. Odd to judge success by the balance of complaints.

Trips to sixth grade camp in the hills were a breath of fresh air, watching kids explore and discover and play.

Common Core was born, a bipartisan creation abandoned by one parent in the divorce when life got messy. Designed to teach common sense as well as underscoring concepts, the change holds real promise for kids who never had a bedtime story or a parent who understood fractions.

So when you hear it stinks, recognize the young futures being tossed up to politics. Common Core beats the pants off what it replaced. I say that having talked to the top experts on both sides, heard from teachers who hate it or love it, and quizzed students young and old in the classes.

Such is the privilege of reporting, a seat in the splash zone of history.

The joy of this job was that every day stretched me further. Each held a college course crammed into a few hours, an ethics pop quiz around every corner, a deadline baring down.

For every kid wondering what career to aim for, I wish a future that demands as much of you as this one, and gives you the confidence to do anything when you step away.