You never forget your first, right?
I sure haven’t. It was 1999.
We had moved to Florence, Alabama, about eight months earlier. I was the new managing editor of The Times Daily, a 35,000-circulation daily newspaper owned by The New York Times.
After a career mostly covering sports news, I was now responsible for the whole ball of wax – the day-to-day operation of the entire newsroom.
As part of my duties, I was a member of the editorial board, a group consisting of the publisher, the executive editor, our city editor and myself. We would debate the most relevant issues each week, and ultimately choose the topics for editorials. I took this role more seriously than any other I’ve had in journalism. We would take turns writing them, and they were published under the paper’s name, not any one person’s byline. Behind the scenes, they seldom were unanimous decisions.
Like usual, we were in a side office one day that had bland, pale walls, sitting at the round table too big for the room that was too small for the four of us.
This day, the mood was somber. The Columbine shooting had just happened earlier in the day. We sat silent. For. A. Long. Time.
What do you say? “We are against slaughtering schoolchildren.”
What is the paper’s official stance? “We don’t think slaughtering innocent people is good.”
What in the world do you write in an editorial after something like Columbine?
Columbine felt like one of those “Where were you when…” moments. Kennedy’s assassination. The Challenger explosion. 911. There’s an immediate, instinctive group-wide empathy; we’re all in the foxhole together at those moments.
Back in the cramped office, we looked out a window at people numbingly trying to do their jobs. Mostly, they were gathered in small groups, chatting and hugging.
We decided not to “take a stand.”
Anything we said would be to obvious.
Instead, we asked the schoolchildren in our community to write notes of encouragement to the schoolchildren in Littleton, Colorado. Send them to the newsroom, and we’ll pay all postage to get them out to Colorado. Not everyone on the board thought that was the right approach. Those of us who supported the idea couldn’t have anticipated the response.
More than 3,000 handwritten cards, letters and drawings came pouring into our offices. Schoolkids from all age groups, their teachers, church groups, nonprofit organizations and residents from all over town were sending heartfelt notes of support.
The publisher – a kind, yet crusty, older Southern gentlemen – came up and drawled, “You know, I wasn’t really sold on this idea; I’m glad you proved me wrong.”
Twenty years later, I heard about the slaughter at the garlic festival a few days ago. I heard about the slaughter at the mall in El Paso on Saturday while driving into work. I woke up Sunday morning to hear about the slaughter in Dayton, Ohio.
So many innocent people dead. And we do nothing. We accept them, all 530 mass shootings so far this year.
My first time … so naive. I wonder: Is anyone still sending cards and letters?
Noel Nash is the publisher of The Chronicle.