Exactly three years ago, I was preparing for my first day as editor of the Palestine Herald-Press. Having just drove in from my beloved Detroit, I checked into a local motel and looked for some tunes on the radio – maybe a little jazz, Hip-hop, R&B or even classical.
While I skipped from one country music station to the other, I spotted a black bug the size of my fist on the motel floor and almost fell off the bed. With the unfamiliar sounds of country music in my ear, I suddenly felt like the brother from another planet. I wondered if I could keep my promise to Publisher Jake Mienk to stay two years.
Three years later, I kept that promise and then some. By the end of my first day, I started to chill. Mayor Steve Presley and then-Councilman Will Brule were kind enough to drop by the Herald Press to welcome me. (That was before I learned people in East Texas don't make appointments. They drop by.)
By the time you read this, I'll be back on Texas State Highway 155 – this time heading north toward Detroit, and eventually western Pennsylvania, where I'll start a new job on July 20 as a regional editor for CNHI, LLC, which also owns the Herald-Press.
With a newly minted Pulitzer Prize, I'm leaving Palestine in far better shape than I arrived in the summer of 2017. Palestine's grace and hospitality have made me a better and more patient man. I hope I'm also leaving Palestine, in some small way, better than I found it, but that's for you to judge.
I was at a crossroads when I came to Palestine. My wife and I had split. In my cracked rear-view mirror were 17 great years at the Detroit Free Press as a reporter, editor, columnist, and editorial writer. Also behind me were a reporting job at USA Today and four years as deputy editor of the Toledo Blade.
But the glory years seemed behind me. Coming off a lucrative but uninspiring year as a free-lancer, I had lost my mojo. My confidence and swag were fading. As a free-lancer, I wrote and edited corporate blogs, instead of getting innocent people out of prison.
As my one-year hiatus from newspapers ended, I considered getting my drums from my parents' attic and getting back in a band. I checked into getting a CDL license and becoming a long-distance truck driver.
With little to lose, I answered an ad in journalism.com to become editor of a small paper in East Texas. Mienk flew me down for the interview and told me, over lunch at the Redland's Hotel, he wanted to win a Pulitzer. Yeah, right. I thought. But Jake kept his word about allowing me to make the Herald-Press what I call a real newspaper.
Despite the misgivings of friends and family in Detroit and Wisconsin, I took the job. For the next three years I tried to balance the more aggressive M/O of a big-city newspaper with the softer contours of community journalism. I wanted a newsroom that published the news, sought out the truth, exposed injustice, kept public officials accountable, maintained high standards, and reflected the community's diversity.
No doubt, I fell short, and I apologize for my many failures. The Herald-Press remains a work in progress, but I'm confident of the newspaper's future.
City Editor PennyLynn Webb, the newspaper's heart and soul, remains to take on an even larger role. So will Sports Editor Juwan Lee, a rising star at the tender age of 23. I expect great things from Juwan. Hiring him a year ago was my best decision at the Herald-Press.
Like the rest of the industry, the PHP and other CNHI papers in East Texas face their biggest economic challenges ever. But if anyone can overcome them, it's Jake Mienk.
As editor, I know I shook some people in this great community. That comes with the job. For nearly 70 hours a week, I was trying to do that job the best I could. Conflicts were never personal with me. As I leave, I wish everyone in Anderson County all the best.
I hope the Herald-Press made a difference in the last three years, as it became the most honored newspaper of its size in the nation. Among other national awards, we took the National Headliners Award, the Bronze Medallion from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Walker Stone Award from the Scripps Howard Foundation, the Burl Osborne Award for Editorial Leadership and Community Engagement from the News Leaders Association, and the Carmage Walls Commentary Prize from the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association.
Our editorials and news stories tackled some tough issues newspapers our size avoid. For two years, reporter William Patrick gave the Herald-Press some extra punch to ask probing questions of local officials.
I will never forget Sheriff Greg Taylor telling me in his office, two weeks after I arrived, that the death of a jail inmate isn't news. Two months ago, when Mienk told me I had won the Pulitzer Prize, the highest honor in American journalism, for writing editorials about those dead and otherwise forgotten prisoners, I collapsed in the parking lot and started to cry.
For many reasons, Palestine will remain special. I'll be back. I also promised Presley a return visit.
Whenever I'm in Palestine, you'll find me sipping a cappuccino mocha at the back table of Cream and Coffee – if this crazy pandemic ever ends and it opens again.