Every April, I wonder if I will make it into May. Long-time readers and friends will understand it is the month of Progress. For the journalistically uninformed, this is the story of a community’s progress, and the agonizing struggle to tell the tale.
Most print journalists share my trepidation and the desire to be anywhere else when it comes time to produce the Progress edition. In many ways, it used to be worse. Our edition, which comes out in April, used to consist of about 200 pages. Back then, all employees were expected to start fanning out in February and talk to every business, institution, and organization in these parts. Almost everybody sold ads for it, and I sold more than anyone. With every ad purchased, the clients get to tell the story of their successes over the past year. It’s like one giant "advertorial," but readers liked it, because it reminded them of who was out there. Advertisers used to call us in May and tell us customers dropped by and said, “I forgot all about y’all until I saw that story in the paper.” That still happens.
In those days, everybody in a small newspaper office did a little bit of everything, and no one saw a conflict in a reporter selling an ad. News sales were pretty much limited to nonprofit entities and businesses run by friends. We thought everyone understood that spending money with us wouldn’t buy our silence if a client got into trouble and we had to report it. But as part of a national newspaper group, and especially with our industry under the microscope in recent years, drawing a line between news and advertising is ethically essential. Besides, all newsrooms are much smaller than they were then, and the digital age has given us far more to do in addition to covering the news. Page design happens in the shrinking newsroom as well; thanks to desktop publishing, composing departments are a thing of the past.
Progress is more time-consuming than a daily paper or other supplements, for a number of reasons. This is why employees shudder when they hear the "P word." I’ve had colleagues at other papers tell me that right after Christmas, they become depressed – not because the holiday season has ended, or because they are facing another year of unknown challenges and rapid aging. It's because Progress looms on the horizon. I used to log 80-hour weeks for a month leading up to its publication. The section is now smaller, because we don't have as many ad reps to sell it, and not as many are buying into it – because of lack of time or money, or because they have nothing new to report. Since tariffs on newsprint and other issues in the past few years have forced most newspapers to cut down on print days, and it has historically published the last print day of the month, our Progress edition this year will be appear Thursday, April 29. While we would like to build it back to some of its former glory, our ad reps only have so many hours in a day, and even if the news staff wasn’t already loaded to the gills, that pesky ethics problem precludes us from giving them much help.
And where Progress is concerned, when it rains, it pours. I’ve gotten very little sleep over the past two weeks, and not just because of long hours. I used to be able to put in 80 without many residual side effects, but now, I’m old, and even a 60-hour week – coupled with arthritis, failing vision, and a lack of energy – sometimes seems a nearly insurmountable challenge. And Progress also marks the time when newspaper employees' children have trouble at school; houses burn down; vehicles go on the fritz; servers and other equipment fail; someone gets sick; or a relative dies. This month, we lost my father-in-law, and the truck I drive broke down. A couple of my co-workers have been sick, but they are powering through.
Work, and worries about it, interfere with sleep. Have you ever been so exhausted you can't sleep? There are other factors, too. At about midnight Tuesday, when I had just managed to doze off, the whitecat wandered into the bedroom, making intermittent sounds: “Un? Un? Un?” It was as if he were suggesting I get rid of a number of hateful "friends" on Facebook. Although it was dark, I could see him pacing. Thinking something was wrong, I turned on the lamp, and espied the reason for the odd noises: He had a mouthful of mouse.
I turned off the light, and within 10 minutes, the vocalizations stopped, and the banging and scuffling began. The doomed rodent had gotten away. About an hour later, the pattern repeated itself. Then in another hour, it resumed, but with a different outcome: The cat began to crunch loudly on the mouse. I asked Chris to take the victim away before I vomited. He got up and turned on the light, but when he looked down at the cat, he said; “No, I don’t wanna get bitten," and got back into bed. Within a minute, the chomping and cracking ceased, and I heard a loud “gulp.” Wednesday morning, I awoke with the cat in my face, and I groused at him to “get away, mousey-breath!” When we got home that evening, we found a two splats of cat puke, and nearby, a repulsive, glistening clump of gray fur, from which a tail protruded.
Anyway, I’ll see you same time, next week, if all goes “well" – or something like it.