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It Was 20 Years Ago Today: My Post Anniversary

Today marks my 20th anniversary working for The Washington Post. Yes, I started at The Post when I was 13 years old.

No, I was 26, which was considered young back then.

I had never worked at a newspaper before and my understanding was that I wouldn't work at this one for long. A reporter in the Weekend section had gone on a fellowship, the editor had taken her place as a reporter, the deputy editor had moved up to editor and so they needed a deputy editor--temporarily, for nine months, until the original reporter came back. I had been churning out stories for Weekend as a freelance writer (thrift shops, piano bars, car shows, recording studios) so they thought I might be good.

I didn't want to stay beyond nine months anyway. I wanted to be a writer, not an editor. Being an editor means being a grown-up. Like a parent, you have to love all your writers equally. You have to spoon them their food and wipe their bottoms. Then you see their names in the paper.

But after just a few weeks I decided I never wanted to leave. In my first job out of college, before I was a freelance writer, I'd worked at an association of associations. There is something a little soul-crushing about working at an association of associations. I always thought that we should have our own association to address such issues, an association of associations of associations.

My association of associations co-workers were nice enough, but I found myself imagining that there was a better place, a place where funny people sat around all day being sarcastic, a place where people were trenchant and mordant, where they were cynical but also, deep down, sympathetic. A place where you could BS right up until deadline and then turn out sparkling prose--and if not quite sparkling, at least sparkling enough to buy some time till the next day.

That place turned out to be a newsroom.

That original Weekend writer--the one whose temporary departure started the dominoes falling--never came back, I sunk my talons in, and I've been here ever since.

I think I've changed in 20 years, though probably not as much as I would have hoped. The Post has changed, too. I'm looking at the front page of the Sept. 4, 1989, Post. Ignoring the fact that there is no story about my first day of work, what do we see? Seven stories:

By Highway and Air, California Connection Supplied D.C.
(This was about cocaine being smuggled into the District.)

3 Cardinals Tell Poles to Honor Pact; Europeans Reaffirm Call to Oust Convent from Auschwitz Site.

Ex-Altar Boy Says He had Sex With Stallings; 1977 Relationship Lasted Months, Man Alleges
(Remember George Stallings?)

Preserving Paradise in Kenya; A Nation Defends Its Wildlife and Its Image

Senior Chinese Official Who Fled Emerges From Hiding

Virginia Beach Festival Erupts Into a Riot; Four Hurt, Hundreds Arrested; Cause of Disturbance in Dispute

Arlington Losing Ethnic Flavor; Construction Displaces Vietnamese Businesses

The stories were long, the longest (the drug route article) clocking in at 91 inches. (That's how we measure stories.) The Stallings story was 69 inches, the Arlington story 55. I think that's twice as long as those stories would run today. We still run long stories--such as Jim Grimaldi's Redskins tickets pieces--but it would be rare to have so many stories of comparable length jumping from the front page.

But what struck me most was what was missing from the front page of Sept. 4, 1989: There wasn't a single political story. A new president had been inaugurated eight months before. Granted, he had been vice president for eight years, but you'd expect at least one story on some political move or machination on A1. We weren't at war then, though within a year we would be.

Were we less political then? And when I say "we" I don't just mean The Post, I mean you, too. Was there less rancor, less division, less Rush Limbaugh and Al Franken?

The Post is different in other ways. It's physically smaller. When I was moving my office recently I came across some old papers. They were from a time when a broadsheet really was broad. Flipping open the yellowing paper was like unfolding a tablecloth. Bigger pages, more pages, more ads.

And, of course, no Internet. That's the big change in the last two decades, and the one that has perhaps most affected the actual newspaper. The paper isn't the only way we deliver our news, just one of several "platforms." Sad in a way, but exciting too. And since it's reality, not something anyone can ignore.

One thing that hasn't changed: my joy at working here. Will The Washington Post be around for another 20 years? Of course. Will the newspaper? Probably. Will I? I hope so. Will they ever find the body of that reporter who never came back, allowing me to stay in my "temporary" job? I hope not. I think I hid it well enough.

By John Kelly  |  September 4, 2009; 9:30 AM ET
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So THAT's how you get newsroom jobs, you hide the bodies of former workers! haha

Posted by: Akinoluna | September 4, 2009 11:29 AM | Report abuse

In 20 more years we ought to eliminate newspapers completely and just log onto the internet and just surf the sections you want to read. Think of all the trees we'd save. No more hauling tons of papers out of the basement to the recycle center. No more ink-smudged fingers. That would be unfortunate for the homeless who sleep on park benches and use newspapers as covers, though. I can just see them now, asleep on benches and wrapped in laptops.

Posted by: Baltimore11 | September 4, 2009 12:15 PM | Report abuse

Congrats on your 20 years!

Posted by: laur_n | September 4, 2009 1:16 PM | Report abuse

Congratulations. Twenty more years for you, at the very least. Do I hear Bill Gold shouting "Bravo!" from the skies?

Baltimore 11's comment highlights what will be missing if and when the print edition is gone. "Surfing the sections you want to read" will mean no more stumbling upon an interesting article that you had no idea about, which I do pretty much every day with the print edition. Even the Kids Post page can enlighten an older person at times, and I credit The Post for keeping me a widely-informed person, which no longer seems to be a desirable trait.

Posted by: richmurphy | September 4, 2009 5:18 PM | Report abuse

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