Out of the Office: So long, and thanks for all the cookies

Like many things in life, I didn’t intend to stay at the Homer News for 23 years and six months. When I first started working here in May of 1999, I needed to jump start my life, find stable work and shock myself out of depression.

And here I am, ready to retire.

My life plan in my 30s had been to maybe get a job teaching college, write goofy science fiction novels and eventually settle into a life of leisure in a quaint little seaside town as a best selling writer. Except for the quaint little seaside town, that didn’t work out.

Instead, at the age of 43, I found myself making pathetic amounts of money teaching English through distance education at the University of Alaska Anchorage. I wrote and wrote and wrote, but my agent couldn’t sell my novels, and except for an occasional short story sale, my career had stalled.

A job for an editorial assistant opened up at the Homer News, and so like a fisherman in a leaky gumby suit who sees a boat on the horizon, I grabbed it. Because I would be doing a lot of typing, I had to take a typing test at Job Service. The woman who gave me the test said I was the fastest male typist she’d ever seen. I got the job.

Much to my surprise, I found I loved working here.

I loved the pace, except on deadline days when it felt like I surfed the bore tide. I loved the energy of the newsroom. I loved being with smart, funny people. When I became a reporter in 2003, I found I loved telling stories.

One time I calculated how many words I wrote in a year and realized it was at least 100,000. That’s a novel. I might not have been writing fiction, but I wrote stories — true stories that happened to real people — and worked as a full-time writer. I became a writer because I couldn’t not be a writer. Journalism scratched that itch, and I got a good health plan with free coffee and donuts.

I also didn’t intend to stay here so long. Most people don’t hang in at jobs for two decades. A lot of people don’t even last two years. When I first started we had 12 staff, including seven in the newsroom. I have seen 27 other people in the newsroom since 1999. Through attrition, layoffs, outsourcing tasks to corporate work centers and becoming more efficient through technology, the staff has shrunk. We now have three employees and are looking for another reporter.

Why did I last? After a while, you get into a certain momentum. Like writing a sonnet, a story develops its own pattern: write a snappy lede, throw in a good quote, add some background details, land the plane and close with another good quote — and keep it under 900 words.

Mostly, I’ve worked here for 2.76 million minutes because I’m stubborn. There have been times I wanted to quit, like when a former corporate owner cut our salaries by 7.5% during the recession. A few years I was the only reporter while we tried to hire more help. The COVID-19 pandemic ground me down, like it did everyone else.

It got hard being a reporter when the president called us enemies of the people and protesters wore T-shirts that said “rope, tree, journalist: some assembly is required.” One time during the infamous Homer City Council recall I tried to talk to a guy and he told me I was fake news (he later apologized and brought me a written statement). I’ve had U.S. Marshals and mothers of drug dealers yell at me.

But we journalists are rocks, and though we should listen to good-faith criticism, when people scream at us we have to be smooth boulders standing firm in the storm. I have a list on the wall of the journalists murdered at the Capital-Gazette shooting and I never forget that even in America, people want to kill us.

Such hate, though, is less than 1% of what I hear. I kept going because almost daily people thanked me for my work. Even when I reported the hard news, people gave me praise, like the time I apologized for asking questions of a fisherman who’d lost his brother in a plane crash, and he said, “No, thank you for helping me understand my grief.”

I have stayed at this job because I love this town, I love my neighbors and I soon understood I had the sacred honor of telling their stories. With honor comes trust. I hope I earned it by being fair, by listening and by fixing my mistakes when I made them.

This town has given back, and this job has healed me through my heart and cancer adventures. It has made me a better man and a better friend, I hope. You don’t become a journalist to get rich, but I have received so much more from this job — more than money can buy.

That’s why I kept writing and editing. And now, at age 66 and able to get Medicare and Social Security, it’s time to leave this job and go back to writing goofy science fiction novels. I might do some freelance work, but this is it.

A few years back, Jan O’Meara, a retired Homer News reporter who lives in the condos next to the Homer News, noticed we worked well into the night. She started bringing cookies over because she remembered those late nights. In return, I helped Jan carry her groceries upstairs.

And so, farewell, so long, and thanks for all the cookies.

Reach Michael Armstrong at marmstrong@homernews.com until Dec. 16, his last day at the Homer News. After that, email can be sent to wordfolk@gmail.com.