When I was about 16 years old, I had my first summer job working at the Board of Canvassers for the City of Warwick. I helped people register to vote and got a backstage pass to politics in Warwick. The work was easy, but the gossip was stimulating, and it sparked an interest in current events that would eventually lead me down the path of journalism.
Also at that time, I met John Howell.
I had seen him around at high school events, always with a pad and camera in hand, and knew him as “that guy” from the Warwick Beacon. Back then, I had never heard of the Cranston Herald or the Johnston Sun Rise, and I had no idea that most newspapers in the state are connected through John, who was one of the founding members of the Rhode Island Newspaper Group.
From what I could see, he was just a reporter.
So when John Howell asked a 16-year-old version of me what I planned to do when I grew up, I didn’t think it particularly bold to say, “I’m going to own the Beacon.”
I never forgot that moment, and apparently, neither did John. A few years later, I walked into the Beacon office after my freshman year of college and asked for an internship. Remembering me as “that girl” from City Hall, John consented.
To be completely honest, I wasn’t exactly an instant star. I was intimidated by John and by the business, and there were plenty of nights when I left the office wondering if I was really cut out for newspapers. It took me hours to write a short story, and I spent even longer preparing for interviews, writing down my questions beforehand and sometimes even practicing my greeting before dialing the phone.
Still, John would sit with me for as long as it would take to edit the story. He never coddled me, which I appreciate now (I don’t know that I did at the time), and every piece of criticism he gave was deserved. He treated me like an equal, and expected me to conduct myself like any one of his reporters. I was still terrified walking into that office, but I knew immediately that I was learning things I couldn’t in a classroom. Back at Northeastern, I set myself apart from my classmates with my newfound confidence in interviews. My writing had improved tenfold, and instead of taking hours to crank out a story, I could rattle off 18 inches of copy in 45 minutes.
Fast-forward another three years, and I was fresh out of college, diploma in hand. I graduated early, so I decided to give myself a breather. I had hustled a lot to finish in less than four years, so I figured I deserved a couple of months off before hitting the pavement in search of a career.
In the meantime, I returned to what I knew – the Board of Canvassers.
I had barely gotten back into the swing of things when a familiar face breezed by the door. I caught John’s eye and he backtracked into the office. He didn’t waste any time questioning why a wide-eyed and idealistic would-be reporter was wasting time in city government. Within minutes, he had a proposition.
“How would you like to be an editor?”
College co-ed to editor in one month? At the tender age of 21?
It sounded too good to be true.
It turned out that the then-editor of the Herald and Sun Rise was nearing the end of her pregnancy, and they needed someone to take over during her maternity leave. The person originally lined up for the job didn’t work out and John was scrambling.
The next day, I officially interviewed with John. He asked my thoughts on the future of print journalism and on the importance of a web presence for small papers. He shared his fears for small newspapers, but also his unwavering faith that nothing could replace reading a story in black and white. In that way, John was like any cub reporter, with hope for the future and dedication to his craft. It gave me hope too, not just for the future of print, but for the path I was choosing to take. Listening to him talk about the people he has met and the stories he has told reminded me why I wanted to own the Beacon in the first place.
When I left the office that day, I couldn’t wait to return on Monday. I was going to shadow the editor and get a feel for the work ahead of me.
On Sunday, I awoke to a voicemail from John. The editor had gone into labor early, which meant I was it. I had Monday to learn the ropes, and on Tuesday I had a paper to put out.
“I guess it’s sink or swim,” he said in the message.
I had to listen to it a couple times to get a handle on the situation. I was 21, with no management experience, and was completely unfamiliar with the software used to layout the Beacon newspapers. I knew no one in the office other than John.
But by some grace of God, I swam. Looking back now, it had everything to do with the foundation that John had laid for me. And for some reason, unbeknownst to me, he believed in me. He had been doing this job for decades, so if he thought I was up for the challenge, he must be right. Right? That vote of confidence got me through some really stressful days.
It still does, four years later.
Ask around at newspapers across the state, and many of the journalists will tell you that they started at the Beacon. They’ll share similar stories of sitting at John’s side, watching him turn paragraphs into stories and blank boxes into front pages. It seems to be a rite of passage for writers in Rhode Island, because if you’re going to learn the business, you might as well learn from the best.
Happy birthday, John.