Last newspaper people standing?

Salvatore Caputo displays the award he received from the Arizona Press Club on May 18 at the Duce.

Salvatore Caputo displays the award he received from the Arizona Press Club on May 18 at the Duce.

As an employee of Jewish News, I’m proud to promote our organization by mentioning that I won the first-place award for editorial writing in the nonmetro category (nonmetro essentially means “small newspaper”). And I’ve got to thank my publisher emeritus, Flo Eckstein, and my new publisher, Jaime Stern, for the opportunity to continue to do this work in an industry that can charitably be called troubled. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t thank my co-workers whose support helps me get it done week after week. Lastly, my long-suffering wife puts up with the ridiculously crazy hours I put in on this work, which has been by mission for so long.

What made the award particularly meaningful to me was that the judge was Peter Canellos, editorial page editor of the Boston Globe. There are few bigger papers in this country, and for him to say, “These editorials challenge the paper’s readers to rethink their assumptions” is a feather in the cap. Journalism is many things, and one of the things it is is something to which I’ve dedicated my entire professional life. I’ve tried to work ethically, report honestly and assess situations with clear eyes, while acknowledging that what I write does not come from an omniscient presence but from a human being, with all the flaws and foibles associated with that status. The award was given for three editorials — “The uncertainty principle,” “A time for grief” and “Cancer of hate” — published in 2012.

Keeping at it through the years and bearing the sacrifices it entails hasn’t diminished the sense of mission that brought me to the field in the first place, and to have that motivation recognized by a colleague from a major daily, one of the six or seven in this country that can still be called major dailies, is quite an honor.

The ceremony, held at the Duce downtown on Saturday, May 18, was pretty much some schmoozing with old colleagues from my previous jobs at The Arizona Republic and Independent Newspapers and the recitation of the winners list by master of ceremonies Brahm Reznik, political reporter and news anchor at Channel 12, KPNX-TV, and eating bar food (mac and cheese balls, sliders of brisket or meatballs, etc.) and enjoying reasonably priced beer. This was not a glitzy evening.

It was odd, though, to see the crowd so small. The newspaper business has been gutted by the economy and the digital age, and folks of a certain age in the business are somewhat justified in feeling that they are the last people standing.

Clearly, the choice of venue both reflects the fortunes of the business and engagement of the younger people in the business. There is little question that this business is cruel to older people. It takes time to develop the knowledge and the sources to get things right, but there is little room for upward career trajectory or for valuing their intellectual capital and institutional memory when a new pool of people fresh out of college will be eager, not demanding, nor as hard on the bottom line of financial compensation.

This was as true when I was 28 and came to Phoenix to work at the Republic as it is today. But in today’s perfect storm of recession recovery and declining newspaper readership (and correspondingly catastrophic declines in revenue), the reality is singularly harsh.

That’s why it was good that one segment of the evening, a separate set of awards presented by the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, focused on people who’d actually been in this profession in Arizona through the past 25 years. (The profession is highly transient because upward mobility as a reporter or editor usually comes by moving to a bigger newspaper elsewhere. It’s increasingly rare for a newspaper journalist to stay in the business a quarter-century,  let alone pursue there work in the same geographical area for that long.)

Jewish News has direct connections to two of this year’s inductees into the Order of the Silver Key Society.

The late Randi Weinstein was Randi Barocas when she worked as a Jewish News staff writer in 1997-1998 and she was managing editor of the Phoenix Business Journal when she died last year at age 40. She was honored posthumously with induction into the Silver Key Society for having been a mentor to the journalists who worked at the Business Journal during her tenure as managing editor. (Randi started as staff writer at Jewish News just as I completed a stint of about a month as a substitute copy editor and writer for the paper in 1997.)

Brett McKeand, who is president and publisher of Independent Newsmedia Inc., was my boss at my previous job as a news editor at the Chandler Independent. A division of his company, Valley Newspapers, actually prints and mails out the print edition of Jewish News each week. McKeand started as a reporter at the Sun City Independent in 1983 and has been with the company ever since.

I was touched that Reznik, when announcing my award, mentioned how much his mother kvelled over my article last year about his becoming a U.S. citizen.

But maybe just as good for me was getting to say hi to and cheer for friends and acquaintances.

As a teenager, Alia Rau was interested in journalism and her dad, whom I knew as a friend, asked if I would talk to her about the field. Today, she is a reporter with The Arizona Republic who took second place in immigration reporting with her story “SB 1070’s day in court.”

I had a chance to say hi to my old softball team’s battery, catcher Karina Bland and pitcher Scott Craven. They had a battle going in the human interest reporting category, with Scott taking first and third place, and Kari taking second. (Kari also took home a third place in column writing, a first place in personality profile writing for “Becoming Max,” a profile of a family trying to understand their transgender son’s journey, and during the Society of Professional Journalists’ segment received a First Amendment Award for her story “Domestic violence deaths in Arizona tragically consistent.”)

I was glad to see former colleagues like Richard Ruelas and Sylvia Cody take home awards as well.

It made me realize just how much of my life has been wrapped up in journalism and to wonder once again what challenges and rewards tomorrow will bring.

Salvatore Caputo, May 19, 2013

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