An employer, a mentor and a friend

Published 10:24 pm Friday, December 4, 2009

I graduated from college in August 2003. Journalism degree firmly in hand, I was ready to make sure the Pulitzer Prize committee knew how to spell my name.

I read the textbooks — OK I skimmed them. But I was ready to take the newspaper work by storm. After a yearlong stint at a weekly newspaper in Jefferson County, I applied for an opening at the Clanton (Ala.) Advertiser and was hired in September 2003.

I didn’t realize it then, but taking that job at the Advertiser more than six years ago was one of the smartest decisions I would ever make. That decision has led me to more opportunities than I deserve, and I have Mike Kelley to thank for that. Mike decided to hire me that September day, and then decided to invest some time in my development like he had so many others before me.

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On Wednesday, he announced his intent to retire as publisher of The Advertiser at year’s end.

Mike served as group manager for this newspaper for quite some time. Many of you are likely familiar with him and his work.

Two things about my educational path are clear: Everything I learned about life, I learned from my dad.

Everything about a responsible community newspaper, I learned from Mike Kelley.

Very early in my reporting career, I wrote a story about a man who committed suicide outside his home. The man was a minister. Journalism protocol tells us that suicides are only news if the person involved is in some way a community leader. My judgment call was this was a story and I published it. The next day, the Advertiser was flooded with phone calls, most of them demanding that I be fired or shot – or both. I took calls most of the day until Mike stepped in and asked they be sent to him instead.

Calls continued to pour in.

As 5 o’clock drew closer, I just knew I had written my last story for the Advertiser – at least the last one they would pay for. It was getting dark. Mike was ready to leave. He sat in the chair behind my desk and I spun around in my chair to face the music.

“Been a tough day?” he asked. “And long,” I replied.

“You know, we needed to run that story. It was news. It wasn’t popular, but it was news,” he told me. I looked at him, puzzled. “That’s an odd way to fire somebody,” I thought to myself.

“You know people care when they call,” he laughed. “When the phone stops ringing, that’s when you worry.”

Mike patted me on the shoulder, told me to have a good night and went home. After the phones stopped ringing, I realized that people weren’t so much mad at the fact I reported the story, they were upset at how I reported it. This wasn’t Atlanta and the victim wasn’t some nameless street thug. This was Clanton and the man was a husband and a father. I didn’t handle that story inappropriately, which is why Mike defended me. I just didn’t handle it delicately.

Nearly three years to the day that I was hired in Clanton, I was asked to become publisher of the Franklin County (Ala.) Times, in Russellville. That’s an opportunity I would not have earned without Mike Kelley taking an interest in my career. Two years later, my taking the job in Russellville gave my family and I the opportunity to come here. In the years since, others have taken up where Mike left off, helping to coach me along and drawing on their experiences as I seek advice. My family and I will be forever thankful for Mike and his wife, Peggy, who so willingly shared their knowledge and experiences with us.

Please join me in wishing them a very happy retirement.

Jason Cannon is publisher of the Demopolis Times.