From the News Desk: ‘A low trade and a habit worse than heroin’

Just
emerging from college and caked in the stupidly resilient optimism of
extreme youth, I fully expected five years ago that any of my
numerous queries to magazines and alternative newspapers would yield
a job offer. I had been an editor at a college newspaper, which I had
turned into an antiwar machine during the run-up to the Iraq invasion
— remember when you thought it mattered? — and had managed to
impress some of the trade elders affiliated with the thing in the
process. Good times.

But
we tend to operate in a vacuum in such scenarios, which is partly why
so many of us in the country of staggering optimism end up morally
and intellectually destitute by age 25. I didn’t get a job. I
worked in a deli, then briefly as an assistant to a plaster artisan.
So much for those freewheeling days of covering the weirdness du
jour
.

I
continued haranguing everyone I knew even slightly in the business,
insisting that given the right shot, I could make a play. Finally,
after weeks of my incessant whining, Cary Stemle gave me an
assignment. It was small: 100 words on a Sonic Youth show. I had a
celebratory drink that night at a bar. I was desperate.

Thus
began a working relationship most rare and profound, one that
officially ended last Thursday morning without a warning or a word. I
didn’t know what was happening when I watched Cary collect a few
things and walk out the door. Having spent the last five days rolling
this whole thing over and again, I’m still not comfortable with
what the hell just went down.

SouthComm
Communications, a media and publishing company based in Nashville
(see page 3), acquired LEO last Thursday, and the company chose to
continue employing all but four of us. How Cary wound up on that
short, ugly list I’m not sure, but I’d challenge any assertion
that it was based on the job he did.

Cary
came to LEO 10 years ago, though the last five were his most
essential. When founder John Yarmuth sold the paper to the Times
Publishing Co. of Pennsylvania in 2003, Cary bit his lip, absorbed an
onslaught of misdirected criticism from the loyalists — LEO had
sold out, was dead, useless, so forth — and set to work ensuring
that the paper’s voice would not be compromised. He endured what
purists would consider numerous offenses, including a push to include
more “people” photos in the newspaper, to print the whole thing
in color, and so on — things to make LEO more “appealing” to
readers and potential advertisers. While certainly not dismissible,
these are the things that make the hardcore cringe, and Cary is
hardcore. Simply, he is the reason LEO has continued its run of
excellence and its annual parade of journalism awards, and adapted to
its new world with gusto, all despite obvious falling profits and the
shrinkage concomitant to that.

As
an editor, Cary felt a deep responsibility to this city and its
constituents to do his very best to discover both corruption and
hope, the two sides of the ever-flipping coin that is the only
reality in which we can invest. He navigated trenches with confidence
and panache, listened with a golden ear and let you be who you were,
which turned out to be pretty important for me.

Cary
has been a supreme mentor. While my name has appeared in LEO
something like 300 times since I came on staff here in January 2005,
he deserves the laudations that have come with it (and the sharp
criticism, hate mail and other things I’ll continue forwarding
him). I can be terribly stubborn, and for a time believed I needed no
such guidance. So Cary came with it inconspicuously, like placing a
few rocks near the mouth of a stream to redirect some water but not
interrupt the general flow. His genius as a writer, editor and
thinker is subtle and conversational, and his vocabulary is something
to behold — as you all know. His lessons were straight: be thorough
and sincere, listen before you talk and think before you write, and
keep your goddamn head up, because it’s really not so bad.

Journalism
is “a low trade and a habit worse than heroin,” Hunter S.
Thompson once wrote. I don’t imagine Cary will kick it anytime
soon. Neither will we.

Contact
the writer at
[email protected]