Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

An End of One Thing

Just about three years ago, I was fortunate to begin an unpaid gig writing a monthly column for one of the weekly newspapers in the county. We’re fortunate here, to have no less (fewer? I can never remember the proper use) than four newspapers in our county, despite being a decidedly rural community. One is a daily, and three are weeklies.

My previous boss was an ex-newspaper person herself who had once been the editor-in-chief for one of those weeklies. She knew I liked to write, she knew that the papers always like to get content when it’s written for them, and she knew that it was a good opportunity for our organization to raise its profile by getting a column with our name on it. So in a way, I was actually getting paid to write, just not by the newspaper. So, for the last three-and-a-half years I struggled mightily once a month to find something relevant to write about, to make it relevant to my job without it seeming like pure party propaganda, and to make it interesting to the community.

At first, I felt a little like I was screaming into the void (sadly, that website, launched by John Oliver, is now defunct). I opened with a column on lightbulbs, of all things, and how New York State laws would be requiring a phase-out of incandescent bulbs for most household applications in favor of higher efficiency compact fluorescent and LED bulbs. Exciting stuff, right? I wrote a lot about recycling, because there’s so much confusion, but I also wrote about invasive species, water quality, pollinators, ticks and, in what might be my favorite column, an homage to goldenrod (which, in my little corner of the world, is now blooming, which makes me happy and a little sad at the same time). Over time, I found something strange: people were reading.

It’s nice when someone drops a comment on this blog, nicer still when someone (or several someones) regularly drop comments on this blog. It’s nice to know that people are actually reading these words and find something to say about them, and that you’re not all a bunch of Russian bots crawling over this site for reasons I can’t comprehend. But it’s even nicer when the cashier at the local Price Chopper says, “I really like your column” and tells you about her own battles with customers and corporate over the plastic bag recycling program stores are required to have, or when a respected doctor e-mails with advice on solving a problem I griped about by improving signage, or when the crusty old scientist on my board praises my column on ticks because “most of the time, it’s 50% bullshit,” and he doesn’t mean my column, he means what you normally read about ticks. It’s nice, but it’s also a little scary.

Sadly, about a month ago, I received an e-mail from my editor at the paper for the last three years, informing me that he was stepping down. The nationwide conglomerate that owns both the weekly and the daily paper decided that it was cutting the size of the weekly in half. My editor was going to be forced to work out of an office half an hour away and was going to be reassigned as a reporter if he decided to stay. He was not staying. He was also not sure if there would be room for his columnists anymore. Turns out, there isn’t.

Writing that column, roughly 700 words a month, was rarely easy. I missed deadlines, pushed deadlines up to the limit, but it was a great experience overall. I will miss it, but maybe we will take my wife’s advice and recast it as a blog on the company’s website. It might lose some of its cachet, but will keep getting the word out. We shall see.

Music Time

Why is this song stuck in my head? Who knows? “Doing That Rag” from the Grateful Dead’s 1969 album, Aoxomoxoa (Yeah, I don’t know what that means, either, or how to say it). This is one of the few songs that was actually better on record than live. Enjoy your week!

One Response

  1. Sounds like the path of hundreds of small town newspapers in hundreds of small towns. Plus, being bought up by national syndicates.
    Heh, I'd love to work on the WiP at work, but I don't think my boss would let me!

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