Bill Moyers described journalism as “the conversation of democracy.”
For the last 40 years, I’ve been fortunate to participate in that conversation as a reporter, producer, broadcaster and columnist.
I will continue to have a voice in that conversation, but in different ways following my resignation from The Billings Gazette, effective March 21.
New undefined adventures await, but leaving one of the best news teams in my career is bittersweet and merits some reflections.
I got hooked on journalism on Aug. 9, 1974, witnessing a bulletin on a noisy, paper-fed AP teletype machine. Ten commanding bells sonorously announced a breaking news story of worldwide importance: Richard Milhous Nixon has resigned the presidency of the United States.
My decision to study journalism at the University of Minnesota and to become a part of that conversation was sealed that day.
News was the challenging, stimulating and, at times terrifying, path that beckoned: a chance for a then-shy North Dakota kid to see more of the world.
I spent a decade as a reporter covering the State Capitol in St. Paul for Minnesota Public Radio and then for WCCO Radio, learning something about the chess game of life. Even small town dailies sent a reporter to St. Paul to cover the sessions and the press corps swelled to about 40 reporters. We competed like mad but remained friends. Back then, politicians of both parties generally got along, too.
Reporters never know what the day will bring. One of my most surprising was the day I broke the story, after months of rumors, that the Minneapolis Tribune, the morning paper, was merging with the Minneapolis Star, the evening newspaper.
That morning a Tribune reporter and friend called me, saying the merger had just been announced to the staff.
“Hustle over here and I’ll let you through security at the back door,” he told me.
Running through the pressroom, the big presses whirling away, my radio gear bouncing against my thigh, I grabbed an elevator to the top floor, searching for the editor’s office.
It would be a short visit, I thought, bracing myself to be unceremoniously thrown out.
Instead the editor greeted me, offered me a cup of coffee and confirmed the merger.
We went live using a rotary telephone, breaking the news via radio to the Twin Cities.
As a second unexpected zinger, the editor said he had just resigned, after being kept in the dark by his bosses. Just an hour before the merger became reality, he had unknowingly reassured his
staff that the talk was just rumors.
My complimentary “Death of a Star 1982” T-shirt remains a prize possession.
Covering three national political conventions in New York City, San Francisco and Dallas was another highlight of my political reporting days.
In 1985, my former husband and I moved to Billings be closer to my parents and to the outdoors.
I freelanced for a decade, working in television, radio and print.
National projects included co-producing three TV documentaries: one of three hours in the Emmy-award winning Bill Moyers’ God & Politics series; a FRONTLINE on Yellowstone National Park; and a feature for ABC Turning Point. My brother, Mark Falstad of Minneapolis, won an Emmy for his filming on the Yellowstone documentary.
In 1996, I joined The Billings Gazette and have been covering business since then.
The city has grown substantially in the past 18 years, providing lots of material for about 840 “Have You Heard” Sunday columns. The “Scams du jour” section still draws the most reader response.
In addition to all the local copy, this beat has produced some national, even international, stories, including the demise of Montana Power Co., the sale of majority control of Stillwater Mining Co. to the Russian company Norilsk Nickel and the Bakken boom surrounding and changing my hometown of Williston, N.D.
There are so many adventures with my Gazette colleagues, experiences I never could have foreseen that day I decided to become a journalist.
Flying “Air Larry” in chief photographer Larry Mayer’s Cessna 180 to Missoula in 2000 for a Lee Enterprises wildfire series. The smoke was so thick that neither of us peering intently through the windshield could spot the runway strobe lights until seconds before Larry would have pulled up, aborting the landing.
Trudging through snow in bitter cold witnessing starving horses, some crippled by plastic leg bands.
Reporting a routine feature for Valentine’s Day about 90-year-old lovebirds Agnes and J.R. Slaughter and becoming friends with those remarkable people.
And the thrill one morning when Ed Kemmick came over and started thumping my shoulders, saying, “Congratulations!” My analysis of NorthWestern Energy’s troubled finances as it was trying to buy Montana Power had won a Best of the West award.
Reflecting back on my career, newsrooms have changed. They used to be noisier centers of lively discussions. It’s quieter now with fewer reporters and editors, 24/7 online deadlines and less time to discuss stories.
And during Sunshine Week, celebrating the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, we learned from AP that President Obama’s administration has censored or fully denied assess to official documents 36 percent of the time.
This is not the first time journalism has faced challenges and The Gazette’s new reporters are bringing energy, fresh ideas and talent to town.
As I reinvent my life, my journalistic skills will follow: how to follow the money, read people, and search for the truth.
I will keenly miss the wit of a newsroom, the storm-chasing thrills of breaking news and the camaraderie of smart, hard-working, ethical professionals. And I’ll miss the readers, who constantly shared story ideas with me and let me know when I met (or didn’t meet) their expectations.
Journalism has been as grand an adventure as I had hoped back in my college days.
Now there will be time to resume my passions for French, fly fishing, books, travel, friends and horses. But I will never stop being a journalist and will continue to participate in the “conversation of democracy.”
Thanks to you all.