Retiring reporter: Time to lay down the pen

Paul Gottlieb.

Paul Gottlieb.

I look up words all the time as a journalist, and lately, “retire” has been at the top of my list.

Lots of 60-something Baby Boomers are doing it, among them me, as of today.

The 1500’s definition of an army’s retreat to withdraw, or the 1600’s remove from active service, come to mind while morphing into what a source said was the R word when he learned the verb would soon apply to me.

After 40 years in weekly and daily journalism, it’s time to step back from writing about meetings and murders and issues of the day with a daily deadline hanging over my head.

Forty years of workdays total 10,000 days producing at least as many stories, the kind of equivalence you think about, head on pillow at night, while contemplating a day or a life. That’s when I turned on the lamp, squinted at my cellphone, and figured it out. I had to know.

It’s been, in its way, a righteous endeavor, holding decision makers accountable for their words and actions, attending all those city council and county commissioner and school board meetings so the public who pays the bills doesn’t have to go, and asking questions that they might ask but don’t.

I could not have done it without readers who called me with tips, emailed me with concerns, pointed out errors, made me a better reporter.

I’m right there with other Baby Boomers for whom work and job equal identity.

Journalism has been my identity since the summer before 10th grade when I wrote a column for the Jewish Community Center in Newark, N.J., about the 1967 riots.

I moved around a lot as a kid. Identity was important to me. I keep establishing it.

Then I wrote a regular column for the high school newspaper, sometimes impassioned, maybe self-righteous. A letters page was so filled with reactions it was headlined, Pot Shots at Paul.

My journalism graduate school last used typewriters in 1979, the year I graduated.

After working in restaurants a few years, I worked at weekly newspapers in Eastern Oregon and Eastern Washington, back when the idea of growing Washington grapes for wine was an oddity, not an endeavor that would put Walla Walla on the map for more than onions.

Then came the soon-to-be rarefied atmosphere of the San Juans, the numbered-street pasture land of Enumclaw, followed by Gig Harbor before the second Tacoma Narrows bridge was built, and finally the Peninsula Daily News in late 1998, a job I had been applying for without success.

I’m always learning.

In 23 years, I’ve covered stories ranging from Devil Bear, a pesky Olympic National Park animal with a taste for toothpaste, to a surge of suicides at Port Angeles’ Eighth Street bridges that ended only after fences were erected, an accomplishment due partly to Peninsula Daily News coverage that showed they worked.

The death of a 15-year-old girl brought it to a head. A father’s anger and the force of nature that is former City Council member and mayor Cherie Kidd helped ensure her demise was not in vain.

That’s my proudest moment at the paper, writing those stories in the face of anecdotal denials. The facts touched the community and made a difference.

Readers are what a newspaper is about, and the PDN served them well.

I’ve had the honor of serving as commentary page editor, writing columns and managing letters to the editor, learning that even in anger, readers care about their newspaper. At least they were not indifferent.

Journalism has kept me young, compelled me, a willing accomplice, to look at the world with new eyes every day.

It’s paid me to be curious. Finding things out for a story is like going on a treasure hunt.

It’s kept my mind open to new things, allowed me to write words in sentences never seen before, just like a real writer, letting people know what I’ve learned.

Being a journalist has allowed me to write for a living. For a proud English major, there’s no higher joy than to read all the time, listen to people talk, ask them questions, and write all about it, getting that occasional tingle at a turn of phrase that you fashioned.

I’m drawn to it almost too much, but not enough to be wheeled away from my desk, feeling decrepit, with little time to travel or set my own schedule or challenge myself creatively rather than abide by a story budget.

My late stepfather, a wise, retired appellate court judge who always told a good story, said you know when it’s time to retire. Four months before turning 70 seems a good threshold, still giving me more birthdays before my final deadline arrives, although you never know at my age.

For sure, I think I’ve avoided a dead-eye bullet with Stage 2-3 esophageal-junction cancer. It has played a part, but only a part. I keep telling myself I am in remission and saying, you can bench press your weight, don’t worry.

There’s nothing like the Big C to remind you of your mortality. None of us has long on this Earth. We all need to make the most of it, with the finish line always there.

When COVID hit, I had just finished chemotherapy so was no longer immunocompromised. But I felt safer because the PDN allowed us to work from home.

By far, though, having cancer reminded me of how much people care. My supervisors at the PDN accommodated my chemotherapy schedule. My colleagues cooked me Southern food and knit and bought me hats for my bald head.

And I discovered an unseen community of cancer survivors among PDN readers that softened the blow.

I’ve learned there are stages of retirement: planning, the big day, the I’m-free point, the is-this-all-there-is phase, building a new identity, and finally, moving on by living a new normal.

I will keep writing. I need to keep the discipline and desire that made me snarl at the workday clock, wanting it to slow down, not speed up.

I’m shooting for new normal as of Day 1.

— 30 —

________

Paul Gottlieb, PDN senior reporter, is retiring after 23 years on the staff as of today.

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