Life Lessons From a Longtime Newspaper Reporter

From a story by Greg Lacour in Charlotte magazine headlined “Life Lessons: Jim Morrill, Longtime Observer Reporter”:

Last year, nearly four decades after The Charlotte Observer had hired him as a reporter in its Rock Hill, S.C., bureau—and after 11 national conventions, 10 Presidential elections, and too many campaigns and interviews to even try to count—Jim Morrill decided that, at 71, it was time to retire. Morrill had been the paper’s primary political reporter since 1987, chronicling the Tar Heel State’s emergence as one of the most important swing states in America and the assorted missteps and peccadillos of the politically prominent. He’s knocked on a lot of doors….

The native of Aurora, Illinois, graduated from Loyola University Chicago in 1972 with a history degree and, he says, “no idea what I was going to do.” He served for three years in the Peace Corps in Togo, where he helped build schools. On the way back home in 1976, with the newspaper industry still basking in the glow of Watergate, he read Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee’s Conversations with Kennedy and thought newspapering might be a good career for a young man who liked to write, travel, and at least try to do good. After graduate school at the University of Illinois, he moved south in 1979 to work for The Herald in Rock Hill, then landed his first Observer job two years later.

Morrill covered Charlotte city government, then state and national politics, as the city grew and, in his last decade or so, his industry withered. Toward the end, he and wife, Kathy Haight, a fellow Observer reporter, suffered a monumental personal loss: Their younger son, Will, was killed in a late-night car accident. Morrill had thought about retiring before then. But he kept going for another two years, in part to cover one more presidential campaign and a national political convention but also because, in his grief, he decided work would be good for him.

He spoke with me a little more than a month into retirement….

Different reporters have different styles, and some reporters are pretty out there, you know, dogs on a leash, ready to go—and that’s just not my personality, for better or worse. But, if I’m on a good story, I can stick to it, and I go after the story. … A lot of this job is winging it….

It’s been sad (to watch the decline of newspapers). … The people who are still there are doing a great job under difficult circumstances. I mean, you have a pandemic, you have a lot of young reporters who are very, very good and do a lot of work. There was one the other day (Alison Kuznitz) who wrote every story on the front page. … and the pandemic has really cut off opportunities for her to see people in person and get to know people and start building the relationships that we relied on and that you take for granted.

When I started covering the legislature, I remember the press room was a little cement-block office in the Legislative Building with concrete-block walls and small desks, but there were reporters from Asheville and Gastonia, Winston-Salem, Greensboro, Wilmington, even some of the smaller papers, and the Charlotte paper had two or three people there. Now, none of those papers are there on a daily basis. … That’s just one metric of how fewer people are covering government.

But it made me feel like my job was more important, if that makes sense, because I thought I could do something that there weren’t a lot of other people doing—not because I was better, but because a lot of them had left for whatever reason. I enjoyed what I was doing, too, and for the reasons I enjoyed it at the beginning, I enjoyed it at the end. You know, it’s funny to say, but I felt like I was doing it better at the end. Because you feel like you finally kind of catch on, like you finally figured out how to do these things and not sweat about ledes and all that stuff you used to sweat about.

Be fair to people. There are oftentimes two sides to stories—not always, but sometimes. You know, just give people the benefit of the doubt and treat people fairly. It’s a cliche, I remember—and this is one aspect of having been there for a long time—is that you see people come and go and come again in different roles….

You’ve got to truth-squad everything. We used to do these TV ad watches during campaigns and truth-squad things, and then it became like truth-squadding stuff in every story, almost. Stuff like QAnon—I mean, it’s just ridiculous and crazy, but I think you just keep writing the truth and not get sucked into the noise machine. Sometimes we do; I did. We did a lot of things that weren’t so good—too much reliance on polls and all that stuff. But now it’s harder to make your voice heard when there aren’t as many people reading papers, period, and getting their news off Facebook and stuff like that.

We pay for the sins of the “liberal media.” I mean, we are the “liberal media,” so we’re the fake news media, so we’re the enemy, you know? (U.S. Rep.) Dan Bishop hasn’t called me back for, like, a year and a half. Back when he was a lowly county commissioner, we’d talk, and it was a different time, I guess. But people like that, they don’t call you back, and people on both sides put out a lot more statements now, so it’s hard to get the personal relationship with politicians anymore because they’re so protected by their minders. They can’t say anything without having it go through their press people and all that. So then you get a canned statement, which is bullshit half the time and too long most of the time, and you’ve got to work with that….

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