Job at Homer News pays dividends in life lessons
Editor’s Note: As part of its 50th anniversary celebration, the Homer News has asked former “Newsies” to reminisce about their time at the newspaper and some of the top stories of the day.
In the third such piece, Joel Gay, who contributed to the Homer News in a variety of ways for nearly 25 years, talks about his time at the Homer News, which began in 1978.
It was the Monday before Thanksgiving 1987 and I was thinking about the Homer News deadline just ahead. As managing editor it was my job to stitch together the paper every week, making sure it hit the racks Wednesday with a mix of news, features, arts, sports and opinion.
That evening as I left the office for dinner, the issue looked strong with one exception. We had a Thanksgiving feature, some interesting government news, a decent editorial and letters section, but no hard news story for the top of Page 1. Hoping a “good” story would appear before deadline the following day, I toodled off to Proctors. Driving the other direction was the dog catcher, his emergency lights ablaze. “Moose on the runway,” I thought to myself.
It wasn’t. But over the next 24 hours I would learn yet another valuable life lesson thanks to the Homer News: Be careful what you wish for.
Early days, Tuesday nights
A long-term relationship with a newspaper was the furthest thing from my mind when I first stepped into the Homer News office on Pioneer Avenue in 1976, looking for my friend Tom Kizzia, the managing editor. I was drawn to the muddy little town, like so many 20-somethings, for undistilled adventure. But eventually I would discover that journalism itself is an adventure, even in — perhaps especially in — a community of interesting individuals like Homer.
That week’s paper was a caricature of small-town news, like Garrison Keillor’s mythical Lake Woe-Be-Gone but without the Unitarians. Paving was plastered on Page 1 and the subject of an editorial. Local politicos were arguing about oil development in Kachemak Bay, the Homer City Council was arguing about restaurants on the Spit, HEA and its linemen were arguing about wages.
And there was the sad tale of a moose that wandered onto the Spit, then waded into the bay. It was captured by good Samaritans, trucked up West Hill Road and released, where it was promptly hit by a car and had to be put down. Top that, Garrison!
I was hooked, vowing to return when I left that August to finish my journalism studies in New Mexico. Return I did, in 1978, with Chip Brown, who was taking the reins from Kizzia.
Unlike some, I didn’t have a job waiting for me at the Homer News. I did odds and ends around town, but clearly the Homer News could spot raw talent and soon I was the paper’s janitor and deliveryman. And once it was discovered I could type, I became the backup typesetter every Tuesday night.
Tuesday night. Those two words would shape my life for nearly 25 years. Tuesday night was the culmination of a week’s worth of reporting, ad sales, editing, darkroom magic and page layout using X-Acto knives and border tape. It was a long, meandering conversation, circling around the news and opinion of the day and radiating outward from there. Fueled by bad coffee and stale doughnuts, Tuesday night was a combination of journalistic salon and small-town think tank with timeouts for jitterbug lessons, gardening tips, neighborhood gossip and the occasional parking lot haircut.
I learned a lot on Tuesday nights, some of it useful. Every Tuesday around 11 p.m., for example, I called Francie at the National Weather Service to get the week’s weather summary, but over time was gifted with a thorough understanding of the North Pacific ecosystem. I learned the back stories of local personalities and not a few things about small town politics and commerce.
Tuesday nights introduced me to the microcommunities that made up our readership, from the head of the bay and Fritz Creek to the North Fork and Nikolaevsk. Tuesday night visitors included mayors and legislators wanting to discuss the news, business owners inspecting their ads and the occasional vagabond attracted like moths to the late-night lights and activity.
I was often the last one out, locking the office at 1 or 2 a.m., though on elections Tuesday night typically dragged on until 6 a.m. or later Wednesday, when four or five of us would pour onto Pioneer Avenue.
In pre-computer days we typed stories — double-spaced on cheap newsprint — which the editors marked up with red pens or cut apart and reassembled with tape. As deputy typesetter it soon became evident which elements in a story worked and which did not, and soon I was contributing to the mix myself, writing sports, features and the beat called “fish.” I liked being paid to ask questions.
Paper of record
Homer in the late 1970s and early ’80s was a rich place to be a reporter. It was slowly losing its muddy roads, funky buildings and small town atmosphere as Juneau opened the tap on pipeline revenue. Oil money poured into communities like Homer at a phenomenal rate — at one point we had more than $100 million worth of state-funded capital projects under construction in our little town of 3,500.
Homer’s growth was reflected in the number of pages we printed every week. Advertising swelled as mom-and-pop businesses sprouted and larger stores expanded. Our average page count climbed steadily, from roughly 16 pages when I started to 20, 24, 28 and the occasional 32. By the mid-’80s some issues hit 56 pages spread over three sections.
Newspaper owners love such growth, but it falls on reporters and editors to fill all that real estate, and we did, following the template laid down by Gary Williams and Tom Kizzia just a few years earlier. It sounded a little high-minded, but we considered ourselves the “paper of record” for our corner of the world. Our job was to cover every city council meeting, school board election, Mariner game, dance recital and chamber of commerce luncheon.
But in addition to the boilerplate stories about zoning spats and salmon prices, Homer was blessed by a steady parade of free-thinking individuals and crazy ideas. Like the scuba-diving artist who started carving a subsurface sculpture gallery offshore from Sadie Cove. For some reason, success eluded him. Or Han-A Samick, which promised to raise beef cattle near Homer, fatten them at the Red Meat Farm, then herd them onto an airliner and fly them to Korea. Hard to imagine why that one didn’t take off.
One of my favorites was the Outside entrepreneur who wanted to set up a 737 jet engine in a steel building on the Spit and run fish waste through it to make sterile compost. Cartoonist Mike O’Meara nicknamed it the “Sonic Jet Blaster,” which drew laughs in the newsroom every time it was mentioned.
Alongside the cockamamie schemes came concrete proposals to improve life in our growing town — all of which raised eyebrows or objections in a town where some weren’t all that keen on growing. The Homer News used up entire forests on the debates over building the dam at Bradley Lake, paving East Hill Road, creation of Kachemak Bay State Park, expanding the small boat harbor and IFQs.
My wife would roll her eyes every time I mentioned IFQs or bycatch, but as author of Seawatch, I had a ringside seat on the dynamic North Pacific and 25 years of unprecedented change in its waters, fish and politics. The Homer News monitored the decline of our historical shrimp and crab stocks in Kachemak Bay and the boom in Bering Sea crabbing that drew Homer and Seldovia crews to far more dangerous waters. As Japan’s economy superheated in the 1980s, so did salmon and herring prices. Soon Homer Harbor was brimming with new boats and stories from local skippers about their exploits the length of coastal Alaska.
We were among the first papers to recognize the importance of the burgeoning groundfish fisheries and Homer’s potential role as a key port. One of the big Seattle groundfish companies, Oceantrawl, danced with Homer for years about siting a factory trawler here. The paper flew me to Oregon to witness the christening of one of the first U.S. vessels to take a cut of the bottomfish pie, the Homer-based Vanguard.
Covering a community well means writing both the good news and the bad, and marine mishaps were part of my beat. I wrote far too many stories about boat fires, groundings, roll-overs and sudden sinkings. Perhaps the most poignant compliment I ever received was for an editorial I had written about marine safety and why more should be done to protect the lives of fishermen. A young deckhand who had lost too many friends at sea told me it made her cry.
Hard lessons some weeks
I was a staff writer from the late 1970s to 1986, then managing editor for three turbulent years, including the Thanksgiving issue when I silently wished for some “hard news” before deadline. Just minutes before I drove off for dinner that night, a Ryan Air flight from Kodiak crashed on the Homer runway, killing 18 passengers and crew and seriously injuring three.
For 24 hours we scrambled to make sense of the crash involving a seasoned pilot, numerous local residents and the effect it had on our community. We opened our office to other reporters from around Alaska, but none of them captured the staggering emotional toll such an event has on a small town like we did. It was among the paper’s finest hours, of which there have been many.
That was an exhausting period for the Homer News. We moved from our funky digs on Pioneer Avenue to the “pink palace” on Lakeshore Drive, where at least the floors were level and the heating ducts didn’t gurgle when the stream next door flooded. We still laid out the paper by hand, but when our editor left for a year at Stanford he figured it was a good time to switch our production to computers.
In the midst of that “labor-saving” conversion, our replacement editor sued City Hall. Twice, in fact. I will never forget the city council meeting when Mayor John Calhoun looked directly at me and thundered, “THE HOMER NEWS DOES NOT RUN THIS CITY!”
Working at a small town newspaper means you’re always on the job, listening for story ideas or taking complaints while standing in line at the Post Office or grocery store. For more than a decade I never left home without a camera, film, notebook and pen. I didn’t attend a concert without writing a review, didn’t leave a potluck without a story idea and never drove without scouring the roadside for something new. For my efforts I had been thanked, bawled out and, more often, ignored. After three years as managing editor, I was burned out and in need of a change.
Hence I missed the biggest story in Homer history, when Exxon Valdez crude crept down the Gulf of Alaska coastline and threatened Kachemak Bay in the spring of 1989. I had taken an opportunity to visit Japan on a cultural exchange and read about the spill from Kyoto. By the time I returned, Homer and the Homer News were in an absolute uproar. I figured I could help best by staying out of the way.
I remained a weekly contributor, however, covering commercial fishing news and the occasional basketball game. Freelance writing, I found, had its drawbacks too, and by 1996 I was back at the News for another stint as managing editor. By then the paper had seen numerous editors and staffers and was far more professional than in my early days.
Over the next six years I never uttered a prayer for a good story, and thankfully we had no major events like the Ryan Air crash, though the fire that razed the Icicle Seafoods plant in 1998 was close. It was a few days before the Fourth of July and the Spit was filling up for the holiday weekend. By 11 a.m. Wednesday we had laid out the paper and were close to sending the pages to the printer when a blistering fire broke out in the old seafood plant once used to process Kachemak Bay shrimp and crab. Our small crew worked feverishly well past deadline, telling the story of another extraordinary day in Homer, until the printer could wait no longer.
My last day at the Homer News was in June 2002. By then the paper was owned by Morris Communications. It ran far more efficiently, and, at long last, we had health insurance and a 401-k retirement program. Still, I missed the days when our perks included free passes to the Homer Family Theater and the occasional bag of carrots, which we once took as payment for ads.
I went on to work at the Anchorage Daily News for several years, then the Albuquerque Tribune when Mary and I moved to New Mexico to be closer to family. Sadly, the Tribune closed its doors in 2008, a victim of the times and changing tastes of readers. Some months later I walked into the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, a nonprofit sportsman’s organization. Apparently they could spot raw talent, too, and hired me the following day.
I still write about fish and game. I still put out a newspaper, though now it’s every quarter, not every week. And I still pack a camera and note pad every time I venture afield.
It’s been close to 40 years since I first walked into the Homer News office on Pioneer Avenue. I owe a debt of gratitude to the paper, its many staff members and its readers for giving me the education and adventure of a lifetime.
Joel Gay contributed to the Homer News in one form or another from 1978-2002. He now lives in Albuquerque, N.M.
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