(Editor's Note: We first asked Chris King to write this piece before his arrival in St. Louis to begin his new job at the St. Louis American. While production delays kept it from appearing here in a timely fashion, we still thought it was worthwhile to publish, so we hope you will enjoy it and forgive any discrepancies in his references to the time of year, which are wholly our responsibility. It should be noted that he's been firmly ensconced in his job for several months now and, by all reports, loving it.)
Amanda Doyle asked that I write a column about my new job at the St. Louis American. Since I am still sitting in New York and haven't influenced word one of the paper's coverage, it seems a silly thing to do at this point. But daydreaming about my new gig in St. Louis sounds attractive compared to wrecking the neglected swimming pool out back of the house I am leaving here (which is what I am supposed to be doing). So, here goes. To make it easy on myself, and in keeping with the conversational tone that looks good over the Internet, I'll simply respond to the nudges Amanda sent me in her e-mail:
How the Gig Came About
I have been looking in earnest to get out of New York and back to St. Louis for the past six months or so. Out here, I have been on staff for five years at Car & Travel, the AAA magazine in New York. At some point, you have probably belonged to AAA and received its freebie magazine; Car & Travel is the one for New York members. Though part house organ and marketing effort, it's not a piece of trash. It has teeth on motorist issues and I have had the freedom to assign stories to some interesting writers. The travel section has been my main responsibility, and though I have basically been paid to see the world, travel editorial is, in the end, a series of little praise songs. Nice, but inessential, and not really for me. Besides, as the late Jim Croce sang so memorably, "New York's not my home."
So my goal has been to get back home and back into community-based journalism covering one place from many angles, day in and day out. I heard about the opportunity at the American from Roland Klose, a friend of a friend and the editor of the Illinois Times, the newsweekly in Springfield, Illinois. It seemed like a good fit. I used to teach African and African-American studies at Wash. U. and Lindenwood, and probably half of the stories I have written for the RFT and Post-Dispatch (and many other publications) covered topics of interest to this community. I met with the publisher, Dr. Donald Suggs, and his daughter, Dina Suggs, its vice president. From very early on in our conversations, it felt evident that we would be working together.
What I'll Be Doing
This is the part that's impossible to know without pitching in and doing it. My position is editorial director, which sounds pretty eminent, and in fact I will have a lot of responsibility. But I also have a great deal to learn from Dr. Suggs and the staff editors and writers I'll be joining. This sounds like the right thing to say, I know, but it's the simple truth. Once I get a better sense of what everyone has been doing, then I'm sure I'll have some ideas for what we should be doing differently. My suggestion is to pick up the American every Thursday and watch what we do. My first day there is July 19, so the first issue on which I'll so much as lift a finger will be that of July 22.
What I Expect to Find
About this, I have no expectations. You never know a workplace until it's been yours for a while.
What Reaction to Me I'm Anticipating
I'm sure the basis of this question is that I'm a white guy, and the primary audience (and most of the staff) of the paper is black folks. I've been hearing versions of this question from everyone I know, but it wouldn't be on my mind if everyone else wasn't asking me about it. When I was just a kid, age 22 or so, Gerald Early hired me to teach African-American literature at Wash. U. So I have been down this road before, when I was much less experienced and capable, and I did fine. If my past experience is any guide, then most of the people will be skeptical of me from day one; most of those people will figure out sooner or later that I know what I'm doing, regardless of my race; and some will never be persuaded and want me to go away.
In addition to race, there may be a New York factor. Since I have never identified with this place, despite living here for six years and contributing to the one and only New York Times, I simply can't bring myself to imagine the consequences of being "the guy from New York" coming in to lead a newsroom in St. Louis. I'm just a guy from St. Louis coming home to a newsroom in St. Louis.
Why I Want to Come Back and Do It
That's easy. St. Louis is my home and weekly newspapers are my favorite venue for journalism. I grew up as a journalist freelancing for the RFT when Ray Hartmann owned the paper and Cliff Froehlich rode herd over the arts and features. I never got over the buzz of working on a story about some pesky issue, neglected local treasure or forgotten character, and then seeing people all over the city holding my story in their hands later that week. I want to go back to having this experience, week after week after week, year after year after year. I am giddy the American has granted me that opportunity.
Those were all of Amanda's questions, and I still have a foul above-ground swimming pool to dismantle before anyone will rent my house from me. If you have more questions about the paper (or want to join me for a pool demolition party), I'm at email@example.com. And don't forget to pick up the American every week!
Chris King played in the local band Enormous Richard, has made field recordings of music from fife-and-drum corps to Pops Farrar and is generally regarded as pretty fly for a white guy.