Lincoln Journal Star assistant city editor: ‘It’s a really fun job’
By Zach Tegler
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
In 33 years at the Lincoln Journal Star, Catharine Huddle has turned an accidental career as a “death and weather girl” into a job as the assistant city editor. In an interview with Huddle, she answered questions about her job and her experiences.
The 57-year-old from Madison, Neb., came to Lincoln after graduating high school. Eventually, she would settle into a job in journalism, enroll in classes at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and raise two children. But first, Huddle took a secretarial position for the state.
Q: How did you get into journalism in the first place?
A: It was a fluke. I was a secretary for the State Department of Education. I absolutely hated being a secretary. Hated it. It’s a subservient role that comes with no respect whatsoever. I had a friend who worked here as a clerk. She picked up the court records and dealt in movies and stuff like that. And a job to do the obituaries and weather opened, and I thought it seemed like a cool place to work. Never been in a newspaper office before. Walked in here the first day and it was like, ‘Oh my God. I’m home.’ I was absolutely terrified. But I knew the first day I got here this is where I should be and where I wanted to be.
Q: When did you first know that you wanted to be an editor?
A: Not a journalist, an editor? I don’t know. I started working here as the death and weather clerk, and then I became a general assignment reporter. And, gosh, I think probably within maybe six years of starting to work here, I was working part time on weekends as an editor. And I really liked it because you get a chance to be in on decision-making about what direction things are going to go. It’s a leadership role.
Q: Did you know you would still be here 30 years later?
A: No! No…Look at my hands, I’ve got arthritis and my fingers are crooked. I said recently, ‘I never in the world thought I’d be here long enough to look down at a keyboard and see gnarled fingers on them and they’d be mine.’ But I’ve done a lot of different jobs here, and that has helped keep it interesting. And it’s not fun every day, but it’s a really fun job.
Q: How has your editing job changed since you started it?
A: Well, the Web has changed everything, and in some ways, for the better. When I first started working here, and I was an editor back then also, I worked for the afternoon paper. And so, we came in at 6:30 in the morning. Everything had to be done by 11:30 in the morning. And now, we’ve got, like, 16 hours to do the same amount of work in. So I really missed that deadline. Except when the Web came in, now we’re on deadline all day long, and I actually really love that. It gets the adrenaline going sometimes because you get something in and you need to get it up on the Web right away. In fact, on Thursday, I believe we were the first people up with the story that TransCanada had said, “We won’t try and put the pipeline in the Sandhills.” So, it’s changed tremendously, mostly because of the Web. It’s also changed for the better, I think, in that now every story that comes through on the news side of things gets two close reads by a city editor, which is better. It used to be, one person read it and moved it on and that was it. But I think we’re more sure than we used to be.
Q: How has the field of journalism as a whole changed since you began here?
A: Again, I think the Internet’s probably the biggest change. It just boggles my mind when I look back. When I was a reporter and an editor, just for example, say, somebody used ‘M&Ms’ in a story. And you want to know, is there a space between the ‘M’ and the ampersand and the other ‘M’? And you’d get up and go back to the break room and look in the candy machine and see if there were M&Ms. Or somebody used ‘Jack Daniel’s’ in a story and you wanted to know if there was an apostrophe. I’d have to call a liquor store and say, “Hey can you run over to look at a bottle of Jack Daniel’s for me to tell me if there’s an apostrophe?” And now, you know, you jump on and off Google a hundred times a day. It’s also changed in that we require a tremendously larger amount of work from our reporters, I think, than we used to. We demand that they be more thorough and that they be more accurate. With layoffs, we have to demand that they be more productive.
Q: What are your day to day responsibilities?
A: I am one of a four-person city desk. There’s the city editor and then three assistants, and I’m in charge of the cops and courts team, and I also have general assignment/columnist. So I’m here by 9-ish in the morning, and those are the people on my team, but we jointly edit anything that comes through all day long. So even though I’m cops and courts team leader, I edit legislative stories, environmental stories, anything that comes through.
Q: What do you consider the coolest project you’ve ever been a part of?
A: Well I’m being harassed to clean out my old cubicle so I’ve been walking down memory lane the last couple of days. I was the editor for a project a few years back on medical ethics, and that was very cool. We did a really, really good job on that. It’s horrible to say this was cool, but one of the most memorable, and ‘exciting’ is also a bad word for it, stories I ever worked on was covering the execution of Wili Otey, who was the first person to be executed since Charlie Starkweather in 1959. And that was in, I think, ’95. And that was horrific and absolutely—no other way to say it—absolutely wonderful to be a part of.
Q: What is the toughest call you’ve ever had to make?
A: I don’t know if I can even say. There are so many. We had a guy who was accused of inappropriate sexual behavior who was a coach at a small school near here. And we had written about him once and didn’t use his name. Then his case went through the court system and we chose to run his name. And he called that evening and told me that if we ran his name, he would kill himself. I talked to him three or four times that night and I really struggled. And in the end, we ran his name. He didn’t kill himself, but that’s pretty tough.
Q: What is the worst decision you have made as an editor?
A: Well there’s a couple. One, I was working on the city desk on a Saturday and I had a very green reporter. I’ve sort of blocked it out—I think it was an intern, and he wrote a story about a cop. There was a death involving a police chase and we got calls from the friends of the dead person saying—it was a small town—the cop had a vendetta for this guy, yada, yada. And we ran with the story. And I was not careful enough. We ended up getting sued. Everybody here agreed that we could have won the lawsuit because there was absolutely no malicious intent involved, but the company decided to settle because they didn’t want to pay to defend it. And I was in a hurry and I didn’t pay close enough attention. And the other one’s a lot more recent. We had a shooting on a Saturday and again we had an intern—it was his first day. And I sent him over to the scene of the shooting. He came back and he was all excited and we got ahold of the name of the victim and the address. I don’t know what I was thinking, but we ran it, and we don’t run victims’ names. And nothing horrible happened, but in most cases it was not thinking it through too carefully.
Q: What do you consider the most challenging aspect of your job?
A: Ethics. As the cops and courts team leader we have to make decisions every single day. Whether to name a suspect if he or she is a minor, if you have a case of a guy who beats up his wife or an incest case where the guy sexually assaults a child. If we name the perpetrator, then we’ve identified the victim, and our prime directive is to minimize harm. But we have to grapple because you don’t really want to let that guy go through the court system without getting his name in the paper. So we really have to struggle with if we can name the guy and not identify the relationship to the victim. The problem with doing that: if you say you’ve got this guy who sexually assaulted a 12-year-old, then you’ve got people thinking that there’s some guy running around sexually assaulting 12-year-old strangers. So if you leave the relationship out of the story, then you might scare people. If you put the relationship in, then you run the chance of identifying the victim and doing more harm. So it’s ethical decisions every day.
Q: What is your favorite part about working here?
A: Well, you know, the easy obvious answer is: I love the people I work with. I really do. But it’s just a fun job. You sort of get to be—not to the degree that you do as a reporter, because as a reporter you’re out on the street, and I do miss that—but you kind of get to be behind the scenes in everything that happens. A reporter comes back with so much more information than ever makes it in a story, so we just get to know what’s happening. It’s really fun.