Accidental editor followed his passion in community journalism career
By Elissa Kroeger
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Sometimes airing your grievances can land you a job.
“I complained to the World-Herald about their lack of bowling coverage,” newspaper editor Ron Petak said.
Although Petak had never planned to become a journalist, in the early 1980s, the Omaha World-Herald sports editor asked him to write a feature story on bowling.
“Next thing you knew I had a regular bowling column,” Petak said. “Next thing you knew I was working in the sports department part time.”
Now, Petak is the executive editor of the Bellevue Leader and three other Omaha suburban newspapers owned by BH Media.
Petak attended Saint Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas, studying political science and English.
He joined the Bellevue Leader in 1985 as a staff writer covering the county and Bellevue schools. Then he switched to sports for several years. After that, Petak got his first editing position as a city editor of sorts.
In the late 1990s when the Omaha World-Herald purchased the Bellevue Leader, Petak was appointed executive editor.
“You continue doing what you’re hopefully doing as a writer, and that’s being fair and accurate,” Petak said. “Being the executive editor is making sure that we stay on track with that.”
All of these papers focus on their respective communities with little crossover.
“I have a deep appreciation for community journalism,” Petak said. “Our focus is our communities.”
This means you won’t see a Nebraska football article in the Bellevue Leader unless there is a direct tie to the community, like one of the former high school players transitioning to the team.
Serving the community is what each paper strives to do. One way to do this is by having calendars that let people know what is happening in their communities. Another is by being feature driven and “telling people’s stories.”
With more than 30 years of experience, Petak is full of wisdom for students.
“You can’t be in this business even if you’re editing, if you’re not willing to ask questions,” Petak said. “As an editor you need to do the same thing with your writers.”
It’s important that writers be able to interact with the people they interview.
“You can’t be afraid to engage people,” Petak said. “You can’t be afraid to ask tough questions when those times come.”
Writing the story, he said, is just as important as gathering information.
“You need to understand style — everything from the grammatical to the AP Stylebook, which makes it a lot easier for editors when writers know that information,” Petak said.
It’s important to ensure the simple things like spelling names right and having dates correct are crucial.
“Be accurate and be fair,” Pekak said. “After that, there is not much more readers can ask for.”
In the ever-changing world of journalism, he said it is vital that writers have passion.
“I don’t think you can just go through the motions,” Petak said. “If you’re looking to make a career out of this you need to have a passion. You need to have a sense, especially in community journalism, of contributing to the community.”