I have a drawer full of them — unused cliches and extra commas, too. Greg's favorite job as an editor, aside from removing more than half the commas in anything I write, is killing cliches. "Death to all cliches" will probably be on his tombstone. I know he’d make it his license plate if he could, maybe a bumper sticker to go next to "Compassion, the Radicalism of our Age."
That's only one of thousands of things I learned from my boss in the three years I've written for CityBeat. I started as a freelancer and then joined the staff just over two years ago when he took a chance on a rookie. The most important things he taught me aren't in a book; they came from 16 years of experience as a reporter and over seven years as an editor:
• Go into an interview with an open mind; don’t assume you know the story before you’ve heard it from the people living it.
• Be fair and honest. You might expose someone’s unethical or illegal behavior and they won’t be happy about it, but if you’re fair they’re going to be more likely to take your next phone call.
• There is no such thing as objectivity; life experiences affect how we see and hear. That has value and brings strength to your voice.
• “I don’t ask for much. I just want you to slit yourself open and smear your guts on the page.”
• Politicians and other public figures are listed in the phone book. If you can’t get them to respond to their cell or at the office, call them at home.
• “If you disagree with the way I edit your story, explain why. We can talk about it. That doesn’t mean I’ll change my mind, but we can talk about it.”
I won some of those battles and lost some, but Greg always listens and is always straight. He is annoyingly consistent in his refusal to let me make shit up; I’m usually joking about that, but even a half-hearted wish to do so could never become reality under that maddeningly steady look.
I never have to wonder what his hidden agenda might be — there isn’t one. His unwillingness to swallow what he is fed and his inherent distrust of people in power — who always have an agenda that means a price to be paid by someone else — has inspired an amazing amount of insubordination in someone who already had a healthy suspicion of authority. That made me fight being banned from Death Row because some prison official didn’t like what I wrote. Calling in the ACLU with the threat of a lawsuit probably didn’t help my cause either. Yup, Greg’s idea!
I went back to Death Row because of him, and the ACLU — again — and had one of the most powerful interviews of my life. There are going to be a lot of people who will be happy to celebrate Greg’s departure precisely because of that — difficult stories about difficult topics that make people think instead of feel safe and happy and ignorant of the world in which they live.
This is Greg’s last day at CityBeat. Being laid off is rarely easy, but this crusty newspaperman (is that a cliche?) is looking forward to sleeping in for a week before embarking his search for a new way to rattle people out of complacency.
— Margo Pierce