Even better than expected – part 1

My life is full and has surpassed my highest expectations in profound ways.

Carla is a beautiful person who chooses to share life with me through mundane, jubilant, and challenging times. Barron is a creative, goal-oriented and industrious son who shows gratitude and kindness. Harris is bright, engaging and is committing himself to a life of service to address societal problems. Carlton is finding himself in song and drama, flashing a keen wit and possessing insight and awareness beyond his years.

I wished for such a wonderful family, but they have exceeded my loftiest dreams.

The biggest difference between my expectations for life and reality is my career. The question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” had different answers at various points in my life. I went through a phase in adolescence when I adopted my father’s dreams of becoming a fighter pilot and having a post-military career flying commercial jets for an airline.

Well into adulthood, I wondered if I was called to local church ministry. I sincerely and diligently prayed for a revelation of that calling and have always been involved in church as a layperson performing every possible duty.

As early as the 7th grade, I envisioned a life of writing novels. I believed that newspaper journalism could pay the bills while I pursued writing books, which was less financially secure. Writing led me to pursue a high school internship at our local paper, The Daily Highlander, and once I began to understand how that world operated, I held ambitions of one day rising through the ranks of reporter to editor and running a newspaper.

That goal served me well through high school and college. I became editor of the Troy University school paper, The Tropolitan, in college as a sophomore and worked internships at The Destin Log, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Knight Ridder’s Washington Bureau and the National Journalism Center. A difficult job market in 1991-92 forced me to seriously question my career choice as I unsuccessfully interviewed for reporter jobs at The Birmingham News, The Anniston Star, and The Huntsville Times.

A young Lance Wallace wearing glasses and a polka dot black necktie and white shirt sits at computer terminal on a desk in a low-rise office cubicle in a busy newsroom.
What this 20-something cub reporter didn’t know about life at this stage could fill a Sunday edition of The Macon Telegraph.

I finally landed an interview at The Macon Telegraph in Middle Georgia, and the rest, as they say, was history. During my seven plus years at The Telegraph there were pivot points along the way that forced me to recalibrate my expectations and amend my goals. When I graduated from Troy University with a double major in print journalism and political science, I saw myself returning to Washington to cover politics. I thought I could one day work my way back to Knight Ridder’s Washington Bureau if I went to a Knight Ridder paper, excelled and earned a promotion to fill an opening in the company’s high-profile D.C. office.

I held onto that notion for about four years as I worked as a general assignment features writer. Editorial page editor Ron Woodgeard asked me to contribute to a series he was editing about Georgians on the Titanic, and during our closer work together, he asked me about my career goals. I told him I wanted to cover politics in Washington. He rather bluntly informed me I was in the wrong place to do that. He said if I wanted to cover politics in Washington, I should already be in Washington. I told him my plan, and he explained that political journalism didn’t work that way.

As I puzzled over Ron’s revelation, my fellow church member, Larry Brumley, who ran the University Relations office at Mercer University, asked if I would be interested in applying for a media relations representative vacancy on his staff. I had never seriously considered working in public relations, often deriding the PR majors in college as “paid liars.” With a chance to cover the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, I told Larry the opportunities on my immediate horizon were too good to pass up. I remained committed to journalism.

As difficult as it was to hear, Ron Woodgeard had been right. Career panic set in, and I felt an urgency to move on from Macon. But by that point, my social life began to factor into my life’s plan. Carla and I had started dating, and our relationship was growing serious. Just a few months into our relationship, covering the Olympics combined with a newsroom shakeup by incoming Editor-in-Chief Cecil Bentley proved to be my opportunity to shift from general assignment features to the City Hall beat. It was my first shot at writing about politics at any level since college.

I thoroughly enjoyed covering Macon and Bibb County government and quickly acclimated to working nights attending council and committee meetings. I dedicated myself to increasing my profile at the paper and winning reporting recognitions. The awards never came, and though I covered the beat diligently, I exposed no major scoops or scandals. Ron’s words were becoming clear to me. The way to make it to the Capitol did not go through Macon City Hall.

Carla and I were not married long when the statehouse reporting job opened at the Knight Ridder-owned newspaper in Columbia, S.C., oddly titled The State. I interviewed, and it looked promising enough that Carla and I spent the day driving through neighborhoods there getting a vision for what life could look like for us if we started over somewhere else. The job evaporated, however, when the editor I was interviewing with gave up his desk job, returned to reporting, and took the position.

My goal then shifted from leaving Macon and covering D.C. politics to moving up the ranks and becoming an editor. A new, more aggressive managing editor had been hired, and he began pushing me to “leverage the facts” of the stories I was covering at City Hall to make them seem more scandalous. I wanted no part of that. Fortunately, I was able to transfer to our Warner Robins Bureau where I was assigned the Robins Air Force Base beat.

I didn’t mind the half-hour commute from Macon, and I found the base infinitely fascinating. When units at Robins started deploying on missions over Kosovo and to Kuwait, I was able to write stories with impact and emotion. I built solid relationships with the public affairs officers on base and really took to the assignments.

After about 18 months, more newsroom transitions opened an assistant metro editor position back in the main office. I applied and earned the spot, working side-by-side with my former features editor, James Palmer. We supervised the entire news reporting staff, and I began to see the writing on the wall. When I first arrived in Macon, there had been six such editors – a metro editor, two assistant metro editors, night editor, business editor, and region editor. There was just James and me at that point, and I knew more cuts were on the way. I began to seriously question if newspapers were a sustainable way to earn a living. I had always wanted to get my master’s degree, which seemed impossible with my schedule. I knew I would have to leave journalism if I wanted to further my education and set myself up for career advancement. I had put so many eggs in the journalism basket it was hard to figure out what was next.

One of my duties was editing the weekly business tabloid that published on Mondays. A feature of that publication was a weekly column written by Mercer University business faculty members. The column was supposed to be submitted by 5 p.m. on Thursday, so it could be edited on Friday and laid out before the end of the day. We printed the business tab on Saturday when the presses were available. The Mercer professors consistently missed their deadline and submitted work that required a lot of editing. Even though we didn’t pay for the content, the columns were more trouble than they were worth. I called Mercer’s public relations contact for the business school and told her we were canceling the arrangement. She begged for mercy and asked for me to come by for a meeting. It got me out of the office, so I was amenable.

The meeting went fine. The PR rep, Jennie Treby, let the assistant vice president, Ben McDade, do all the talking. In exchange for one more chance to continue the columns, Ben promised each submission would be on time, the right length, and free from errors. I had no reason to deny the request, so I agreed to continue the columns. When the cordial meeting ended, Jennie left, and Ben asked if I could stay a minute or two longer. He closed the door and told me that when his predecessor, Larry Brumley, left Mercer to work as the head of university relations at Baylor University, Larry told Ben he should hire me. I was flattered but shocked. I still was not ready to leave journalism. Ben said he had an opening and would like for me to think about applying. I told him I would.

Over the next several weeks, I did much soul searching. Leaving journalism was more than a job change, it was an identity crisis. I viewed journalism as a calling and had even served on the national board of the Society of Professional Journalists. I was an advocate for free speech and the First Amendment. I believed public relations practitioners were less than credible, and they mostly just sat around and waited on reporters to call. While I considered the opportunity, conditions at The Telegraph took an even greater toll. The problematic managing editor left, and James and I felt the crush of even more responsibility. I worked past 10 p.m. five days a week and was even coming in on Sundays after church to get the Monday paper out. Carla was in graduate school, driving two nights a week from Macon to Lawrenceville, about a two-hour journey one way, to take classes in the University of Georgia’s part-time Master of Social Work program. We were newlyweds in duration of marriage only. We barely saw each other during the week, and the stress of so much work, school and time apart had us seeing a therapist in our first year of marriage.

One difficult week of working at least 12 hours a day plus Sunday gave me the clarity I needed to make the career move and shift my ambitions. I took Ben up on his offer and left newspaper journalism behind. When I submitted my resignation, Cecil asked if there was anything they could do to keep me or if this was “a lifestyle decision.” I told him it was definitely the latter and didn’t look back.

The next phase of my life and career was uncharted territory.

4 thoughts on “Even better than expected – part 1

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