By Ken Williams | Editor
Fifty years of bylines!
Who knew this small-town boy from Ohio would enjoy 50 years in journalism?
If my dad had his druthers, I would have followed family tradition and become a preacher or a teacher. But I had other ideas. I loved reading books, magazines and newspapers, because they told of a big, wondrous world that existed beyond our little town of 450 residents who lived in a lily-white bubble.
As a sophomore in high school, I became a correspondent for a daily newspaper, the Cincinnati Enquirer, as well as a weekly newspaper, the Western Star in Lebanon, Ohio. As a teenager, it was so cool seeing my name in print.
The bylines haven’t stopped since 1968.
After graduating from high school in 1970, off to Miami (Ohio) University I would go, but the curriculum only offered “an emphasis on journalism” instead of a journalism degree. So I thought it would be smart to work on a degree in English education, in case things didn’t work out in newspapering.
At Miami, my journalism teacher and student newspaper adviser was also the city editor at The Journal-News, a daily newspaper in Hamilton, Ohio. Jim Blount became an important mentor and hired me as a sports writer at The Journal-News while I was still in college. My sports editor was Bill Moeller, a local legend in his own right who had once interviewed Babe Ruth.
Early on, I covered high school, college and professional sports. I witnessed baseball greatness in the Big Red Machine — the powerhouse Cincinnati Reds of the 1970s — and interviewed future Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson and superstars Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, Dave Concepción, George Foster and Ken Griffey Jr. It was a heady time for a young sportswriter.
Next, I tried my hand at covering local news. I really didn’t like covering homicides or traffic fatalities, and the sight of seeing a dead body at a car accident made me sick to my stomach. But there were rewards, too. My first-ever investigative series, examining the crumbling railroad infrastructure in southwestern Ohio, would earn statewide honors from The Associated Press (AP).
I would leap at the chance to become the newspaper’s Arts & Leisure Editor, which allowed me to review movies, television, theater, concerts and restaurants, as well as interview hundreds of celebrities. Imagine being able to write feature stories on your childhood idols like Captain Kangaroo (Bob Keeshan); the “king of the cowboys” Roy Rogers; or the “queen of the movies” Myrna Loy, who was the perfect foil to William Powell as they played Nick and Nora Charles in the “Thin Man” detective series.
Jane Fonda once told me to look her up if I ever wanted to break into screenwriting. Long before he became a pariah, Woody Allen sent me a handwritten note, thanking me for my review of “Annie.” Pat Paulsen, so funny on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” on CBS, had me laughing non-stop during a dinner interview. Tim Conway and Harvey Korman from “The Carol Burnett Show” were such a hoot in person. I could go on and on.
I would get to travel extensively as a movie critic, including to Hawaii, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Miami, New York and London — to me, exotic places so unlike where I grew up.
Who can forget the 1977 movie premiere in the Big Apple for Martin Scorcese’s “New York, New York,” starring Liza Minnelli and Robert DeNiro? We were treated to a boat trip around Manhattan — at night — with all the skyscrapers ablaze in lights! Liza signed photos from our press kits, and my autographed copy sits proudly on a bookshelf in my living room.
Another unforgettable experience was a trip to London for the grand opening of the James Bond movie, “The Spy Who Loved Me,” starring Roger Moore, Barbara Bach and Curt Jurgens. Princess Anne attended the much-ballyhooed royal premiere at the Odeon Leicester Square on July 7, 1977. This was a big deal. I even had to buy my first tuxedo! Movie critics from the United States were “taught” how to greet Princess Anne in the receiving line, and we were told that Americans do not bow to British royalty and that we should only shake her hand if offered.
Following my peers in the receiving line, it was my time to approach the Princess, who was dressed in a shapeless evening gown with puffy sleeves. My name and newspaper were announced. She nodded at me, and offered her hand, which was covered in long white gloves that extended inside those big sleeves. It was over just like that, but the moment is forever burned into my memory.
Months later, I interviewed American “royalty.” I landed an exclusive interview with boxing legend Muhammad Ali and it got picked up by the AP and was reprinted in newspapers around the world. For a 25-year-old journalist, it was an exciting time that showed me the broad reach of the press.
The Florida years
My career then took me to South Florida to the Hollywood Sun-Tattler, where I daringly decided to be out in the newsroom — something practically unheard of in the late 1970s. I would hit the so-called “gay glass ceiling” a few times, but amazingly found acceptance in almost every corner of the country where I would work.
I was hired as a film and theater critic and wrote a weekly column about the burgeoning nightlife scene from Miami to Fort Lauderdale to Palm Beach. This was during the height of the disco era, and I had a front row seat for KC and the Sunshine Band, the Bee Gees, Celi Bee, Sister Sledge, Barry White, Donna Summer, Sylvester, the Pointer Sisters and the like. It was a lot of fun reviewing concerts by the greats of the 1980s, including Frank Sinatra, Cher, Diana Ross, Liza Minnelli, Barry Manilow, Elton John, Melissa Manchester and Carole King.
During an interview with Eartha Kitt, the sultry singer burst into tears when I asked her about how her anti-war beliefs infuriated President Lyndon B. Johnson, got her investigated by the FBI and the CIA, and landed her on President Richard Nixon’s “enemies list.” As a result, she exiled herself to Europe for many years. My article would win an award from Scripps Howard.
One night, I judged a talent contest at a local nightclub called Hemingway’s. The winner that evening was a little-known local band called the Miami Sound Machine, starring Gloria Estefan. They would end up becoming world famous.
It was in South Florida where I discovered young talent acting in college plays, including a pair of young Cuban-American actors: Andy Garcia and Steven Bauer. Both actors are still making movies and starring in TV series.
A teenager from Miramar, Florida, kept calling me, touting his garage band called The Kids. Every once in a while, I’d drop a note about the band in my nightlife column and one day in 1983, band frontman Johnny Depp phoned me to tell me that he and his band were heading to the other Hollywood to make it big in rock ‘n’ roll. The band bombed, but Depp had the good fortune to meet Nicholas Cage at a bar and get important introductions to people in the entertainment industry. Depp would land a few roles as a movie extra, then was cast in Wes Craven’s 1984 hit horror movie, “Nightmare on Elm Street,” and he became an “overnight sensation.”
The next year I was in Hollywood, California, to conduct a series of celebrity interviews. Andy Garcia met me for lunch. Steven Bauer chatted with me on the phone. And Johnny Depp stood me up, failing to show up for our interview at the famous Chateau Marmont Hotel on Sunset Boulevard. I would later get my “revenge” when a well-known teen magazine called me for “background information” on Depp, and I shared some juicy details about his troubled youth that he probably wishes went unknown.
I’ll never forget Jan. 28, 1986. Local film critics, including myself, were sequestered away in a movie theater previewing the movies coming to the next Miami International Film Festival. We had just seen a movie from China and were given a break for lunch. We walked into the lobby to order food and were shocked to see on TV that the space shuttle Challenger had exploded off the coast of Florida, just 200 miles away. We were probably the last people on Earth to learn of the terrible tragedy.
Also in South Florida, I uncovered a movie and recording scam by a charismatic flimflam artist who had conned dozens of elderly people out of more than a million dollars. The newspaper took me off my regular beat for six weeks so I could interview dozens of victims around the United States and grill investigators who were pursuing the crook, who authorities described as a mobster. I was told to look under my car before turning on the ignition, just in case there was a bomb planted underneath. Police drove past my home on a regular basis to make sure nothing was amiss. I doggedly chased the story and wrote a damning six-part investigative series that would lead to the mobster’s arrest, conviction and imprisonment. That series would be nominated for national awards.
Things got tense in the newsroom when we discovered that the executive editor — who was paranoid, hiding dark secrets and openly cheating on his wife and family — was illegally eavesdropping on reporters and editors. One day, a paddy wagon showed up and several men in white jackets forcibly removed him from office. His life spiraling out of control, he would later kill himself.
My co-workers and myself would eventually endure terrible agony when our newspaper was suddenly sold by Scripps Howard; on “Black Friday” the new management began laying off two-thirds of the staff. I was one of the last employees to be informed of their fate: I was unexpectedly promoted to second-in-command of the newsroom. I was stunned: The new owners remembered me from my work at the Journal-News. But after three years of working with a reduced staff and diminishing resources, the paper folded on Christmas Eve 1991. I was turning 40 a few days later, and became unemployed for the first time in my career.
Off to Pennsylvania
I rented a beachfront condo in Flagler Beach, Florida, and took six months off before finding my next job. I landed in Pennsylvania as a night city editor at the Times-Leader in Wilkes-Barre. It was an old, historic city full of deep-seeded hate and resentment. We weren’t a good fit. As the supervisor at night, I reported an uncomfortable situation where I heard several members of the sports department making anti-gay jokes as well as comments demeaning to women. The human resources department at ABC/Cap Cities, our corporate owner, sent in a team and required every employee to undergo sensitivity training. Staffers were not too happy with the guy who forced them to confront their own biases.
Later, one of the young women under my charge confided in me that she was being sexually harassed and stalked by her much older supervisor, who was married with children. I reported that, too. Instead of seeing him disciplined, he was promoted ahead of me on the food chain and became my supervisor. Outraged, I demanded a transfer to another newspaper, and that’s how I landed in Texas working at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The victim also decided to leave the newspaper and the state, and the accused supervisor would later land a job at The New York Times.
The years in Texas
The Lone Star State was a shock to my system. A “Yankee” like me was viewed with utmost suspicion. But I learned to fit in, talk like a Texan, and wear cowboy boots, jeans and flannel shirts. I would become fond of the Dallas-Fort Worth area — except for the frequent tornados, including the 2000 Fort Worth tornado that jumped over our office building and slammed into the high-rise across the street; the fist-sized hail that destroyed my car and killed a man attending an outdoor festival; and the extreme heat that arrived every summer.
At the newspaper, I worked as an assistant metro editor in charge of 10 reporters, and I learned so much from two incredible supervising editors, Joan Krauter and Lois Norder. We all did a herculean effort covering the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995.
A motorcycle accident laid me up for six months with a horribly broken leg. After a grueling rehabilitation, I ended up working on the copy desk where I would win awards for writing great headlines. I even won “headline of the year,” which included an awards sculpture of the newspaper’s legendary publisher, Amon Carter, holding out his trademark cowboy hat.
Eventually I was promoted to deputy copy desk chief.
I was one of the founding members of the Star-Telegram’s Diversity Committee, which was charged with setting and enforcing policy to change the culture of the newsroom. This was a groundbreaking moment for the newspaper.
Some truly unforgettable days at the office included our extensive coverage of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America and the Columbia disaster on Feb. 1, 2003 when the space shuttle exploded over Texas.
Arriving in San Diego
In 2005, I took a vacation to California to visit my old boss from the Star-Telegram, who was now working at The San Diego Union-Tribune. The U-T interviewed me and offered me a job as a senior copy editor. It was a tough decision to leave Dallas/Fort Worth, but San Diego was always a place where I wanted to live. Publisher Helen Copley had died in 2004 and her son, David C. Copley, had just taken over leadership of the Copley News empire.
The heir would be the first — and only — publisher I worked for but never formally met; I shared an elevator with him once and saw him briefly one afternoon at the Mission Valley offices. He never had much interaction with his employees; and for an adoptee who inherited a billion-dollar fortune, he is remembered for giving his employees a $50 supermarket gift card at Christmastime.
In 2006, the U-T and Copley News Service won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for uncovering a bribery scandal involving local Congress member Duke Cunningham. I had a small role in that investigative series as one of the senior copy editors who worked on the articles, writing headlines and captions, and making sure the final product was factually accurate for grammar, spelling, punctuation and style. Mr. Copley, to his credit, recognized that the copy desk is a crucial part of the editing process and he ordered replica copies of the Pulitzer Prize medallion for every member of the copy desk who had worked on the award-winning series. That medallion has a prominent spot in my home, and I consider my participation in this investigative series as one of the highlights of my career.
Alas, in May 2009, Copley sold the U-T to a Beverly Hills investment firm, Platinum Equity, which had zero experience in publishing. Massive layoffs ensued, and I was axed in the fifth round of job cuts.
I would interview at Daily Variety and Bloomberg News, but didn’t get either coveted job. That’s when I decided I needed to learn how internet publishing worked, and took the job as editor-in-chief of San Diego Gay & Lesbian News. In five years, SDGLN.com expanded from a local start-up into an internationally known LGBT media destination, attracting 1.5 million unique visitors per year from every continent across the globe.
One of my favorite stories resulted after I interviewed our first-ever reader from Antarctica, who provided a spectacular photo of himself wearing a black tuxedo while playing with penguins outside the scientific outpost.
At SDGLN, I specialized in breaking news and was honored to cover “don’t ask, don’t tell,” California’s Proposition 8 and the U.S. Supreme Court challenge; and other issues crucial to the LGBT community.
I was always a fan of San Diego Uptown News, so I was thrilled when publisher David Mannis offered the job as editor in 2015. It’s been an editor’s dream covering hyper-local issues such as homelessness, urban growth and transit; and interviewing local figures who are making a difference in our Uptown and Mid-City communities.
One of my favorite issues was published on July 29, 2016. The dramatic front cover had only two stories, but they packed an impact. The main story was titled “Beware! Bringing human trafficking into the light,” exposing an ugly side of San Diego, showing how our young people are getting conned into forced labor, sexual slavery and exploitation. The secondary story was “Return to glory: Georgia Street Bridge,” about plans to return the historical bridge to magnificence.
That issue was part of a three-issue portfolio submitted to a North American competition for non-daily newspapers. Uptown News won third place for general excellence — the category for the top awards — at the 2016 AFCP Annual Publications Awards. Although we are a bi-weekly, Uptown News won a top award against larger weekly newspapers.
San Diego is a great city to live in, problems notwithstanding, but I’m convinced that our deep pool of talent will eventually resolve our issues concerning homelessness, lack of affordable housing and income inequality.
We should also take great pride for our city’s diversity, and our penchant for electing LGBT politicians — who have gone on to do great things. In March, South Park resident Toni G. Atkins will take over as president pro tem of the California Senate. And Mid-Cities native Todd Gloria has been named majority whip of the California Assembly. Look for good things coming from two other local LGBT politicians: University Heights resident Chris Ward, who represents District 3 on the City Council, and Georgette Gomez, who represents District 9 and just was named chair of the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System. It has been a pleasure to chronicle their journeys.
I’ve met so many nice people who love reading Uptown News — and that is a good feeling for any journalist. But it is finally time to say goodbye; as of today, I am retiring as a full-time journalist.
What an interesting career I’ve truly enjoyed! Thank you, dear readers, for a remarkable journey.
— You can follow Ken Williams on Twitter at @KenSanDiego, Instagram at @KenSD or Facebook at KenWilliamsSanDiego. Sara Butler will now take over as editor of Uptown News, and she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sara is the editor of San Diego Uptown News.