Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

April 11, 2013

An editor's goodbye: Imagining a life beyond the newsroom

Neil Fater
The Andover Townsman

---- — As a young reporter at the Townsman, I learned from the police scanner on my desk that my dad had suffered what proved to be a fatal heart attack. He was most likely dead by the time I arrived at my childhood home.

I met the woman I would marry at the Townsman, getting to know her by living through the types of stressful, comical and exciting experiences perhaps only a small newsroom can create. You can’t hide much about your true self when your eyes are bleary, your brain is caffeine-riddled and a big story breaks on deadline.

My first-born, a son named after my dad, was born, as everyone predicted, on deadline. On town election night.

Much of my life for the past 20 years has been tied up in this paper. Today that is not true. Today, Thursday, April 11, 2013 is the first day of a new life. I’ve decided to turn in my keyboard.

It took me a long time to come to the decision to leave this job. I grew up in town and care deeply about it. But when you become an editor, you do so with many ideas about stories you want to write. You get to do some, but as the years go by, you cannot get to them all. So much time goes into the daily minutia of putting out a community paper.

A friend recently compared it to The Box everyone has after they move. This is The Box that you never open and unpack. After it sits a few years in your garage, you realize the truth: it’s time to throw it out. In my case, I realized I might never get to those grand stories, and it was time to move on.

I don’t believe community journalism is dying. Papers like the Townsman will remain strong, because they are the only place engaged people can get the hyper-local information they need that will affect their families, friends, neighborhoods and wallets.

There are a treasure trove of memories for me kept within the walls of the Townsman building at 33 Chestnut St. I met many wonderful people in this job, both Townsman workers and community members. (I won’t bore you with all the names, though I’d like to mention them all.) There are many I believe and hope will remain lifelong friends.

One of the first stories my future wife, Rebecca, and I worked on was the sentencing of Andover doctor James Kartell, who shot his estranged wife’s new beau in the hospital where the doctor worked. Although she had just been hired, Rebecca had to cover Kartell’s sentencing on a Wednesday morning as we were going to press. Kids, this was back in the age before everyone had a cell phone surgically implanted onto their hands. Rebecca called from a pay phone at the courthouse and described the scene, while I asked questions and typed up a story on page 1. The headline, which a School Committee member told me would make a good country western song, was “Iron bars for plastic surgeon.”

I am probably most proud of the Townsman edition published immediately following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. I remember talking to the secret service agent originally from Andover who was blown out of her shoes when the Twin Towers collapsed, the Andover truck company owner who found toys in the rubble, many people standing with candles on the side of roads in town because they wanted to do something. Shortly after the attacks we put out large sheets of paper on which people could write messages. I took those pages to New York and tied them to the fence around Ground Zero, with so many other messages of good will from around the country.

At its core, I hope that is a reflection of what the Townsman has been these last 20 years: a kind of community gathering spot in what sometimes feels like an increasingly impersonal world, a place to share ideas and learn about your neighbors.

I hope it’s also been a fun read, sometimes for its little quirks. I don’t think I’ve been to an Andover party in 20 years when someone hasn’t talked to me about the police log, which often includes some unusual incidents. My personal favorite came from a simple animal-complaint call. The dispatcher’s Hemingway-esque notation read, “Bat out of house. Husband out of closet.”

I believe that community approach will continue. After I made the decision to leave the paper, a new publisher, Karen Andreas, was named. She has tapped my replacement, Sonya Vartabedian. They are great community news people and I know I’m leaving the Townsman in the capable hands of people who care. Karen has already put plans in motion to improve the property and Sonya joined me Sunday at the Run for the Troops to get a head start on learning more about the town.

As for me, I’ll be working for Challenge Unlimited at Ironstone Farm on Route 133 in Andover. It’s a tremendous nonprofit that uses horses to help make breakthroughs with people with special needs, most often children. It is expanding to offer its services to cancer patients, veterans returning with post traumatic stress, elders with memory issues and other groups. They do tremendous work there, but have never had anyone there who could focus on telling their story. That’s what I’ll do, as its first marketing director.

Community journalism, done right, is a calling, something to feel good about and to throw yourself into. I feel passionate about my new gig, too, and will wake up every day feeling proud I’m involved in something that makes a difference. I’ll also be able to remain in the area, working just down Route 133 from where my middle child will go to preschool next September. And I’ll have a great view of the horse farm.

To use the easy, horse-related visual: this isn’t me riding off into the sunset. I’m just moseying down the road.

For all the years, and all the memories, thank you. It’s been a privilege and a joy.