Raising a Glass to the Best Boss I've Ever Had

I’m still getting used to the phrase “former journalist.”

I was an ink-stained wretch for 17 years before making the jump to public relations and science communication. For five of those years – the best five, if I’m being honest – I worked for a mid-sized daily from Aurora, Illinois called the Beacon-News. The Beacon started 167 years ago as a family-owned publication, but was bought out by the Chicago Sun-Times in 2000. I started working there in 2005, and I left at the end of 2010.

For all five of those years, I worked for John Russell. Since starting at the paper in 1973, he’s had many titles, including city editor, associate editor and managing editor, but his job description is pretty simple: he’s the heart and soul of the Beacon-News. From the moment I first met him, I knew I was working with a true professional newsman. In the years I spent sitting right across from him, I found out that he’s a walking inspiration to his staff, an endlessly kind soul hiding behind a gruff exterior, and just one of the all-around greatest people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet and work for.

Even back in 2005, the Beacon staff was chafing under the misguided direction of the Sun-Times, and that would only get worse. I survived four or five rounds of layoffs, watching as good people lost their jobs and the paper’s staff dwindled. When I started, the news department had 11 reporters. When I left, we had four. This, naturally, affected our ability to do our jobs and put out a quality product. But that never stopped John Russell from holding us to the highest standard, and working every single day to make sure the Beacon was the best paper we could make it. And of course, that inspired all of us to work harder too.

The Sun-Times has made some ridiculous, mean-spirited, thoughtless moves in the past few years, both during my tenure and after it. On Friday, they will finalize two of their stupidest decisions, and I believe they will have sealed the fate of the Beacon. First, they will permanently close the paper’s Aurora offices, forcing all the remaining staff to commute to Chicago to edit and assemble the Beacon. This eliminates the paper’s presence in its own hometown, putting it out of sight and out of mind for most Aurorans.

And second, they will usher out John Russell.

They told him last week. It was a shock to everyone who knows him. Only a company with no concern whatsoever for the paper they own and the people who make and read it would do something this short-sighted and moronic. There’s no sense that can be made of it. They gave John no severance pay, no insurance bridge. And they didn’t even say thank you for more than 39 years of continuous above-and-beyond service. As you can imagine, this has left him – and us – heartbroken and depressed.

So we’re gonna do two things. On Friday night, we’re going to get together, as many of us current and former Beaconites as we can cram into a room, and we’re going to be there for John. And we’re also going to uphold a long-standing journalism tradition by creating a fake edition of the Beacon-News just for him. These fake front pages are usually comprised of snarky in-jokes, but this one will be filled to the brim with heartfelt tributes. We want John to know what an impact he’s made on all of us, how much he’s changed our lives for the better, and how much Aurora is going to miss him.

Anyway, here’s what I wrote for the John Russell edition of the Beacon-News:

The day I first met John Russell, he asked me a question, one I could tell was very important to him: “Why do you want to be a reporter?”

I’m sure this is a familiar story to most Beaconites. It was a question Russell pulled out in every new hire interview, sort of his idea of a litmus test. I remember flailing around for an answer – something about keeping the public informed and able to make good decisions. Blah blah blah.

After agreeing to hire me, JR let me in on the right answer, and it told me all I needed to know about him: “Because I want to save the world.”

John Russell is the Platonic ideal of old-school newspaper editors. He’s grouchy and curmudgeonly, he barks out orders and swears at his computer. He rarely gives out compliments, so when he praises you, it’s like manna from heaven. I worked for John for five years, and I lived for those times he would read a piece I’d slaved over, smile and quietly say, “Good story.” All of us reporters cherished those moments.

He never did get me to write shorter – I can’t count the number of times I handed in a story, and then braced myself for the inevitable shout. “Thirty-four inches? Goddammit!” (He would have edited the crap out of this piece.) But he never cut the good stuff. He made the good stuff better. John wouldn’t settle for half-assed reporting. If you knew there was a question your story hadn’t answered, you could be damn sure John Russell would ask it. And you’d better have an answer.

John taught me more in those five years than I can possibly thank him for. Beneath that gruff exterior, he was endlessly compassionate, wildly funny, and he knew how to bring out the best in his team. His whole team – there wasn’t a person in the Beacon newsroom who did not respect John Russell, and who would not do anything he asked.

Because here’s the thing about John: he made you better, but more than that, he made you want to be better. He inspired everyone to work harder, because no one would work harder than John. He was the fulcrum around which the entire newsroom spun. During my first weeks at the Beacon, the more-than-capable Mike Cetera took a turn as city editor, while John occupied an office along the back wall. I didn’t know any better at the time, but once John retook his place at the center of the newsroom, it was like the planets realigned. All was right with the world once again.

John Russell has worked at the Beacon-News longer than I’ve been alive. He’s taken every ounce of shit every inept Chicago higher-up has thrown at him, and kept on plugging, because he believes in the Beacon. But more, he believes in good stories. He believes they can change the world. And he’s right.

I wish this story had a different ending. The Beacon-News without John Russell is simply unimaginable. Most Beacon readers will probably never know his name, or what he did for them – for us – for nearly four decades.

But we know. And we know that a mere “thank you” is never going to cover it. But it’s all we have. So thank you to John Russell, the best damn editor I’ve ever met, and the best damn boss I’ve ever had. Thank you for changing the lives of everyone you worked with, whether you knew it or not. Thank you for always trying to save the world.

Thank you, John. Thank you.

* * * * *

After that, I don’t quite feel like waxing pithy about music, so let’s just end with a quick look ahead.

Next week, we’ll get new records from Depeche Mode, the Strokes and Harper Simon. We’ll also get a new Wavves, but I’m not expecting much from that. April will kick off with new things from Telekinesis and Hem, two bands with nothing whatsoever in common, as well as an archival release from Rilo Kiley.

The rest of the month will bring us albums from Michael Roe, Dawes, the Knife, Todd Rundgren, James Blake, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Iron and Wine, the Flaming Lips, the reborn Big Country (with the Alarm’s Mike Peters on vocals), Frank Turner, Phoenix, Kid Cudi, Paula Cole, !!! (who have blessed their album with the amazing title Thr!!!er), Guided by Voices and the Geoff Tate version of Queensryche. (Yeah, there’s a whole story there. Suffice it to say that there are now two versions of Queensryche, and both have new albums coming out.)

May will see new things from Vampire Weekend, She and Him, Joe Satriani, Alice in Chains, the National, Daft Punk, the Polyphonic Spree and Laura Marling. June will usher in new ones from Eleanor Friedberger, Megadeth, Portugal the Man, Surfer Blood, Sigur Ros, Aaron Sprinkle (his first solo album since Fair’s split), and the reunited Black Sabbath. Let’s hope Ozzy made it through the haze to the microphone OK. Somewhere in there we’ll get a record from the other version of Queensryche, a remastered deluxe edition of R.E.M.’s Green, and hopefully the new Daniel Amos, entitled Dig Here, Said the Angel.

It’s almost too much goodness. Expect reviews of most, if not all of the above, either here or on my supplemental blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow me on Facebook and Twitter to stay up to date.

Next week, what was supposed to run this week – some music people can’t believe I like, plus the First Quarter Report for 2013.

See you in line Tuesday morning.