Losing a newspaper’s voice

Back in the day
Back in the day

Joe Kennedy welcomed me back into the region in 2004 when Amy and I left Washington, DC, after 23 years and relocated high up on a hill on Floyd County.

“I hear you were one if us back in the day,” he said on a phone call out of the blue not long I began working as a contract reporter and photographer for Media General, which owned the Floyd Press, WSLS and other media outlets around the state.

“Yeah, I was,” I responded.  “A long, long time ago.”

I wrote and shot pictures for The Roanoke Times from 1965-69,  Joe came along in the next decade and stayed more than 30-plus years at the Times before the paper unceremoniously dumped him in an early retirement package that was camouflage of cost cutting in recent years.

“I felt like a big part of my life was ripped out of me,” he said after the end.  “A lot of what I thought of what I was was all part of being a writer and columnist in the paper.”

He stayed in Roanoke, worked in the not-for-profit sector and landed a new gig at The Roanoke Star, but a stroke took much out of him in 2009 – just two years after leaving the Times.

Most of our conversations were phone calls and emails.  I only met him a few times.  He surprised me once with a collection of columns I wrote for the Times.

“You were a troublemaker,” he said, pointing to a column about a teenage girl who got an abortion — illegal at the time,  Editors at the Times debated whether to run the column.  After they did, the Virginia Press Association gave it a first place award for features.  I wrote about drug use, street racing, racial turmoil, strip joints and prostitutes.

“Yep, a troublemaker,” Kennedy said.  “I write about kids, families, pets, fishing and hiking.”

He also wrote about other things and what he wrote was good,  He had a loyal following at The Roanoke Times.

But longevity and tenure seldom count in the modern newspaper age where bottom lines and shrinking news holes rule the day.

Kennedy saw the signs and took the buyout.  He regretted it but figured her would get less he got laid off down the line.

“They say old newspapers wrap dead fish and trash,” he said.  “That was how I went out.”

As Joe’s health deteriorated from the stroke, his column at The Roanoke Star faded into a piece now and then.  In June, he wrote his final column, saying he was leaving The Roanoke area and moving to a “rest home” — a retirement community in North Carolina.

He never made it.  He was sick with cancer and soon went into the University of Virginia Medical Center.  He died at 66 — also my age and one that I think is way too young to leave this world.

Current columnist Dan Casey, who praised Kennedy’s writing and approach, is more of a troublemaker who likes to stick a liberal pin in the ripe right wing butts on the Times readership.  Yet and Kennedy shared a love of the area and its people.

The legendary Peter Finley Dunne of Chicago heyday newspaper fame once said it is the job of a newspaperman “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

Joe Kennedy believed in that and even found a way to do it in an endearing way.  Dan Casey does it more in your face but still cares about the subject.  So did Mike Ives, who followed me at The Times for a while and was a longtime friend of Kennedy’s.

The last I heard, Mike is living on a sailboat somewhere and doing whatever he pleases.

We lost Joe Kennedy this week.  I worry that maybe we are also losing more and more cogs in that machine that once was the power of the press.

I hope not, but hope cannot escape accountants, bottom lines and social media.

Godspeed, Joe.  It was good to know you.

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