A retrospective of my first year at The News

By TJ Rhodes
Posted 2/21/24

I remember my first week vividly.

I had just graduated the University of Iowa and was fairly new to adult life.

It was January, cold and wet.

My car broke down, leaving me with my …

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A retrospective of my first year at The News


I remember my first week vividly.

I had just graduated the University of Iowa and was fairly new to adult life.

It was January, cold and wet.

My car broke down, leaving me with my father’s truck, which I hated.

I was trying a new hairstyle, it was uncomfortable.   

I was just out of a long-term relationship and was depressed.

I was in a new-to-me environment: Kalona.

It was a lot to take in. I was scared, nervous and intimidated.

My first day, news editor Cheryl Allen took me along for an interview at a small farm. I felt out of place.

After the initial interview, Cheryl asked me to do busy work, writing descriptions of businesses I’d never seen for an upcoming tourism guide. What’s that?

I bombed. Cheryl admits it. Not a good first look, eh?

But I had a chance for redemption. Cheryl invited me to tag along for an interview with Highland’s Robotics team. She asked if I was prepared to lead the interview; I was not. I decided to listen and try to learn. She still let me write the story.

Afterwards, I stayed for Highland’s school board meeting. A first for everything.

It was a crazy-long day, filed with tons of new information that I couldn’t quite process.

Day two, I arrived at 8 a.m. as requested. Tuesdays are very hectic days where we buzz around, attempting to finish the paper before a noon deadline. I didn’t know this at the time; I just got there at 8 because that’s what I was told.

I spent my time writing about robotics.

That night, I attended my first sporting event: Hillcrest hosted Highland for a boys and girls basketball doubleheader.

In high school, I was a student reporter for my school’s publication, The Beak N Eye of Davenport West High. This was my last time covering high school athletics, a six-year gap!

To make it worse, I had zero confidence with the camera – I’d used the same one in school but couldn’t remember how it functioned. Either way, I was never expected to take photos of print quality and write a comprehensive story to boot in school.

The pressures of a real journalist.

I contemplated quitting; “I can’t handle this,” I thought.

But something saved me.

An older, kind couple encouraged me to get up, take pictures and to not be scared.

It wasn’t much, but it was exactly what I needed to hear. I still think about that interaction often, despite not knowing their names. I’d thank them if I did.

Day three saw me heading to Lone Tree for a school board meeting while my colleagues enjoyed a Christmas dinner together. I was given the wrong time and location of the meeting; I was 40 minutes early. To pass time, I walked through Lone Tree for the first time, in the dark, still contemplating my role at The News. I walked back to the school right before the meeting began.

It lasted five minutes.

On the Thursday and Friday that followed, I was given ample time to write. That’s all I did.

Is this the newspaper life?

Despite my schooling, I was used to working with my hands – I was a delivery driver at Hy-Vee and millwork sales associate at Menards throughout college. To me, work was physical labor while the newspaper felt like a replacement for my schooling.

This career change was a major hurdle.

My second week, I saw my robotics story headlining the paper on Wednesday morning. I was ecstatic; it was my first genuine smile at the time. I was a printed journalist at last with news, sports and photography all checked from an imaginary box.

The euphoria was short-lived. The previous day, a Tuesday in the office, my dad called, and I had an idea why as he’s not one to call out of the blue.

He confirmed my suspicion: my grandmother had just passed away. She was under the care of hospice at the time because of various ailments, all starting with dementia. I was preparing for bad news at any moment; however, I didn’t anticipate it happening while I was at work. I packed up my things and left without explaining why. Emotions had the best of me.

I covered basketball that night in Lone Tree. It was severely hard to focus when all I could think about was my grandma and family.

When I was a kid, my grandma, Rose, was my best friend. I spent a good portion of my childhood with her and told her all of my dreams, including that I wanted to be a sport journalist and wanted to use my writing to help make a difference.

In turn, she was my biggest supporter. When I was accepted to the local community college after high school graduation, no one was happier than her. That support continued when I started my run at university, despite her slowly changing because of dementia.

My grandma was the smartest person I knew, even without a high school diploma. I am convinced, to this day, she could’ve accomplished anything under the sun if she wanted.

With dementia, she spoke a lot about owning a bakery. I took this as her living out her own dream to a certain degree, although I am not 100% sure.

She raised six kids – losing another – alongside my grandpa who did not make it easy (something he’d probably admit. I’ll find out after he reads this).

I am grateful for my grandma’s dedication and sacrifice because without it, I am not here today, able to write this story while sitting in an office chair at The News. In fact, without her in my life, I might’ve never discovered a love for writing. It was the after-school study sessions with grandma that sparked my interest from a young age. She influenced me in countless ways.

In my first three weeks here, I suffered a tragic familial loss and attended her funeral all the while attempting to learn a new system of work, dealing with my own personal issues (as everyone is expected to do).

To say those few weeks at The News were a roller coaster is an understatement.

I constantly made mistakes in articles that were vital, like city and school meetings. I struggled to formulate any idea of my own. I prioritized sports which hurt our news section. I was all alone in the back of the office, separated from the bunch because of an empty desk, used sparingly, right in front of me.

The News staff surely thought I was a quiet person not cut out for the work required.

Hell, it took me six months before I even spoke on the regular.

I eventually convinced everyone to switch up our seating arrangement while I took the empty desk, bringing me closer to the team.

I’ve been talking ever since.

I’m sure they’re annoyed at times.

But it’s been fantastic. I learned how to design pages, something I greatly enjoy while hoping to improve. I’ve gained confidence and been a better teammate. I feel my work has improved greatly. I revisited my camera issues and now am confident as ever with it in my hands.

I’ve also worked alongside Cheryl, whose been the best mentor someone could ever ask for. She’s taken so much time out of her own incredibly busy schedule to read every word I write and help me sound better. When asked, she’s taken even more time to print out the story and grill it like a professor would – Cheryl was once a professor.

Without her, I wouldn’t have grown as much as I have in this first year. I’m not saying I wouldn’t have come to this point eventually, but Cheryl helped accelerate me and I am deeply grateful for that.

Additionally, I am grateful for Ron and Helen Slechta, owners of The News, for gifting me this golden opportunity.

I love that I am living my dream right now. Many journalists will leave school and spend a long time searching for a job. For me, I could’ve started right after graduation but was obligated to three more weeks at Hy-Vee. I started right after.

So, when I look back to a year ago, I was cold and scared. Now, it’s honestly not much different. I still am who I was a year ago. What’s changed is my love for the medium.

At a year later, I feel I am a part of this paper as much as it is a part of me.

I hope whoever reads this finds meaning. I hope you take the chance you’ve been contemplating. It might not work out, but it could with consistent effort. It could spark a new idea as well.

And something we don’t typically get to say: thank you for reading. I and everyone at The News deeply appreciate it.