Getting it right - Joel Hall

This 2008 election season in Clayton County has taken a lot out of everyone, but most certainly me. After several months of burning the candle from both ends, I had to get away.

Two days after the primary, when I finally had a chance to escape, I took the first flight out of Atlanta.

Over a week and a half, I visited the Midwest, spent a day in Ontario, Canada visiting old church friends from Japan, and attended the Unity 2008 convention for journalists of color in Chicago. The convention was attended by thousands of African-American, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American journalists from around the country, many of them leaders in the field of print, radio, and broadcast.

My time in Chicago was draining, educational, motivational, and sobering all at the same time. Stranded for five days in a city where sweet tea doesn't exist, I learned a lot about myself, a lot about writing, and became more comfortable about the idea of being a writer.

In conversations with newspaper representatives from around the country, many of them painted a bleak picture of the newspaper industry. With massive buy-outs, cutbacks, layoffs, and a general sense of panic in making a once solely printed product into an Internet product, some people were encouraging me to jump ship for broadcast, radio, or some other industry altogether.

However, I met many great writers who reminded me why I get up and do this everyday.

In a workshop with the Poynter Institute -- considered by many to be one of the premiere training facilities in the country for professional journalists -- I took a class with Dr. Roy Peter Clark. Knowing Dr. Clark and having the pleasure of having worked with him before, I knew his class on improving writing skills would be beneficial.

A lover of animal stories, Dr. Clark shared with us a piece by Thomas French, a writer for the St. Petersburg Times. The story was about the death of a chimp and a tiger at the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, Fla.

The story, however, reads like an epic obituary. French gave Herman the chimp -- the first animal installed at the zoo -- a hero's burial in a way that was detailed, humorous, and sensitive at the same time.

An excerpt from the story reads: "He charmed Jane Goodall, threw dirt at the mayor of Tampa, learned to blow kisses and smoke cigarettes, whatever it took to entertain the masses ... He had no interest in females of his own kind. He preferred blondes in tank tops.

"Altogether he lived at Lowry Park Zoo for 35 years. He lasted there longer than any other creature and longer than any of the humans. Each of the 1,800 animals at the zoo is assigned a number. His was 00001."

To be able to treat the death of a chimpanzee with as much care and creativity as French did, is something I believe only a great writer can do. If newspapers can generate great writers such as French, I will go down with this ship until it hits the bottom.

Joel Hall covers government and politics for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached at jhall@news-daily.com.