It was sad and frustrating to learn that my old newspaper editor Mike Konrad died today of Covid19.
Earlier in the pandemic, the deaths of songwriter John Prine and Los Angeles-area family practitioner Dr. Paul Constantine hit me hard, but in a different way.
Those deaths were sad and frightening. But now there’s a new emotion — anger.
Four months into the pandemic, the death of Konrad feels like it was foreseeable and preventable. It feels like a failure of protection by the country which Konrad loved so much and which he served loyally as a thoughtful, open-minded, apolitical small-town newspaperman for nearly 30 years.
Konrad, 64, retired from the Tampa Bay Times three years ago and was loving his retirement.
He watched as much spring-training baseball as he could.
He played clarinet weekly with a local music group.
He had no obvious underlying conditions marking him as high-risk. He was full of energy, insight, plans for the future.
If the United States is indeed “great,” or ever was, the greatness stems in large part from the everyday goodness of people like Konrad and the above-mentioned John Prine and Dr. Constantine.
All three men — in music, medicine, and journalism, respectively — epitomized sincerity, humility, and decency. A nation depends on people like this, people who tend toward service, people who don’t push to the front of the line, people whose actions don’t shout, “Look at me!”
When I started working for Konrad in 1993, he seemed like a throwback to an earlier time. He was from tiny Effingham, Ill., pop. 12,000. He had been in the marching band at the University of Illinois and had worked for the Daily Illini newspaper. He loved baseball, especially the St. Louis Cardinals.
In broad strokes, he felt like a type who would have been easily recognized and depicted by Sinclair Lewis or Thornton Wilder. I could imagine him taking his turn on stage in Our Town.
I was just three years out of college. I was nervous. The Times was a step up, reputation wise, from where I’d worked previously. I worried whether I would make the cut, whether I would earn my way into the group of reporters breaking big stories, winning awards, taking time off to write books.
The newspaper’s small bureau in Brooksville, Fla., was only 45 minutes from Tampa, but culturally, the area felt more like south Georgia. On the east side of the county, residents liked NASCAR, beer, and Confederate flags.
The newsroom was anchored by Konrad and reporters Dan DeWitt and Wes Platt. They were immediately friendly and encouraging. Their attitude was, there’s plenty of work, grab a shovel. No egos, no office politics, no turf protection. Later in life, I would realize how rare and special such an office is.
Konrad was a fast editor. If I turned in a story at deadline, he marched through it, fixed errors, sent it along. No big deal. He was rational, efficient — a worker. But he also had a sense of humor. He’d smile the barest hint of a smile when young reporters returned to the office eager to recount the latest crazy tales about west-central Florida.
The smile was as much for the enthusiasm of the brand-new reporter as for the events being described.
Very little shocked him. Everything interested him. He always wanted to know more.
In his 2018 interview with his hometown Effingham Teutopolis News Report, he was asked about journalism in these polarized times, when reporters are branded “enemies of the state.”
The country is now separated into two camps. And people don’t realize issues are not just black and white, but heavily gray. That has driven a lot of this hostility. And we might not be doing a good enough job of explaining the issues. Reporters are trying to verify the facts all the time. But people look at our editorial page and think our news coverage is tainted. People confuse facts with opinions. Real reporters let the facts take them where they should go.
That one line — “we might not be doing a good enough job” — typified Konrad. Instead of picking sides, instead of reverting to rhetoric, he habitually sought a principled middle path. He asked, how can we do better?
He believed that patiently pursuing and publishing information about government and law enforcement made the world better, more fair. This may sound like an obvious or old-fashioned belief. But when it animates a bureau chief across 25 years and when his employer shares the belief, it improves the lives of citizens.
That’s what is particularly heartbreaking about Konrad’s death today.
His death is a failure of government, the sort of failure which a healthy, vibrant, barely-smiling Konrad would have encouraged young reporters to go track down, fact by fact, and then bring to light. Early in the pandemic, there were many unknowns. Learning on the fly was unavoidable. Four months in, this is not the case. We know masks, contact tracing, and a massive continuing commitment to testing are essential. We know the premature reopening of businesses — or entire states — kills people. It kills editors, grandmothers, favorite teachers, war veterans.
Journalism was not my life’s work. But seven years in the profession shaped how I see the world. I certainly don’t see reporters as “enemies of the state.” I see most of them as dedicated, underpaid civic servants, on par with nurses, firefighters, or sanitation workers.
A recent piece in the New York Times about the Pottstown, Pa., reporter Evan Brandt showed well what a dying breed the small-town reporter has become.
Another who comes to mind, in this vein, is the late Gordon “Scoop” Turner, who worked for 68 years at the Cheboygan Daily Tribune in northern Michigan.
I had the good fortune to work alongside Turner during the summer of 1988. He drove me around Cheboygan in his tiny, beat-up car and introduced me to people and places I needed to know in order to do my job.
As we drove around, Turner had an enthusiasm for the area and for his job, at age 82, which often fades in other reporters by their late 20s or early 30s. He had the same fundamental curiosity to see what happens next that Mike Konrad had.
In the latest installment of the excellent podcast Slow Burn, there’s an audio clip of the white supremacist David Duke promising 30 years ago to “make America great again.”
Perhaps other, less racist leaders have used this same phrase, not just Duke and President Trump. On some level, the phrase is just a vague, vacuous space-filler in a stump speech. On another level, it sounds like code for “America was better when your neighborhood was white.”
The U.S. has not been great during the pandemic. Individuals have been heroic. Pockets of the country have been well-organized and responsive to the shifting understanding about how best to prevent and treat the disease.
But we allowed a no-brainer like masks to become controversial and politicized. Governors in southern states sought favor with Trump and Fox News by hurrying to re-open. Agencies which were designed to take the lead during times like this were hollowed out, defunded, undermined, ignored. Officials who spoke candidly or who made the cardinal error of peeling TV viewers away from Trump himself were shoved to the side, public health be damned.
The newspaper editor Mike Konrad was great, in his goodness. It will be up to the next generation of reporters to sift patiently through the facts and do the groundwork necessary to explain the failure of our government to protect sincere, hard-working Americans like Konrad.
His loss is our loss, too.
A lot of wisdom, common sense, and decency died with him today in Florida.