Once-loved job became just that. Now I'm leaving

September 06, 2005|By BILL ATKINSON

WHEN I BECAME a columnist for The Sun seven months ago, I wasn't sure what to expect.

Would anyone care what Bill Atkinson had to say about local movers and shakers in Baltimore's business world?

I came to the job after many years as a beat reporter, a hard-news guy. The more scandal, the better. The more pressure, the better. The more front-page stories, the better.

Still, no matter how good a story was, no matter how much news I turned up, few readers ever called or wrote. There was no connection between us.

The column changed that.

To my surprise, people were interested in what I wrote. My very first column resulted in a stream of e-mails and calls. I'd recounted my first real story as a reporter - about a veterinarian in Ohio who developed a method of taking cow manure, purifying it and feeding it back to the cows he fattened for customers. It was just the kind of quirky business story I would be looking for in Baltimore.

"Great column, no manure," a reader responded.

More letters and calls came, especially from people who I never thought cared about business.

If someone asked me to define who business readers are before I started writing the column, I would have said middle-aged white males, without hesitation. I couldn't have been more wrong.

A column in April about three young African-American men running a company that provided security for many top movies filmed here resulted in a blitz of calls from people who wanted jobs or had work for their business.

A column about Mary Sue Easter Eggs and its giant pink bunny rabbit generated calls from women who had known the company since the early days. Other readers vented and took sides after a column about John Unitas Jr.'s bitter fight with his stepmother over control of the image of Unitas' late father, the great Colts' quarterback.

Sometimes the readers seemed almost too close. One reader wrote me a poem. Another wanted me to help him sell a product to thwart terrorism. Another asked me to patch a relationship between him and his son.

All of this in just seven months. I will miss this budding relationship, which is ending too quickly.

There are a number of reasons why I am leaving the paper and they tumble against each other like a stack of carefully arranged dominoes. The main one is that I need a change and a new challenge.

It is not that I don't love journalism, but after more than 20 years of cranking out stories under deadline pressure, I have felt like I am on an assembly line, churning out work for a customer that can't get it fast enough. The job I once loved has become just that, a job, not a mission the way it should be.

I am going to a large public relations firm in Baltimore - to the "dark side," as they say in journalism.

This has been building for years. I thought the column would save my career, and it did - for a while. But I began wrestling again with myself.

The day I told my boss, business editor Bernie Kohn, I was nervous. The words slipped out of my mouth, "I am leaving the paper." It was as if someone else was speaking.

I told him that even if H.L. Mencken was the editor of The Sun I still would leave.

There is no poetic ending to this column, just a feeling of satisfaction that after a good career I have finally connected with readers and, hopefully, touched their lives.

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