Thank you, Johnson County

On a June afternoon in 2002, I was sitting in the Daily Journal newsroom reading and re-reading a Greenwood police report about a missing 19-year-old girl.

She ran with a rough crowd. She liked to smoke pot, and had a probation officer. More than likely, she was making some bad choices.

I had nothing but some intuition and a phone number, and I called the family. They agreed to meet with me. I was sitting with them at their kitchen table when a detective came that afternoon to get some more information.

The family of Brookley Louks was terrified. They had no idea what to expect and feared the worst. I was just one of many strangers who came barging into their world.

I didn’t know what I was doing either. But I knew that I would be honest with the family, that I’d use the power the community gave me as a news reporter to try to bring her home and that I’d never take the easy way out.

I asked them to trust me. All these years later, they still are, as we continue to wait for her body to be found so that they can lay her to rest.

I had only been on the job as a reporter at the Daily Journal for nine months. I covered Greenwood City Council meetings and plan commission meetings during the subdivision building boom. I went to the police department every day and hand-copied accident reports and thumbed through the dispatch log. I was trying to understand the changing world of property taxes and how local government really worked.

As I end my 18-year career at the Daily Journal this week, I think back to those early moments and realize in many ways that the job is barely recognizable. We are ruled by social media and the Internet, by 24-hour news cycles. We moved to a different office, I have different co-workers, we print in a different location, and the government budgets we watchdog today are mammoths compared to 18 years ago when I was learning about government funding.

So much has changed.

But so much hasn’t.

As I leave the Daily Journal, I realize that the constant has been trust. The community has trusted me to do the right thing, to admit when I was wrong, to ask the hard questions, to gather all the context and to tell them what they need to know to make decisions and be informed. They’ve trusted me to be where they can’t. They’ve trusted me to hold back when needed. They’ve trusted me to go it alone on issues, too.

That has resulted in readers calling me weekly to ask why a story was published, or not published, and why certain information was or wasn’t included. They trust me to play it straight with them.

Families have trusted me to handle their stories with care and to help them solve problems as they try to navigate a school, healthcare, criminal justice or their commute. They’ve trusted me with their worst moments — when they’ve lost a loved one, faced a terrible disease or watched their child die.

Police officers have trusted me to not print information just because we are technically entitled to it, but to consider the importance of the information and what potential harm could be done. Public officials have trusted me to put information in the right context. Community workers have trusted me to spread the message of their cause, of the suffering in the community, of the work ahead, of the help that is needed.

I’ve been the Daily Journal editor since 2012, but it is really my entire career as a news reporter that I’m saying goodbye to. Reporting has been in my blood. I walked into the newsroom a week after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and got to work. As I’ve cleaned out my office, I turned over pages and pages of compelling story ideas that the newsroom still needs to tackle. They all matter. A reporter’s work is never done.

The experiences I’ve had overwhelm my heart this week. The people who have suffered enormous loss, who have made enormous sacrifice; the people who work hard for the residents of Johnson County every day with little fanfare or reward.

I could recount thousands of interactions and stories that have shaped me as a professional and as a person, and have shaped the county. Each one mattered, and I am so grateful.

Reporters are taught to keep sources at arm’s length. Don’t get too chummy. You have to be able to cover them at any time. But year after year, you can’t help but notice the people who rise to the top. Who always do the right thing. Who work hard for the public. Who are honest. They have all of my respect, and I’m taking that with me.

When I leave the newsroom as editor for the last time on Thursday, I am also taking the lessons I learned here, from my mentors and the community, that will serve me well.

<strong>Do the right thing.</strong> Always. Even when no one is looking. That meant jumping into an issue and doing investigative reporting on complicated, messy topics that would upset the powers-that-be because it was the right thing, and it was what the community deserves of its local newspaper. When a Greenwood police officer was shot, or when the community was hit by a tornado or flood, we didn’t go home just because the paper was on the press. We stayed on scene until all hours of the night — still reporting for our readers and planning our next stories, and because we cared. Because there was no way we could go home with that pain and suffering still happening. Because we want the best for Johnson County, too.

<strong>Don’t fake it, ever.</strong> I’ve always approached news stories believing that I know little about the topic, but my job was to talk to as many people as possible and make myself as much of a mini-expert as possible. No one is impressed, and no readers are served, if I pretend to know everything about an issue or topic. The only way I get smarter, and can better do my job, is to constantly be learning.

<strong>Be genuine and authentic.</strong> People will respect me for it. So many times I’ve been working on a story and come across what might be considered unflattering information about a person. If I didn’t have the nerve to call the person and address the information with them, then I have no business printing that information in a story. Have the difficult conversations. Let people respond. Be open to a discussion about how or if that information is relevant. I may not have all the answers, but I can always be honest.

<strong>Sweat the small stuff.</strong> Some of my most rewarding emails have been from organizers thanking me, and then asking me to stop printing notices asking for volunteers for a community service project or for attendees to register for a program because of the overwhelming response. The fundraisers, honor rolls, weddings and engagements, military graduations and spelling bees matter to our families, so they matter to me.

<strong>Let go of the coulda, woulda, shoulda.</strong> When I’ve fallen short, given a story less attention than it deserved, missed an issue or made a mistake, I could beat myself up for days. Our credibility is all we have. My approach has been to figure out what I should have done better. Don’t gloss over it, but really talk about the precise moments when I failed or let my team fail, and how I could have avoided it. Apply that lesson to the next time. Don’t repeat my mistakes.

<strong>Don’t confuse knowledge with power.</strong> Knowing information about an issue doesn’t make me any better than anyone else, and it doesn’t give me any power. Leaders communicate, share what they know and empower others to do their best. When I told my newsroom team that I was leaving the newspaper, one of the reporters said “Working here is like getting paid to go to graduate school.” That was perhaps one of the greatest compliments of my life. I had helped someone else be a better journalist and carry on what we call “the Daily Journal way.”

I remember shortly after I became editor when I was speaking to a group in Franklin, and I shared the story of how children had been killed in a train accident and our job was not just to write about how they died, but also how those children lived. But we had to go further as the community rallied to make safety improvements so that no other lives would be lost.

My voice caught in my throat. Those children. It’s too much for a community to bear. I shed tears again for children I never knew but for a loss that had hit me hard.

A man in the audience raised his hand. His grandchildren were the babies who had been killed. In front of everyone, he thanked us for our work. A man who had lost so much … thanking us.

That evening captures what it has been like to serve you, Johnson County. You have been kind, gracious, trusting, appreciative, forthcoming, and always looking forward. You’ve been full of surprises, too. It has been a true honor to serve you for nearly two decades, and thank you for always trusting me.

My mentor, Scarlett Syse, taught me that success doesn’t mean you have to change the world. Success is working hard to make your little corner of the world better. Every day, I’ve tried to use my talents and my job to make Johnson County a little better and do my part. Thank you for the opportunity.

<em>Michele Holtkamp has been a reporter for the Daily Journal since 2001, and served as the editor since 2012. She ends her newspaper career on Thursday to begin working as senior director of communications for Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb. Send comments to [email protected]</em>