Tim Giago: Walking away from the editor's desk after 30 years

A retiring lawyer takes down his shingle, a boxer hangs up his gloves, and an old soldier never dies; he just fades away.

So what happens to a newspaper editor when he feels that it is time to make his last deadline? I suppose he just closes the door behind him and walks away from the smell of ink, the ink that has flowed through his veins for more than 30 years.

He just shuts out the sounds of ringing phones, the soft clacking of busy fingers on keyboards pushing their computers on a late breaking story and closes his ears to the everyday sounds of a frantic newsroom. The cries of “Extra, Extra, read all about it” are figments of a not so distant past, a past supplanted by the technology of bloggers, twitters and tweeters. A rising platform for news that is best left to the next generation. Today a retiring editor puts his faith in the next generation of editors.

I always knew this day would come, but I never really prepared for it. I was always too busy making deadlines and anticipating the next breaking news story. I was that kind of editor who always tried to squeeze one last story into the paper before putting it to bed. I always jumped with joy whenever I beat my competitors with a great, breaking story and wrung my hands in anguish when they did the same to me.

I can recall those many nights in the newsroom with a couple of my writers trying to get final corroboration for a story we were about to break in the morning and literally tasting the fear known in every newsroom when we prayed we were getting it right; and then turning to my writers and saying, “Ok, let’s go with it.”

I’ve had the honor of meeting and interviewing such Native luminaries as Roger Joudain, Red Lake Band of Ojibwe, Wendell Chino, Mescalero Apache, both deceased, Peter MacDonald, Navajo Nation, Wilma Mankiller, Cherokee Nation, deceased, Michael Haney, Seminole activist, Floyd Red Crow Westerman, Dakota activist and Vernon Bellecourt, Ojibwe activist, the last three have all passed on, and Charlene Teeters, Spokane Nation activist who led the fight against using Indians as mascots.

But most of all as I retire, I think of my friend and teacher, a Cahuilla Indian man who founded the Indian Historian Press in San Francisco, Rupert Costo, now deceased. Rupert could be a hard man with strong opinions, but he was a man who had the courage of his convictions and he pounded that sense of standing up for the rights of others into my head. His monthly newspaper, Wassaja, was the largest Indian newspaper in America in the 1970s.

I will retire on April 1, or April Fool’s Day, because that is the day I launched my last and final newspaper, Native Sun News. I made the terrible mistake of selling my first two newspapers, Indian Country Today and the Lakota Journal, to Indian tribes. I soon discovered that freedom of the press was not a part of their philosophy. I will not make that mistake again. Instead, I will turn the paper over to employees that have worked for me for many years, employees that are young and hungry and all of them are Lakota except for the one African American who is part Native American.

You will see my name on the flag as “Editor Emeritus” and it is there as a gift from my employees.

I have been writing a weekly column for more than 30 years and I will continue to write, but just not as frequently. Native Sun News will eventually find its own identity because that is what young journalists do; they find their own way. In these days of high technology they are more prepared to take on the challenges facing the new media. They speak the language of Google, Groupon and Facebook, languages that pushed me toward retirement because, in my case, you can’t teach old dog new tricks.

April 1 is still a few weeks away and I will be at my desk until that last day working with and mentoring the young Lakota newspaper people about to step into my shoes. I have known all of them for years and I have the utmost faith in them. I believe they will make a great Indian newspaper even greater.

Like my mentor Rupert Costo, I will try to finish the book I have been writing all of my life and I hope that technology will not make it irrelevant even before it is done. My new foundation, South Dakota Unity, will lead the way by working with Natives and non-Natives to bring them together to learn about each other across a table of friendship. I am planning many get-together’s for the year 2011. I may retire from the news business, but certainly not from life.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the editor and publisher of Native Sun News. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1990. His weekly column won the H. L. Mencken Award in 1985. He was the first Native American ever inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame. He can be reached at editor@nsweekly.com.

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