Memories of my two years at the Wildcat center on a couple of things: a story I wrote about a student who had claimed to have cheated his way through four years at U of A, and just a general sense of “this is it.” I felt so incredibly lucky to be hired at the Wildcat, and felt so at home in the Student Union basement newsroom. The first weeks I worked for the paper I knew what I’d suspected for many years: this was what I’d do for the rest of my life. It was the first of many newsrooms I’ve loved.
Two of my college roommates, both pre-med, were amazed that my major offered the opportunity to practice what I’d actually be doing someday in the “real” world. The thing they didn’t realize was what we were doing at the Wildcat was the real world. The training we got there — and from our amazing J-department and professors like Don Carson, Jim Johnson, George Ridge and Bill Greer — still makes me proud to have studied news reporting at the U of A, still strikes fear in my heart of ever misspelling a proper name and is probably behind the fact that I still use my middle initial. The dedication to accuracy that arrives on deadline (I remember Carson walking up and down the aisles of class ripping our papers out of our typewriters at deadline) was, I believe, what has kept me working as a paid journalist nonstop for the 33 years since I started at the Arizona Daily Wildcat, the paper I still am proud to list as my first reporting job.
A myriad of others followed:
The Brazosport Facts (a daily in Clute, TX), reporter: Covered everything from “the Great American Mosquito Festival” to general features and news from local school boards.
The Associated Press, Denver, CO, newswriter: Spent a lot of time on the night Broadcast desk writing four-line stories for Colorado radio station news breaks. Started the job just as John Elway arrived in Denver as a rookie, which meant an interesting sports story every single night as the state wanted to hear every detail of Elway’s days.
The Denver Post, Denver, CO, reporter: A dream job. Started in the Neighbors section and moved quickly to GA on the city desk covering whatever happened in Denver depending on the day/night of the shift. Lots of cops reporting (saw my first dead body after a convenience store holdup,) abducted children, protests, plane crashes, foreclosures. Assigned to cover City Hall when Federico Pena was mayor. Covered the quest to create Denver International Airport, the transformation of the Central Platte Valley (now a showplace of lower downtown,) various attempts by Denver to secure a major league baseball team. Best moment: the April day three of the stories I’d written that day appeared on Page 1. After a maternity leave during which I covered various stories with a baby in a front-pack including the possible move of Elitch Gardens to the suburbs for the Post and stories for Colorado Homes & Lifestyles magazine on Jack Nicklaus as well as Denver Magazine about local milkmen. I returned to the Post to cover Suburban Education as well as various suburban development stories such as ranches and cowboys displaced by subdivisions and the day a tornado hit Denver (with me in close pursuit.) My Elway obsession that began at the AP was also fed when the city desk sent me to cover Super Bowl XXII in San Diego. Best assignment ever? Maybe.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Seattle, WA, vacation relief copy editor/reporter: A move to Seattle led me to freelance for the Seattle Times real estate section (I called them while house-hunting and they asked me to write about the process, that led to a regular freelance gig.) While looking for a more traditional job, was hired on an on-again/off-again vacation-relief basis for the PI, which was the perfect dovetail with my new freelance career/growing family.
TIME magazine, Seattle, WA; Denver, CO, stringer: In five years with Time in Seattle and Denver covered dozens of stories for them via my brand-new modem and something new called “Sprintmail” with which I communicated to the regional office in LA. Involved in stories from the execution of Ted Bundy to the Green River Killer to a week-long roundup of gun deaths in America and the popularity of bungee jumping.
People magazine, Seattle, WA; Denver, CO; Chicago, IL, stringer: In nine years with People in the “good old days” when the magazine covered more than celebrities, I wrote about a man who tossed bottles with messages in them into oceans for foreigners to find; a woman in a coma who had a baby; an inmate in Walla Walla’s maximum security prison who had written a screenplay (8 months pregnant with my second child, I interviewed him in his cell); about a group of life sentence inmates in London, Ohio who raised guide dogs for the blind. I also spent my share of time with celebrities: I interviewed Bill Gates in his Redmond, Washington Microsoft office before most people knew his name, spent a weekend with Jerry Van Dyke in Danville, IL for a “homecoming” celebration, spent an evening with Gregory Peck and his wife before and after his one-man show in Joliet, IL. I even got to write about John Elway’s acupuncture to heal his sore throwing shoulder. Somehow I became the Chicago bureau’s “Cindy Crawford expert” and Entertainment Tonight came to my house and interviewed me. Very odd. But my other “expertise,” in women’s ice skating, happened after several stories covering Nicole Bobek and Tara Lipinski, which led to freelance pieces for Sports Illustrated for Kids magazine as well as a book for Scholastic/SIK books, Skating Superstars. Early on during the Beanie Babies craze, I spent a day at creator Ty Warner’s home and office interviewing the Ty Inc. billionaire, one of the only journalists to ever interview the publicity-shy Ty.
At the same time, I was also regularly freelancing for Family Life and Parenting magazines, writing articles and my first columns; and USA Weekend, writing for their back page and occasionally an inside piece. Over the years, I freelanced for publications such as: Alaska Airlines magazine, Horizon Air magazine, Ladies’ Home Journal, Child and the Chicago Tribune.
I left People amidst several changes at the Chicago bureau and in my own family. The transition from writing for national to a local publication was an interesting one.
As a weekly columnist at the Naperville (IL) Sun, it was the first time I’d written in my own community. My life changed in ways I would never have expected. When writing for publications everyone had heard of, I was always fairly anonymous. Suddenly, even though I had asked to not have a photo atop my column, I was asked by people such as even grocery-store clerks, other parents next to me in bleachers and my kids’ teachers and principals if i was “that Joni Hirsch Blackman.” (I’d added Hirsch to hopefully be more anonymous. Didn’t work.) For years, writing was what I did outside of my personal life — so much so that a neighbor in Denver once laughed that she’d read a People magazine written by “someone with your same name!” She had no idea I wrote for the magazine.
But with the Sun, suddenly everyone wanted to discuss what I’d written, what I should write about, what they liked and what they didn’t. From Little League team snacks to nasty school referendums to the NRA mobilizing to protest what I’d written about the local skeet shooting facility, it was an amazing 12-year ride. (The last three years, Cul-de-sacs ran in the Daily Herald after a new editor at the Sun, direct from The Globe tabloid, and I had a difference of opinion on whether news could be “created” by the staff.)
My serendipitous career continued. Just before the Herald dropped its local columnists in a cost-cutting move, I had signed two book contracts: One for Arcadia Publishing for it’s “Images of America” series — mine would be called Downtown Naperville. The other for Greenwood Publishing, later bought by ABC/Clio, for its series of celebrity biographies for high school and college libraries. We negotiated for two months — with me declining to write about Britney Spears, Tony Hawk or a few other pop stars before I suggested George Clooney and they agreed. “George Clooney: A Biography,” was my first experience with footnotes since English class my freshman year at U of A. Probably my last.
But Downtown Naperville was another door-opener. A local book signing created a new sidelight in presenting my topic to various local organizations, who would ask me to sign books and present a slide show using the historic photos I’d compiled for the book. When writing the book, I was frustrated with a photo heavy format where copy was severely restricted. I contacted the new editor at the Sun, an actual journalist, and suggested I write a new column taking advantage of the many stories I’d unearthed but had been unable to write about regarding the old buildings in Downtown Naperville. “Building Memories,” a sort of biography of various historic buildings and the people who lived and worked in them, was born. I love tracking down people throughout the country to talk about when they lived and/or worked in Naperville.
Meanwhile, a query to West Suburban Living magazine prompted the editor to ask me to write a monthly column and some pieces for them. So I’m back in the suburban-life column-writing business. In my spare time, I’m writing, rewriting and looking for a publisher for my non-fiction book for children based on a story I read in the paper and just couldn’t get out of my head. A longtime member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, I’ve now joined the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and regularly attend a wonderful writing critique group.
Last year, I was part of the 2013 docent class at the Chicago Architecture Foundation and I now lead a walking tour once or twice a month in the Loop, teaching residents and tourists about the city’s famous historic and modern skyscrapers. It’s not so different from reporting and writing — we were taught the background information, researched our own additional information and write our own tours. But now, my “readers” are right in front of me!
I also do something I had hoped to do while at U of A but never found the time while in Preludes, Spurs, Chimes, Mortar Board, UA Hostesses, Kappa Kappa Gamma and graduating with honors: I take horseback lessons once a week and I’m a bit fanatical about Pilates.
I’ve been married to Marc, who I met as a sophomore at U of A, for 31 years. We have three children: a University of Wisconsin grad and mechanical engineer who was married in August; an Indiana University grad who is working in NEWS as a video editor for TouchVision, an online news channel that launched Oct. 1 and a graphic design senior at IU.