Someone asked the other day which is the favorite among places I’ve been fortunate enough to live and work in over a lengthy career.
In addition to traveling the United States on a fellowship for a year in 1976, I took a lengthy and nomadic route often necessary to proving one’s self in the largest arenas.
There was reporting for the Los Angeles Times in 1980 on the heels of seven years as the newspaper editor in Hot Springs. A stint as an investigative reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times followed four years doing likewise for the Arkansas Democrat. Then came three years heading the investigative team at the Arizona Republic and five more leading the Kiplinger Public Affairs Reporting Program at Ohio State University. Then it was back to journalism as investigative team leader at the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey before coming home as editor of the Northwest Arkansas Times in Fayetteville.
Those stops don’t include my initial stint as the editor of the Newport Daily Independent after graduating from UCA in 1971. Whew, what a ride!
I rehash such self-indulgence not to bore, but to provide a glimpse of what a challenging question that was to answer.
My least favorite place to live and work unquestionably was the year-long sentence I endured in New Jersey. I wouldn’t wish those 20 years on anyone.
Next would be my stint during one of the coldest winters in Chicago history when our paper reported the wind chill dropping to 40 below zero. Like New Jersey, anything I examined in the Windy City, from the police to the medical examiner’s and governor’s offices, was corrupt. You’ve probably heard of “the Chicago Way,” which is code for a principality where evil, greed and immorality flourish.
Yet the Sun-Times in 1980 also was the finest investigative newspaper in the country. That redeeming aspect in itself had professional rewards. Ultimately, that watchdog tabloid sold to the sensation-loving Rupert Murdoch, and most of the decorated reporting staff departed to preserve hard-won reputations.
From there it was back to Little Rock to lead investigations for the Arkansas Democrat and her sister WEHCO newspapers. Those three years led to one major story after another, mostly involving wrongful convictions and public corruption.
Phoenix was gawd-awful hot nine months out of the year. Nothing green lived there if not for water siphoned daily from the Colorado River. My predecessor, Don Bolles, had been murdered with a car bomb a decade earlier. The paper had invited me to re-establish its investigative team and resume where he’d left off.
The paper was a good and supportive place to work for more than three years. But that relentless desert “dry” heat quickly saps one’s energies.
My professorial years at Ohio State in the thriving city of Columbus between 1989 and 1994 were enriching. Heading a master’s degree program for 10 of the best and brightest young print and broadcast professionals elected annually from around the globe came naturally.
The city was vibrant and well-designed for circling the sprawling city on the beltway. So I’d have to say Columbus and the five years spent mentoring the various classes of Kiplinger fellows, graduate students and undergrads, would rank near the top of my list.
The earliest years in Newport before heading for Hot Springs also were rewarding in different ways. Arriving in 1971, nestled amid the soybean, rice and cotton fields, the small Arkansas city appeared to be anything but a place where I’d find satisfaction.
The circle of close friends we made early on, an active church family, and the Richolson family who’d hired me as their editor fresh out of UCA, had unexpected rewards. As I came to learn with every subsequent move, we can find contentment in most places if our attitude is right and we are filled with youthful energies.
Hot Springs National Park is a naturally beautiful place with its mature trees, verdant hills, lakes and an historic downtown. My seven years editing its Sentinel-Record in other ways would become the most satisfying and rewarding of my career.
It was 1973. I was in my mid-20s full of vinegar (and myself) naïvely eager to take on corruption wherever the staff found it (always with publisher Walter Hussman’s unflinching support). And, believe me, there was plenty to shed light on, from the local courts to wrongly indicted residents.
In 1995, I became editor of the Northwest Arkansas Times in Fayetteville. At that time, four daily papers were battling hard for readers across Northwest Arkansas.
The staff I was allowed to build (ultimately 32 in the newsroom) became not only courageous but capable and driven to produce enterprise stories with a disproportionate voice that drew a following outside the city limits.
After all those travels and stops, just being back in my native Ozarks in my late 40s restored peace in my spirit. Finally, I’d come home after 15 years of experiencing what lay beyond where I could prove myself to me.
Since then, I rejoined this newspaper in both a writing and management role, then became an independent columnist and correspondent, now writing from my hometown in Harrison about six blocks from the spot where I entered this world 71 years ago.
With my parents, grandparents and extended family and a number of lifelong friends buried in Maplewood Cemetery overlooking this beautiful city of 13,000, a deeper sense of belonging (that always was missing wherever I lived and worked) was revived.
There are reasons why bigger isn’t always better and metropolises are best experienced in youth.
So I’d answer the question by saying that when it comes to affairs of the heart and living at a manageable pace in one of the most livable and beautiful places in the nation while doing what I most enjoy among many lifelong friends in hopes of making positive differences that outlive my existence, my Ozarks hometown ranks as the favorite.
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at email@example.com.