SCHENECTADY — Journalism has never been an easy profession, but for longtime Daily Gazette newsroom leader Judy Patrick, the adrenaline rush was worth it.
“Reporters always talk about how they want to write books, but if you went back and looked at your body of work, you’ll find that you’ve already written quite a few,” Patrick said.
She’s been with The Daily Gazette for about 36 years, first as a beat reporter in the paper’s Amsterdam bureau. She reported from several of the paper’s other bureaus before becoming city editor.
In 2008, she was named managing editor, eventually becoming the editor and leading the newspaper’s content strategy and overseeing editorial standards. Most recently, she became a senior vice president of the company. She led the newspaper during a turbulent period and guided the Gazette during its digital expansion. Through it all, her commitment to community journalism has been steadfast.
Patrick has had a bird’s-eye view of how the Capital Region, especially Schenectady, has changed. She’s been a part of that change by covering local media legends, GE and the city’s downtown revival.
Friday closed her career at The Daily Gazette, though she’s not necessarily leaving journalism behind. Here, Patrick talks about the biggest stories she’s covered, what makes reporting valuable and what’s in store:
Q: What was your first day like on the job, and do you remember the date you started?
A: It was Mother's Day 1982. I worked in the Amsterdam bureau, and I had worked at the Amsterdam Recorder, so I was basically just picking up the beat [for the Gazette]. I was the only person in the building. I didn’t even meet my editor here for several years. I was hired by Jack Hume, who was managing editor [at the time] and was eventually the publisher. It worked differently back then. The editors didn’t come in until 4 (p.m.), and you were on your own. There was a partner in the bureau; his name was Sam Zurlo. He covered the county, and I covered the city. We split it up. That’s how it was in all the bureaus.
Q: What was the first tough lesson you learned [on the job]?
A: There were so many tough lessons. The biggest lesson was you’re going to make mistakes. The important thing is to own up to them and fix them and try not to make the same mistake again. It’s a tough lesson to learn, but it served me well through all these years.
Q: Do you remember what you earned in your very first paycheck?
A: I remember my first paycheck [working] in journalism, which was not for the Gazette. It was for a startup. I think it was $95 a week.
Q: What’s one of your most memorable stories?
A: There are too many. After I worked in the bureaus for awhile, I was the media reporter. One of the things I was fortunate enough to do as the media reporter was interview some of the legends in local radio and broadcasting. That’s important because this area played such a crucial role in the development of broadcasting, with GE’s development of radio and television. So many of the pioneers in radio and TV were here, so I was able to interview them in their later years. It was pretty cool. I interviewed Edythe Meserand, a female broadcasting pioneer, and I got to interview Jim Fisk. Baby Boomers that grew up in this area know him from “The Freddie Freihofer Show.” I got to do profiles of Don Weeks, Earle Pudney, Dick Beach, Liz Bishop and Tracy Egan. I was so glad I got a chance to interview them and get their memories on record. I liked writing stories about people in the area. We forget what a rich place this is.
Q: When were you covering the media?
A: Around 1996 or ‘97. Being a reporter is a very fun job. Reporters always talk about how they want to write books, but if you went back and looked at your body of work, you’ll find that you’ve already written quite a few.
Q: What was the transition like from reporter to editor?
A: It’s a challenge because when you’re a reporter, you’re in complete control. You’re the active person. When you’re the editor, you have to rely on the reporter. When you’re a reporter, you’re the first person to know news. When you’re an editor, you’re the second person. So that says it all. Being second is still fine, but if you care about the adrenaline rush of getting news, there’s nothing better than being first.
Q: What editor position did you start out in?
A: I didn’t ask to be an editor. I never asked for that. But the managing editor suggested I try out being an editor. So I came down [to the Schenectady office]; there were no women doing that at that point. I was first edition editor, overseeing Fulton, Montgomery and Schoharie counties. There were five or six reporters covering (those counties). I worked nights, and I had to learn how to lay out pages. I did that for a few years, but [then and] throughout my whole career, I’ve missed a ton of my daughter's life. When I worked Sunday through Thursday, it was nice because I had Fridays with her. But I can remember her crying on Sunday afternoons because I would have to work. When she was in school and I was working nights, I never saw her. I would finish here at 12:30 or 1 in the morning, get home at 2, and the only chance I would have to see her is if I got up at 6 or 7. I missed every concert, every open house, all those things. I got to a point where I said, “I have to spend time with her.” So I did leave. For a short time, I worked on the copy desk of the Times Union part-time. When an opportunity arose for me to come back [less than a year later], I worked in the arts department, and it was a day job. I developed a real love for visual arts. There’s nothing better than going to The Clark and getting a personal tour from the curator.
Q: What was the biggest story you covered?
A: The World Trade Center attacks. I had the privilege of interviewing the Canty family. Their son Mike died in the collapse. I still remember going to their house and talking with them about it and following up with them through the years, as they established a scholarship for Schenectady high students.
Q: How have you seen the newsroom change over the years?
A: There was a time, and this was before my time when the reporters at the bureaus would write their stories on paper and send them to downtown Schenectady by bus. I didn’t have to do that. When I started, we used computers, but there was one computer we had to share, and we sent the stories down by some sort of phone line, and it wasn’t always reliable. Researching was a lot more complicated because we relied on books and librarians. But there were a lot more editors and more reporters. We also had more photographers and a dark room. In some respects, it’s much the same as it was all those years ago, but in some ways, it’s a lot easier. Then again, when I filed my story at 11 o’clock at night, I was done. Unless there was a fire or a murder to cover, I didn’t have to Tweet [in the morning]. I had one deadline. Nowadays, there’s a deadline every second. I only had to write stories, I didn’t have to develop a personal brand. There was no social media to be on. The social media I was on was talking to people on the streets or working my sources in city hall.
Q: Do you think getting sources is now a lot easier with social media?
A: I think social media allows you to reach people outside of the people you would normally reach. Back in the day, we would call the mayor, the secretary to the commission, we had certain conventional sources. But a whole world [has] opened up to newspapers. We’re getting people we’ve never talked to before.
Q: What’s it been like to cover GE over the years, as it’s gone through a lot of changes?
A: It has gone through a lot of change, and covering Schenectady over the years has been fascinating. When I was a Sunday writer, I remember writing a story about all the buildings that were vacant [in downtown Schenectady], and trust me, almost all of them were vacant. I grew up in the area, so I remember what an important influence GE [had]. Many of the people in my family worked at GE. We sold thousands of Daily Gazettes at the front gate of GE every day. So we’ve watched the changes that have happened over there. We like to cover it as a company, but we also like to cover it from a historical perspective and from a people perspective. There’s also the environmental issues that probably deserve some investigation. It’s one of those legacy institutions that you have to have respect for and even some pride. When I travel, I will say, “I’m from Schenectady, the birthplace of General Electric.” That’s something we can all still be proud of.
Q: What’s it been like to see the revival of downtown? You mentioned there was a time when most of the buildings were vacant.
A: When I did that story (about vacant downtown buildings), it was really desolate. But it’s come back, and it’s come back in a relatively short amount of time. When I started, there were still some retail stores down there, and I think that’s the one part that’s still missing. There was a time when people thought this was a failing city, but what I hear from talking to people is a really positive outlook on the city. I think the return of economic activity is unchallengeable. I can’t find a parking space when I go downtown sometimes. Schenectady is a hidden treasure still, but I’m glad people are appreciating it again. A few years ago, Stephen Colbert made fun of Schenectady, and we did a front page of “10 reasons why we love Schenectady.” Everybody in this newsroom, as objective as we like to be, we are still proud of Schenectady. This is our home base. We cover lots of places, but Schenectady is home.
Q: What are some of the lessons you’ve learned over the years of being a journalist?
A: If you don’t understand the person you’re [interviewing], make them slow down. Whenever there’s an unclear story, it’s because the reporter didn’t understand something. You’ve got to make sure your question is being answered. You see this on the national level when the congressman or the senator or the president is asked a question and they’ll answer a different question. Reporters have to be persistent and know how to get the answer. Trust but verify. Don’t hold grudges. And always be open to new ideas. This has served me well, especially in the role of editor, because you get people who call and complain about a story and you have to be open to the idea that we may have been wrong and that the person has a legitimate viewpoint. You just have to listen. That’s another valuable thing I tell reporters: when you’re interviewing someone, don’t talk very much. Good reporters are good listeners.
Q: What do you hope for the news industry and The Daily Gazette moving forward?
A: I hope a business model evolves that will sustain quality journalism. I don’t know what that would be, but I think, going forward, it’s essential that you keep professional journalists at work covering the community, government, the arts and society. You need professionals to do it because, as much as amateurs write blogs and contribute in some sense, there’s a mile-wide distinction between what a reporter who is trained in truth gathering and ethics and story composition [can do compared] to someone who is not trained. I am a strong believer in photojournalism. There’s no way I could take photos like Marc Schultz or Erica Miller or Pete Barber. I’m convinced that local journalism will continue to thrive; I think people will always want it. I hope people will be willing to pay for it online. Our challenge is to create content so good that it’s worth paying for.
Q: What’s the best career advice you’ve received?
A: The best excuse is no excuse.
Q: What’s next?
A: There are a couple of projects I want to do. I’m still committed to journalism; I just want to find a new way of helping journalists. I plan to do some traveling, but I’ve put a lot of life on hold because this job is so consuming. There are things I haven’t had time for like I’ve got this opera guide on my shelf. There are so many times I haven’t been able to do things with family and friends, so I’ll [spend time with them]. You can probably tell, of all the things I’ve done in my life, reporting was the best, so I’m going to [get back into] writing.