Living

Coast Chronicles: Born from an experiment and a mistake

SUN HERALD/ FILEIn 1984, Kat Bergeron does a Gulf Coast Chronicles video in front of Biloxi's Beavoir for a project that melded print and TV journalism for the Sun Herald.
SUN HERALD/ FILEIn 1984, Kat Bergeron does a Gulf Coast Chronicles video in front of Biloxi's Beavoir for a project that melded print and TV journalism for the Sun Herald.

Just in case you won't wade through my reminisces of 32 years as a newspaper columnist, I'm starting out backwards. What I write at the bottom, I also write here.

Thank you!

Without your correspondences, e-mails, phone calls, letters-to-the-editor, stoppings-on-the-street, I would not have made it this long. You, Dear Readers are my raison d'etre. Without you, I'd still write for myself but you, Dear Readers, make the timed challenges of nouns vs. verbs vs. adverbs vs. adjectives worthwhile.

Since writing my first column on April Fools' Day in 1984, a succession of you, Dear Readers, have kept me both in my place and inspired me to experiment and move forward. I have received my share of kudos and criticisms, all deserved.

Thank you!

Confession: I'm writing this today on the 11 hour of column deadline. The last thing I want to do is peck at a keyboard. I spent the last three days in front of one, bleeding over my part of tax preparation before turning it over to the professionals. I have painted myself into a corner for this column, leaving no time for the background and history research it demands.

So today you get an "off the top of my head" or as the Queen of Hearts might say, "Off with her head!" kind of column.

Last night when I put a virtual -30- at the bottom of my tax preparation, I had a moment of panic when I realized I'd given no thought to what I would write this week. The -30- is a clue to how long I've been writing this Sunday missive.

An end for the ending

All us geezer newspaper reporters remember the -30- required at the end of each typed article to indicate it was finished. Sadly, the symbol began disappearing in the late 1970s as newsrooms switched from typewriters to computer word processors.

The first years of Gulf Coast Chronicles saw -30- at the bottom of each column because I handed printouts to then-Executive Editor Pic Firmin for editing. Yikes, Pic bled all over them with red ink, so determined was he that this experiment would succeed. Pic believed Sun Herald readers were ready for a column that highlights the region's unique sense of place.

Interestingly, Chronicles was born as a spin-off to another experiment called Sun Herald Cable News. I and one other newsroom reporter were selected to anchor a local newscast that was inserted into the national CNN Headline News cycle. This experiment of using print journalists for television news lasted several years and hinted at multi-media things to come.

What I learned from the experiment is that I prefer doing the written story to the televised story, although my stint as a TV anchor was fun.

Pic wanted to cross-pollinate the newspaper with the TV broadcast, or in other words, create a feature that was both published in the paper and aired on cable. Gulf Coast Chronicles and its later progeny were born.

Lessons to be learned

The first dual feature spotlighted the Biloxi Lighthouse, in retrospect a fitting topic because of the tower's endurance. The 168-year-old tower is a symbol not only of the Mississippi Coast, but the entire state as a post-Katrina centerpiece for the statewide auto license plate.

The most valuable lesson I learned from that first Chronicle was the importance of historical accuracy. I spent days on original history research, something reporters rarely get to do because we are so into the "now." I realized many of the lighthouse histories previously published by this newspaper and elsewhere had holes and inaccuracies.

I discussed this with Pic and we decided to set the bar higher. For research, I combined my reporter's tenacity at fact finding with a latent academic tendency to fine-tooth-comb. Remembering how boring history classes were in high school and college I also set the writing bar high, believing that I could present a colorfully written history that people actually enjoyed reading.

The first Chronicle appeared April 1 on the Sun Herald's front page, the location being another higher bar for local history. Then ... the accuracy bar collapsed.

A lousy error

The writing and all the new research was diminished because of one error -- and a reader, actually a teacher at a local college, let the world know it.

"No story is better than an erroneous story," she declared. It didn't matter to her that only one small fact out of many was wrong.

In setting the Coast scene for the 1848 construction of the lighthouse I wrote that Handsboro had missed becoming the site of the state's first university by one legislative vote. I should have written Mississippi City, not Handsboro.

This slip of the brain was caused by the confusing fact that these now extinct Coast villages were side by side then and are part of Gulfport today. That first mistake made me obsessive about getting local history right, at least as right as possible given the deadlines and time constraints all journalists face.

Is my accuracy batting average 100 percent? Absolutely not. Have potentially interesting stories fallen through the cracks for lack of time or interest? Sadly so.

But I still plug away, believing that our Coast's history, environment, culture and characters are worth immortalizing in the written word. Imagine how many columns I've written and how many topics I've tackled in 32, years. That comes in addition to the normal reporting I've done in a career that began with an internship in college. A hint as to how long: This month I reach my official Social Security age.

This Sunday missive has metamorphosed from its third-person observation status to first-person, or what we in the profession call a "personal column," because I can use "I" and can be more personal in my writing.

No -30- for the column

I thought my column days were over when I took early retirement from the newsroom in 2010. My job had changed and I hadn't written a column in over a year. But after packing up my desk and enjoying a few months of no deadlines, the now-retired Executive Editor Stan Tiner asked me to do a Sunday freelance column.

I wondered if it would be too challenging with my spending so much time in Virginia, but a brain full of facts and the Internet create infinite possibilities. I no longer park myself in the newsroom, but e-mail and the occasional snail mail keep me in touch with you, Dear Readers. For that, I am thankful.

Last night after putting the proverbial -30- on my taxes I checked emails, happy to see a new one.

"I've been reading your articles for 23 years," he began. "You are a great writer with a keen interest in history & the natural world. I look forward to your columns!"

That decided it. On this morning's tight deadline I would write a reminiscence of how it all began. But I debated with myself whether to include this reader's kind words, for I was never a reporter who showed every "nice letter" to editors to win points.

Still, then and now, I open each reader's correspondence with anticipation. For you, Dear Readers, are my inspiration to keep writing and to try my darndest to get it right. Thank you!

Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or c/o Sun Herald Newsroom, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi, MS 39535-4567.

  Comments