It’s been three weeks since I left the News & Observer and entered gainful unemployment, so to speak, and I’m still getting used to this new normal of not having a regular workplace to go to every day. It’s been a strange series of adjustments and jolts, starting with news two weeks ago that North Carolina rock legend Sara Romweber had died. Not having a place to publish a proper obituary was throwing me for a loop, until my former competitors over at Indyweek were kind enough to let me do one there (whew).
There was a bit of a respite last week with South By Southwest, the massive festival in my long-ago stomping grounds of Austin, Texas. Going to Austin every March is one of my annual compass-setting rituals and I was already registered, so I went and it was the usual amazing time, equal parts exhilarating and exhausting. I saw friends and family and ate way too much TexMex and barbecue, and I also kept busy doing some freelance reviews for Rolling Stone.
This week, however, I’m back home and the reality of really being gone from the N&O is starting to sink in. It no longer feels like an extended stretch of days off, but La Vida Freelance, and here we go. It came with a punctuation mark, too, Thursday night’s annual North Carolina Press Association Awards dinner. I attended, and it was most likely my final act as a member of the N&O newsroom team. It will almost surely be the last time I’ll ever wear a nametag like this one.
Us journalists are funny about awards. We all feign nonchalance because it’s what one does, and we talk a good game about how awards are ultimately meaningless, which is certainly true as far as it goes. Deep down, however, we’re just like anybody else: Whether it means anything or not, winning stuff is fun, especially if it involves dinner paid for by somebody else.
So I went and I won two this year — one for the N&O and one for the Durham Herald-Sun, which is now owned by the N&O and shares newsroom staff. I won second place in feature writing for a piece about the singer Nina Simone’s roots in the town of Tryon, a story pegged to her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year; and third place in arts and entertainment reporting for a feature about artists in the down-east town of Kinston.
Overall, the N&O won 34 awards and came in second in the overall-excellence category, behind the Winston-Salem Journal but ahead of the Charlotte Observer, our…or rather the N&O’s former big in-state rival (it’s going to take me a while to start thinking of the N&O as “them” rather than “us”). Now that the N&O and the Observer are owned by the same corporation, the papers are more partners than competitors. But like the old corner store of daily-paper journalism, having them for a rival is something else I miss.
Credit where credit is due, the NCPA organizers put on a much tighter program this year compared to years past, when the ceremony had the pace and vibe of a high-school graduation. I still remember last year’s interminable event, when we were entering Hour Three and one of my co-workers sighed, “Now is when you really miss cocaine” (still my most indelible NCPA memory from years of attending).
This seems like a fitting capper to my 28-year run at the N&O. Going on a month into my followup chapter, I’m still catching my breath and trying to figure out what’s next even though I’ve actually been pretty busy. I’m in the midst of final (I hope!) rewrites on the North Carolina music-history book, and I’ve got a decent amount of freelance work to do. But the freelancer’s lot is to fret about whether or not that will keep coming, a feast-or-famine cycle I’ll have to get used to.
Meanwhile, the Piedmont Laureate calendar is gradually filling up. Please come see me at an event soon.