Homer News editor and reporter Michael Armstrong is retiring Friday after more than 23 years with the paper.
Armstrong made his way to Alaska from Florida four decades ago, and in May of 1999, he started working at the Homer News as an editorial assistant, typing letters to the editor, compiling Town Crier and Cops and Courts, and working the front desk taking classified ads, subscription orders and rolling quarters. He became a reporter for the paper in 2003 and then its editor in 2017.
There will be an open house reception for Armstrong on Thursday, Dec. 15, at the paper’s office, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
KBBI’s Hope McKenney sat down with Armstrong last week to discuss why he came to Alaska and what’s next.
MICHAEL ARMSTRONG: I had always wanted to be a writer. And that was my ambition — with some kind of inklings that maybe I could be a journalist. But mainly I wanted to write fiction and specifically science fiction. So when I graduated, I was in this lull. I knew I wanted to be a writer and wanted to write bestselling novels and make a living out of that, but how to get there was a challenge. So I just did a lot of odd jobs, various things. I worked as a computer operator at an electronics plant, and worked in student affairs at the college and was kind of living a blissful post-college life. And then one day I got drunk with some friends at a party, and we decided we were going to move to Alaska. I think it was a reaction to world politics. China had just invaded Vietnam, and we thought that we should go someplace safe. I don’t know why we thought Alaska was safer than any place else. And then, when we sobered up, they decided, “Well, we really are going to move to Alaska.” So they moved up in the summer of ‘79. And I stayed in Florida, just working at kind of a dead end job. And Mark said, “Why don’t you move up here?” So I did. Just to see what it was like. I joke it was a three hour tour. And it turned out to be six seasons on Gilligan’s Island.
HOPE MCKENNEY: You have 23 and a half years at this paper. Can you tell me a little bit about maybe a time that you’ve had to make a really tough editorial decision or a judgment call, or even a time when your views maybe conflicted with what was best for the paper?
ARMSTRONG: I’ve had to make decisions like — I was thinking about the Duffy Murnane missing person story, which has been, I think, the hardest story I’ve covered. And when Kirby Calderwood was charged with that, and I was going through the criminal complaint, there were a lot of really rough details and a lot of stuff in there that I think at a big city paper, they would just say, “Yeah, put that in there.” But these are my neighbors, these are my friends, these are people I’m going to see at the grocery store. And some of them are victims or alleged victims of this. And it wasn’t a tough call, but it was — in terms of what a big city journalist would do, it would be a hard call — but I chose not to use the names of the girlfriend, the person who went to the police. I mean, there’s this standard of not identifying victims, particularly of sexual assault. But these are also just people who knew the person and were involved, and I did not report on that. And so that’s the kind of decision I’ve had to make.
MCKENNEY: You talk about a few important cases that you’ve covered that have been really difficult. How have you avoided burnout over 23 and a half years?
ARMSTRONG: Well, one could say I haven’t, because I’m retiring. That’s the ultimate burnout. You finally say, “Okay, I’m done.” But that’s life in general. Everybody who works hard deserves a break. And the ideal is that you can afford to retire from a job you love and that’s been interesting. But over the years, there have been what I call “going out on the back porch and weeping moments” and I’ve written stories that have made me cry. I remember writing about some Old Believer fishermen, some people from the villages, who died in a plane crash in Kodiak, and it was hard to [write], you know, not knowing them, but knowing that people who are loved have died. And talking to the brother and just writing these stories and you feel the pain and grief. And then sometimes I’ve written stories where I’ve known the person or known of the person. And so you write it, and then you just go out on the back porch and kind of cry for a little bit. Journalists often are supposed to be hard and tough, and just power through it, and I learned that it was okay to be upset and it was okay to talk to people. But I also do things in my life for joy. I mean, I take phone calls on the weekends — that’s part of being an editor. But you know, you turn the phone off sometimes, you silence it. And also, for almost as long as I’ve been a reporter, I’ve been in a marimba band with my wife and our neighbors and good friends and we do that every Monday night. And sometimes Sundays. And we play at the farmer’s market and things like that. So doing that gave me joy. And plus I do art and I developed this practice of getting out in the middle of the day when there’s sun and taking a walk at Mariner Park, taking a walk with my dog and just getting some fresh air. And that’s also where I write all my stories, or a lot of my stories. I think about them sometimes and think about ledes and things like that. And we’re lucky to live in a place that has nature and we can ski, we can walk, we can go to the SPARC, we can play hockey. There are things in our lives that get us away from the hard stuff of our jobs. So I found that and keep finding that.
MCKENNEY: Do you have any last thoughts that you’d like to share with the community of Homer?
ARMSTRONG: Well, you know, when I started working in the Homer News, I had been an adjunct instructor, working distance education with the UAA. And I like teaching, but the university does not treat adjunct instructors well. They don’t pay them well enough. And I got depressed from that. I mean, literally depressed. So I was looking for something to get out of that. And, you know, the Homer News saved my life. It gave me a purpose. It was just a job to do, an editorial assistant, “we’ll see how it works.” And the reporter job opened up, and I started reporting, and here I am 23 and a half years later. And I’m honored to be able to tell the stories of my neighbors in the community. I feel like I’m an embedded journalist in this big, lovable group and I hope I’ve told the stories well and honestly and truthfully and well researched and sticking to the facts. And people have supported me. They supported me when I went through prostate cancer, and they supported me in other challenges. And I’ve heard that and received that. We have a retired reporter, Jan O’Meara, who lives across the street from the Homer News. Jan started to notice that we were working late hours and she remembered when she was working there late hours, so she started bringing us cookies. So every Tuesday Jan brings us cookies, and I started helping her carry groceries upstairs. That’s an expression of the support I’ve gotten from the community. So I’d say, thanks for all the cookies. It’s been a gift to be able to do this and find something I love, and I’ve gotten that love from the community and I hope I’ve given it back.