Two weeks and 21 years ago today, I showed up for my first shift at The Hawk Eye.

I had been hired to write about education and health care, but it was summertime and schools were closed. So my first assignment was to report on a hiring event at Vista Bakery — today, Schearer’s Foods — where applicants had a chance to win a Ford Ranger pickup.

Assignments got better from there. Some, quite literally, were out of this world.

Those days are over now, also quite literally.

On Friday, I put the wraps on a 27-year newspaper career. After surviving the past two years of fast-declining fortunes in the newspaper industry, and in order to regain time with my family, I have decided to pursue a new opportunity helping advance the prospects of a local construction company.

My second career in marketing begins Monday.

Giving notice was the toughest thing I’ve ever done. I love this business, and I still feel like I’m doing it at a high level. But it’s just not the same as it was back in the late 1990s, or five years ago.

Or two.

The Hawk Eye was at its pinnacle as the new millennium approached. It was the seventh-biggest newspaper by circulation in Iowa when the managing editor at the time, Dale Alison, took a chance on a guy who was coming off six years at small town Iowa weeklies, where my experience was that of partner more so than watchdog. Adversarial journalism was not in my vocabulary in 1998.

Challenging public officials or community leaders to get answers on uncomfortable subjects was a skill that took a couple years to develop.

Now it’s second nature. Giving up that role in the community, seeking and disseminating important information to readers to help them make decisions on how to vote or merely what to do on a Saturday, is one of the toughest aspects of stepping away.

And besides: at its best, newspaper journalism is just plain fun. Getting a scoop, landing a long sought-after interview, witnessing something memorable or sneaking an important story in under the wire at deadline provide thrills that can’t be matched.

I’ve had plenty of thrills at The Hawk Eye.

Witnessing two space shuttle launches. Twice talking to astronauts by telephone while they were in orbit.

Visiting a natural gas rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Patrolling the Florida coast off Ft. Lauderdale on a Coast Guard boat.

Getting an impromptu telephone interview with John Glenn, the pioneering astronaut and U.S. senator.

Reporting on the 1998 election that transformed Burlington’s elementary school facilities with a 1-cent sales tax. Covering a terrible fire at Horace Mann Middle School in 2005 that reshaped education for the city’s sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders.

Watching Great River Medical Center grow up out of a corn field, and reporting on its opening and the crop of new buildings and services that have grown up around It.

And shepherding into existence the newspaper’s All-Area Citizen Scholars program, which continued into its 21st year in 2019.

Then, as features editor, I had the chance each week to write stories meant to help people get the most out of their lives in the kitchen, garden, travel and more.

Unfortunately, industry and readership changes made those kinds of opportunities less frequent, or simply unavailable. Yet I’ve been lucky.

Most who have left here — and newsrooms everywhere — the past couple of years didn’t leave voluntarily. I’m getting to step straight into my second act without the uncertainty of the unemployment line.

I fear communities that have seen their local newspapers diminish won’t know what they’re missing until after the ink dries on the final issue. People who have stuck with us through our struggles are doing Burlington and the area a tremendous service by giving ownership and management at least a chance to right the ship — though I may be accused of being a Pollyanna for saying so.

For the sake of people in the region, and for my colleagues who will remain come Monday and who are doing the best they can with the tools they have at their disposal, I pray for those brighter days.

The odds may be stacked too high. At the very least, a turnaround won’t be easy, or immediate. But only with your understanding, and most importantly, your subscription and advertising purchases, will The Hawk Eye have a chance to rebound.

I hope you’ll join me in that desire, and that you will stick around to help ensure Iowa’s oldest newspaper gets a shot at a second act of its own.

###

Craig Neises was education and health reporter at The Hawk Eye from 1998 to 2007, and features editor from 2007 to 2019.