Hilarious, self-deprecating, and moving on after twenty-five years in the newspaper business, former Wisconsin State Journal columnist Susan Lampert Smith talks about her new job in public affairs at UW Hospital & Clinics, plus juicy stuff, like the real reason she never became an editor, what’s so great about having her own Facebook page, how she got “suckered in” by a story or two, what her first-grade teacher did to her, what she thinks about The Capital Times calling its print edition quits, and lots more.
BN: So let’s not talk about your departure from the State Journal. I feel like I had a great run there, and it’s just over (laughs). That’s just how things are in life sometimes, you know, you realize when it’s time to leave the party.
BN: How would you characterize your writer’s point of view? I’ve just always tried to approach it as a Wisconsin native and somebody who’s loved this area and this state. My family goes back to the 1820s in Wisconsin. I grew up going Up North for vacation and going to Milwaukee to see the Packers play. That’s how old I am—I remember when they played at county stadium. When I wrote my “On Wisconsin” column [1994-2004], it was really great because I got to explore and then tell people about all the cool people and places that I found out there. That was my favorite part of every job.
BN: How did you get your start? I started out as the lowliest person imaginable. I was hired to answer phones for the state editor for $4.80 an hour. I’m not kidding. I clawed my way up. I graduated from college in 1982, which was the last really bad recession and there just weren’t any jobs. I got married while I was in college to a farmer, so I knew I was staying here. So really the $4.80 an hour phone-answering job was a pretty good job.
BN: Do you have a journalism degree? My degree’s actually in Ag Journalism [from UW–Madison] and I still teach there—the department’s now called Life Sciences Communication. It’s really a good department because it’s very hands-on and practical. I started in the journalism school but back then it was huge and you never got to meet your professors.
I actually got very sick when I was a sophomore in college and I ended up in the old University Hospital. It was the lowest moment of my young life. I remember looking out the window and watching all the students walk by in bed sheets on their way to their first toga party, and I couldn’t go. But my [hospital] roommate had fallen off her bike and had a head injury, and three of her professors came to see her in the hospital and I’m like, “What’s your major?” And she’s like, “Ag Journalism.” I’m like “That’s what I want to major in!”
BN: What’s been the best thing about the teaching experience? Being in touch with young people is always great because you find out what’s cool. I’ve had a Facebook page for like five years, which is pretty amazing for an old person. Now admittedly it’s an extremely lame Facebook page but I do get invited to all kinds of beer parties. I think some of that has pushed my desire to get out of newspapers, too, because for years I would always require kids to get the newspaper and I’d quiz them on current events. About five years ago they started really complaining about it. “No one reads the newspaper. We can get this all online.” It’s like a stake through your heart but it really was true.
BN: Who are the best and the brightest young journalists and what are the skills they’re going to need? I still think you’re going to need to be able to write quickly, concisely and engagingly. Because it’s the same problem if you can’t get somebody to read the first three inches of a newspaper story—they’re not going to click to it on a web page. I think it actually ups the ante for being better writers and writing better leads.
BN: My gut reaction to The Capital Times news was, “Wow, you’re going to be relevant again. Isn’t this exciting for journalism.” Yeah I think we’re all really interested to see if that can fly. I hope it does, but there is the worrisome side. If it doesn’t work it’s a lot easier to pull the plug on that than the full newspaper. I hope it works. I hope they figure it out. The basic problem is not to get people to read it. Our readers are still there. It’s just the advertising money. … The challenges in some ways are on the business side, right now anyway.
BN: Is PR a natural fit for journalists because you develop those relationships over the years? I don’t know. More money, which is great! The benefits, working for the state, are fabulous. I think it’s hard to give up journalism because it’s so interesting. You meet new people. You’re learning about new things. And in my job I’m going to be covering all the basic science research in the medical school.
BN: You’re going to be a journalist. It’s going to be the same kind of thing. I’m going to find out the latest thing on fixing my wandering brain or making me live forever… or all the bad things I’ve been doing to myself. It’s really going to feed my hypochondria, though. I’m looking forward to all the new diseases on that.
BN: How is your health? My courageous 45-minute battle with cancer, as my mean newspaper friends call it. I did have malignant melanoma, which can kill you, but if they get it soon enough it’s no big deal.
BN: What will you miss most about the job? What I will miss most is the readers. You’re always getting feedback. “Please do this. Why’d you do that? You’re an idiot! You’re so smart!”
BN: What was the biggest splash a column ever made? I’m not sure because we have a tendency to forget something and go on to the next thing. There are definitely issues that cranked people up. In recent years, I would say the Madison smoking ban. Anytime you write about smoking people go insane. I saw it from both sides because I don’t smoke and I have asthma and I hate cigarettes. And then I also know Mary and Al [Tedeschi, owners of The Villa Tap on the north side of Madison) and I know how hurt they were by that. When you do it piecemeal like that it’s very hurtful on the people and the places that can’t do it when they can across the street.
BN: My favorite dust-up was the controversy over breastfeeding at Camp Randall. That’s what’s cool about being a columnist—you can bring light to these things. I think the people at UW really didn’t get it. They’re all guys. They never thought of this before. When they did they thought, “Well, why would you do that?” Then it got picked up by the radio yellers, and they twisted it to say that I was in favor of bringing babies to Camp Randall, and they don’t want babies at Camp Randall. That really wasn’t what it was about. Women just wanted a place to pump that wasn’t the bathroom. No guy’s ever been through that.
BN: What is the future of the media then if people, as you say, are bypassing the media for their information? Where is the place for these conversations? I don’t know because I really feel it plays an important role in the community. Look at it playing out right now. It’s a small example but the poor guy whose girlfriend was killed in the apartment and the landlord won’t let him out of the lease. They finally backed off when Dee Hall did a story about that. http://www.madison.com/wsj/mad/breaking_news/281508 If you don’t have a daily newspaper and you can’t shame people who need it, what’s going to happen? We’re obviously going to do less of it at the State Journal because they didn’t replace me.
BN: After the State Journal decided to suspend your column, was there a day you just said, “I’m done?” I don’t know. It’s actually harder on my family. My dad is of that generation where they all read the newspaper and he goes to the diner and people say, “Oh I read what your daughter wrote today.” My kids go to school and the teachers read it and they think it’s cool and they talk about it in class. I think I’m over it because I got the bad side of it, too. The creepy, icky voicemails from stalker people. I actually had a stalker come out to my house and take photos of my house and put it on the Internet so people could find me if they wanted to. I got the downside of the local “see the celebrity” thing, so I think it’s easier for me to walk away from it.
BN: Are you spending more time on the farm? I have a date with about a thousand lettuce seedlings this afternoon. [Her new job hasn’t started yet…] When we were young I did a lot of it and then we had kids and I was busy corralling them around. It’s mostly [husband] Matt’s thing and that’s good because we’re both bossy oldest children and it’s better if he does his thing and I do mine.
BN: How was that life-work balance been for you over the years? It was good when I was doing the “On Wisconsin” column because I worked out of my house a lot. I didn’t go into the office as much. Back in those days they didn’t care if they didn’t see you as long as they got your stories. Matt was here, too. I definitely did some interviews from inside my shower while the kids were banging on the bathroom door. I did have the advantage of a pretty flexible job when they were little. And I would take them along a lot. I did a lot of cool stories with them. I took them to pow-wows and buffalo roundups and the EAA.
BN: What do you think about editors—somebody told me once that we’re just a bunch of frustrated writers. A good editor is a precious thing and I’ve had some over the years. The problem is, once you’ve had a good editor, it’s really hard to go back to someone who isn’t. A good editor saves you from your worst faults and helps your best qualities shine. They’re few and far between, and it’s hard in the newspaper business because they’re such grueling jobs. They’re in the bowels of the slave ship chained to the oars with a police scanner. That’s why I never moved up to the editor’s side because I never wanted to do that. I do actually enjoy editing. I enjoy working with my students. But the day-to-day stuff that goes on at a newspaper is really hard. There are very few people that are good at it, and the ones who are tend to burn out and leave.
BN: How do you sit down to write a column? I’m a big procrastinator like a lot of journalists. When I do sit down I write incredibly fast, so I think what I’m doing when I’m procrastinating is getting it all written in my head so I can just sit down and blast it out.
BN: Why did you gain the kind of audience following you did? I think I speak to people from the heart, and directly. I either make them mad or they agree with me. I think it’s because I write simply. I write how I talk. It’s right there, so you like me or you hate me. You pretty much know where I’m coming from.
BN: You have two kids, right? Lily is a junior in high school, and we’re doing all the college tours. Ben is a sophomore at UW–Madison.
BN: How’s he doing there? Good, except he just signed a lease on a place that’s across the street from the [Brittany Zimmerman] murder house. I’m really not one of those worried parents. I think part of that is from being in the newspaper business. Most people who get killed do so by somebody who knew them. These random stranger stabbings are so creepy and weird. And I think students are just the perfect targets for this, too. My kid has the world’s biggest heart. He’s never gone without a meal so if somebody panhandles him he’s pulling his wallet out. You multiply that by 20,000 and you have a lot of potential victims.
BN: What are you most looking forward to about your new adventure? I think it’ll just be fun to learn again. It’s going to be like being in college. I’m excited to learn about all the new research and see if the parts of my brain that remembers things like stem cells and genetic engineering are still alive.
BN: Where will your work appear? There’s a medical school magazine that I’ll write for. Online. Press releases. Not all my job is going to be writing, either. A lot of it is getting publicity for the research. In some ways it’s going to be less stressful than the newspaper. You don’t have the daily deadlines, but it’s going to be stressful for me to have to be in my desk in a chair early in the morning. And be there all day! I’m serious. When I was a kid my first-grade teacher tied me to my chair. Journalism is the perfect job for people with ADD. I’m excited about working with a lot of people I already know and respect and like.
But I’m probably not going to stay at my next job for twenty-five years. Note to self: show some career versatility! That’s one of the reasons I’m doing this. The State Journal said I could go back to writing about rural Wisconsin. I thought about it, but that’s going back. I want to learn something new. I thought about it, and I actually wrote a note to readers that that’s what I was going to do. And then I did two stories and quit. They’re probably wondering what happened to me.
Not anymore. Thanks, Susan, and best of luck on your new adventure! B.N.