COMMENTARY - Good or bad, pressure is nothin’ but a thing

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“Eric Pilgr— ohhh, you’re that new producer/editor guy at the newspaper.”

I slowly raised my eyebrows, wondering at how the lady standing in front of me knew me. I had been here all of a week and had never laid eyes on her.

Talk about pressure.

Pressure can be a bad thing.

I can’t tell you how many times since arriving two weeks ago that I have heard the name Larry Barnes. I mean sure, he’s a living legend in Army Public Affairs. Probably the winningest newspaper editor in Army history with a nearly 30-year legacy at the Fort Knox newspaper to back it up.

I already knew about Larry.

I first heard his name in September 2002. I was fresh off the news trail at European Stars and Stripes, having spent the previous three years traveling the landscape of Germany, Kosovo, Bosnia & Herzegovina and several other European countries in search of stories. One of only a handful of military reporters for the paper at that time, my three-year stint ended.

So on Sept. 11, I boarded one of the emptiest commercial airplanes ever and headed back to the states. My departure date landed on the one-year anniversary of 9/11, and very few wanted to take to the friendly skies on that date. Call me defiant, or dumb, but I determined that I wasn’t going to let the threat of terrorism keep me from my next destination, so I boarded, bound for Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

It was there where I first heard the name Larry Barnes.

Big Army assigned me to U.S. Army Garrison as editor of the Fort Campbell Courier, at that time an ugly 1990s, candy-colored newspaper loosely patterned after the original USA Today.

First day: public affairs officers told me they wanted a top-to-bottom redesign of the newspaper. Then they explained that my goal was to beat the competition at the 2003 Department of Army awards.

“Who’s the competition?” I asked. My ignorant question was met with the appropriate face.

“Uh, the Fort Knox Turret. Their editor, Larry Barnes, wins—a lot.”

Talk about pressure.

Pressure can be a good thing.

Never to shy away from a challenge, I greased up my elbows and got to work. The newly redesigned Courier rolled hot off the presses in time for the New Year, and what a year it proved to be. Shortly afterward, 101st deployed to Kuwait. Shortly after that, they provided the spearhead into Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Shortly after that, they overthrew Saddam Hussein. Shortly after that, they cornered and killed his two sons. And on it went.

Hard hitting news kept falling into my lap, and I kept obliging it with front page attention that became the envy of several other Army newspaper editors. Even leaders at big Army level took notice – enough that our newspaper won that year’s journalism award. By the end of the year, I figured I was a shoe-in for the DA best newspaper award.

I figured wrong. Larry Barnes cleaned our clock, again. There’s something to be said about wisdom and experience over passion and youthfulness.

Well, 14 years have passed and here I am, back in the newspaper business again. And once again under the shadow of the living legend, but this time at the helm of his old newspaper. So it only seemed fitting to ask his thoughts about those years.

“Back then, we had a staff of 13 and a 72-page paper to put together. It was never the same from day to day, but it was bust your butt every week,” Barnes told me. “Generally speaking, the competition was such that we really had to stay on our toes.”

And how about some advice for me?

“You’re the editor of The Gold Standard now? Well, good luck.”

Talk about pressure.

Pressure is nothin’ but a thing —
Where did I pack that elbow grease? n