By: Joe Strupp
For top editors, managing the homefront during wartime is as close as they get to combat journalism. Unless you are Dennis Anderson.
The 50-year-old journalist, who has spent the last five years running the 26,065-daily-circulation Antelope Valley Press in Palmdale, Calif., will soon become the first top daily-newspaper editor embedded with troops in Persian Gulf War II. After two weeks of training with the 1498th Transportation Company of the California National Guard, Anderson is set to ship out with the local unit when it is called to join the war effort this week.
“I am the only person on the staff with the background or the intensity of interest,” Anderson told E&P during a cell-phone call from Camp Roberts in San Luis Obispo, where he has prepared since March 10. “Most other papers our size will let the wires handle it, but I wanted the excitement of it. Our readers will be able to understand this war better with stories about their people.”
A former U.S. Army paratrooper who served in West Germany between 1972 and 1975, Anderson said he never saw combat and has longed for the experience, either as a soldier or as a journalist. His news career includes stints with United Press International in Los Angeles and Washington, as well as editing positions in The Associated Press’ L.A. bureau. During those years, he covered the Rodney King riots and the 1994 Southern California earthquake, but no military conflicts. “I do not want to let the lights black out on my little life without going to see that elephant,” he said about war coverage. “I’m obsessed with history, and this is a very large final act. I want to have the full palette.”
With a total of only 12 reporters, the Antelope Valley Press needs all its staff to properly cover its circulation area, which spans Kern County and northern Los Angeles County. Still, Publisher William C. Markham supports Anderson’s mission, which he believes will better the paper’s coverage. “We are excited,” he said in a statement to E&P. “We are proud of the fact that he is able to do this.”
General Manager Cherie Bryant said Managing Editor Vern Lawson will pinch-hit for Anderson while he is in the war zone. She said the paper works in a family atmosphere that has many of its editors taking over for each other when needed.
Anderson’s reporting abilities make him a natural for the war coverage, at any age, she added. “Dennis is a wonderful storyteller and has a real insight into things,” she said. “There is not another person in the newsroom who can do what he is capable of doing.”
Anderson’s war odyssey began innocently enough last month during a meeting between editors and military officials in Los Angeles set up by AP. “There were a couple of National Guard guys there from our town talking about going over [to Iraq],” he recalled. “I asked them about how I could embed.”
He then contacted the 1498th’s company commander and joined the unit at Camp Roberts several weeks later. The first four or five days consisted of learning how to maneuver in a chemical suit and gas mask, Anderson said, as well as “heavy equipment training” and infantry training. “It made me feel like I’d wished I’d never left the military,” he said.
During his training, Anderson kept tabs on the Press newsroom operation via cell phone. He also filed numerous stories on the unit, which made for interesting copy since the Guard volunteers span ages from 18 to 55, he said. “I think people have a stereotype that these are weekend warriors,” Anderson said of them. “They are real people, many of whom want to extend soldiering careers after doing combat in the past.”
Anderson, like the Guardsmen, is giving up a nice civilian life. Aside from his editor’s post, he is leaving in the States his wife of 10 years and three grown children, whom he said are supportive. “Sometimes I don’t know if I have bitten off more than I could chew,” he said. “It is the undertaking of a large unknown.”
See E&P‘s complete coverage of Iraq and the Press.
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