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A farewell to Keith Ferguson

October 26, 2015

When I started this blog in December 2008, my very first blog post included a flagrant violation of the standards in the AP Stylebook, which I am ashamed of now.

I used two spaces after every period.

For about 3 years after that, I continued to routinely use two spaces after a period in every blog post, believing, as I had understood it through years of schooling, that two spaces go after every period.

It wasn’t until Keith Ferguson set me straight, sometime in late 2011, that I finally broke the habit, and I have never used two spaces after a period again.

Ferguson announced last week that he will leave The Walpole Times as editor, and move to a higher paid job in public relations.

The one space after a period rule was just one of the many lessons and practical skills I learned from Ferguson over more than five years of knowing him. He was a great friend, mentor, and, oftentimes, a surprising and unlikely partner in what can sometimes be a challenging environment for journalists at Walpole Town Hall.

People may not realize it today, but Ferguson’s departure will undoubtedly reconfigure the media landscape in Walpole. That’s because, having come to know and observe him over many years, I have realized that he is probably the single most important reason that the Times, unlike many other community newspapers owned by GateHouse Media, has managed to sustain relative success even as GateHouse and the journalism industry in general has struggled.

Ferguson, a Walpole native, who started as a reporter before working his way up to Editor, took tremendous pride in the Times, and poured his heart and soul into it. He had very high journalism standards, and took his role as Editor of the town’s only major newspaper seriously. Even when he faced criticism for his work, he never backed down and always stood up for his newspaper and for the reporters working under him.

The Times’ readership and revenue remained steady under his leadership, and it remains one of GateHouse Media’s strongest newspapers in this area of the state. I also wouldn’t be kidding if I said that Ferguson’s strong hand on the Times’ tiller has been the reason why this blog has had such difficulty competing. Now that Ferguson has left, 180 might actually have a shot at siphoning away some readers permanently, assuming the Times chooses to replace Ferguson with a lower-tier editor who knows nothing about our town and will turn the paper into junk mail.

Ferguson was also fiercely independent, even though I am sure many 180 readers might disagree. I can honestly say, after many conversations with him both on the record and off the record, and having read many of his articles, that Ferguson always told it like it was, and always straight down the middle. One of his favorite pieces of wisdom, that can be applied not only to journalism but also to life in general, is that a reporter knows they are being non-biased when they get criticism for their coverage from all sides of the political spectrum. After all, if no one is happy with the story you have written, that means you did a pretty good job writing it. A reporter’s job is not to make anyone look good, it is to report the truth and let the readers draw the conclusions. At one time or another, Ferguson has been criticized by just about every politician at Town Hall, and by a number of opinionated readers. Ferguson always took that as a compliment, and as a validation of hard work.

At the Times, Ferguson had to contend with continual budget cuts by GateHouse Media, which essentially gutted the newspaper’s once-vaunted editorial staff. Ferguson also had to take on additional demands on his time, becoming editor of the Medfield and Westwood Press in 2014, with minimal additional compensation to show for it. He took all of the challenges in stride, still making every effort to keep the Times strong, even as he never had the ability to hire more than one reporter, or even keep a local Sports Editor on the staff.

Ferguson also won several awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association, a representation of his attention to quality even under pressure.

On a personal note, Ferguson also afforded me a huge favor when he allowed me to write a column in The Walpole Times for two years, right out of high school. It was a big risk, given that my reputation at the time was not particularly positive in some political quarters. Ferguson faced a lot of criticism for not only the decision to give me precious editorial space on a regular basis, but also for many of my opinions. He took all the blame and shielded me from some of the most intense criticism, and he backed me up 100 percent and never terminated the column, even when he probably should have. It was through that experience that he taught me a lot about how to write a good article (such as never starting a sentence with “so,” “and” or “but,” never using “over” when you should use “more than,” etc.), how to see issues from both sides (unrelentingly insisting that I personally telephone every person who I planned to criticize to obtain a response from them to include in the article), and when to tone down the rhetoric (he occasionally stayed up in late hours close to deadline simply to rewrite my columns and make me look less like a grouch.) I have probably learned more from that experience than I have from any English teacher I ever had in 16 years of school. My own personal writings and the articles on this blog have changed considerably from that experience.

Even before the column, I also have to thank Ferguson for his willingness to come on to my radio show on WDIS-AM 1170 in Norfolk between 2009 and 2011. Spending a Saturday afternoon with me, some young kid, talking about local issues probably wasn’t high on his list of priorities, but it definitely meant a lot to me, not only at that time but also still today.

So, thanks, Keith, for everything you have done to support me, my endeavors, this blog, and thanks for your hard work at The Walpole Times. Best wishes to you.

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