While at a Dunkin’ Donuts on the Maine coast in the 1970s, taking a break from his part-time job with a cleaning company, Bill Nemitz saw a story he wrote and photo he took on the front page of the local paper.
He had dropped off the story – about a retiring game warden – at the paper just 12 hours earlier, before heading out to clean the offices of Down East magazine.
“Holy cow, my story is on the front page of the local paper,” recalled Nemitz, a columnist for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. “It’s one of those moments where all is right with the world.”
For Nemitz, 63, a career in journalism has been a series of many things going right. He remembers loving to write as a child, sending six- or seven-page thank-you letters to his grandparents when they would send him a little holiday spending money. But it wasn’t until he took a journalism class at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst that the idea of making money as a writer took hold.
It was the Watergate era, and journalism seemed like a pretty glamorous career path.
“I was so enthralled by this class, and I came away thinking, you can actually get paid to do this?” he said.
After working on the college newspaper, he and his girlfriend at the time moved to the Rockland area where he worked as a freelancer for the Courier-Gazette. He later got hired by the Morning Sentinel in Waterville, where for five years he took on a range of assignments, including coverage of the local planning board, schools and City Hall.
In 1983, he joined the Portland newspapers as a reporter. He subsequently became assistant city editor and then city editor of the now-defunct Evening Express before being named assistant managing editor in charge of sports for the Press Herald/Telegram.
But then the newspaper’s top managers decided the Press Herald needed a stronger voice and, with Nemitz in mind, created the position of local columnist.
Nemitz agonized over whether to accept. He was on a management track, but he also knew that with every move he was getting further away from his passion: writing.
“My wife said, ‘If you don’t do this, you’ll never forgive yourself,’ ” he said.
That was 23 years ago, and Nemitz has been telling stories and calling out politicians ever since.
“I look at journalism not just as a career but as a calling,” he said. “It always has and will continue to play an absolutely critical role in the healthy functioning of our society. Without journalists, the truth becomes very hard to access.”
Nemitz compares current attitudes toward mainstream media to the way people first reacted to climate change. He worries that the longer people continue to ignore assaults on the integrity of the mainstream press, the more likely the institution will be permanently damaged by unrelenting claims of bias and fake news.
For readers, Nemitz hopes people understand that what drives journalists is a sense of duty.
“I think people should realize that journalists, whether local or in Washington, D.C., are working for you,” he said. “People lose sight of that, I think. Every day I go to work and sit down to work, I’m not doing it for myself, I’m doing it for the people who read it.”
Nemitz, who has written about his battle with melanoma, said he soon will be going back for another round of radiation and immunotherapy. He’s optimistic the treatment will work well, just as it did in 2015 and 2016.
In a nutshell …
POSITION: Columnist for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram
YEARS AT CURRENT EMPLOYER: 40 (including the Morning Sentinel, where he started in 1977)
YEARS AS A JOURNALIST: 40
FAVORITE SOURCES FOR LOCAL NEWS: Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, Bangor Daily News, Lewiston Sun Journal, Maine Public, WCSH, The Forecaster
FAVORITE SOURCES FOR NATIONAL NEWS: The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Politico, MSNBC, CNN
ADVICE FOR BEING A SMART NEWS CONSUMER: When in doubt, Google it.