Editor’s note: Erin Grace retired in May after more than 20 years of writing news stories and columns in the Omaha World-Herald.
A mother, a wife, a teacher, a journalist and an Omaha native. Erin Grace is no stranger to a busy lifestyle even during a time of uncertainty.
“This is the biggest story of my life,” Grace said on the phone in March.
The pandemic turned her job completely upside down. In-person interviews, a crucial part of journalism, canceled. The new normal is using Zoom or phone interviews.
With the pandemic sweeping the nation, people are turning to news outlets to report what is happening. Grace stressed that journalism is important now more than ever.
She has over 20 years of experience in journalism. This includes an internship through Associated Press in Washington D.C. and teaching high school students journalism. Her stories as a columnist focus on people who typically do not have a voice: people in poverty, the homeless and minorities. Grace’s love for her job shows in her stories that she writes. One example is her story about how easy it is to buy a gun in Nebraska. She loves how every day is a different day and how there is no typical day at work.
The Omaha World-Herald subscription introduced Grace to journalism at a young age. From there, her parents bought Newsweek, which continued her love of reading the news. In high school, Grace was the news editor of the Marian High School newspaper.
“I was kind of on that path my whole life,” Grace said.
Grace attended Marquette University in Milwaukee and obtained her bachelor of arts in English, journalism and political science. The location of Marquette made it easy to walk around downtown while surrounded by a vibrant and diverse city. Wisconsin Avenue divided the hustle-and-bustle campus in half. Marquette valued helping others in need, she said, which shaped Grace not only as a writer but as a person, too.
“I feel like the second you see someone in a way worse off position than you are, it builds empathy. But also as a writer, you’re taking notes and absorbing the experience thinking about how you would talk about that experience to someone else,” Grace said.
Her college years gave her valuable work and life experience. However, Grace faced a problem many college students face when going to college: switching their major. Grace interned in Washington D.C. while Bill Clinton was in his first term. She loved it because she was in D.C. doing real journalism while getting paid well. However, she read about Teach for America and she changed her major. Grace knew she did not know what she wanted to do.
“When you’re 20, 21 and 22, it’s hard. It’s hard in its own way because you don’t want to screw up your future,” Grace said. “If I could talk to 21-year-old me, I would literally say with as much compassion as possible, don’t sweat it. Get your degree. No one’s going to give a shit about what classes you took,” Grace said.
After college, Grace taught English and journalism for three years at Franklin Senior High School in Franklin, La. Teaching high school shaped her writing because she read so much more. Grading students’ papers, reading Romeo and Juliet for a lesson plan, reading some news now and then and helping students made Grace a better writer. Grace stressed to her students that if they wanted to be better writers then they have to be good readers.
Grace’s three years in the classroom not only helped her as a writer but also what career path she wanted. Grace taught in a high poverty area and it was a wakeup call for her.
“When I was thinking about my failures, which were massive, and successes in the classroom, they were really lessons in humility,” Grace said.
Her first year teaching was rough, she said, and it shaped how she taught the following year. She decided to do a third year, but after that, she had a different career in mind. Grace wrote a letter to the editor of the Omaha World-Herald explaining why she wanted the job she applied for. Her resume was thin, but they hired her because her letter stood out to the editor. She did not follow the rules for normal professional letter writing.
Now, Grace continues to write about social justice issues regarding poverty, gun control and minorities in Omaha. One of Grace’s favorite things about Omaha is the livability. She’s able to have a family with everything being relatively affordable. A typical day for Grace is going through emails, scrolling through Facebook or Twitter and trying to localize news. Grace says if coronavirus was not happening right now, she would localize Tiger King.
“There is no typical day. We’re dealing with whatever’s happening,” Grace said.
One of Grace’s favorite stories is one that did not make the front cover; it actually was on page three. She went to a middle school on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, so it is like Christmas because it is the same every year.
“I think it was my favorite because it was a turning point, and it was the first time I realized I’m going to have some fun with this job,” Grace said.
Sure, it was not the biggest or most exciting story, but this was when Grace knew she chose the right job.
“One of the most damaging opinions right now about journalism is that it is all fake,” Grace said.
Painting the media as bad is dangerous and makes the media lose credibility. Grace’s most tragic story to write was about a Sudanese man who likely committed suicide after his body was found in a lake. The Sudanese man was brought here as a refugee as a baby, and his mom had to work many different jobs to keep them afloat. However, he was taken away from his mom and put into foster care at 5 years old. They eventually got back together. The Sudanese man went to college and was going to be a teacher. However, COVID-19 happened, and he had to come back home to help support his family. He worked many jobs to help his family, but he was under a lot of stress.
“The idea that he had overcome all these things, only to find despair and take his own life. It’s, like, I can’t even wrap my head (around that),” Grace said.
Journalism, like other professions, is affected by COVID-19. Editors cannot review articles in person, and writers cannot bounce ideas off of each other at the office. Journalism ends up being an all-day job sometimes at the office, but now it is at home.
“If you open up the World-Herald, there are hardly any ads. This is a bad omen for our jobs,” Grace said.
Newspaper journalism was already struggling before COVID-19, so this could cause more layoffs or pay cuts. The future for journalism is uncertain, but one thing is certain is that journalism is constantly changing.
“We’re constantly adapting, and I think that is what you will be called to do is kind of adapt,” Grace said.
Newspaper companies will also have to find a solution that adapts to the current situation. People could either lose their jobs or companies could find a way to revitalize newspaper companies.
“My hope is after COVID-19 we come out of this somehow stronger and better. Somehow these systems that were not working and unsustainable get a little bit fixed,” Grace said. “And that’s the big question: Who is going to step up and save the day?”
Grace had a general sense of what she wanted to do, but it was not set in stone until a few years after graduation. Grace said having more than one major will help you in the journalism field.
“Kind of have a broad imagination about what the future could hold for you,” Grace said. “The best part about this job is that you’re part of the larger human experience … A poor person is not a hero and a rich person is not a villain, and everybody’s a shade of gray.”