Life of a Journalist: Q&A with newsman John Przybys

When John Przybys was a young boy, he would kneel on the living room floor at his home in Bedford, Ohio, and spread out the afternoon newspaper.

“We were the afternoon blue-collar paper people,” he said of his family’s subscription to the Cleveland Press. “I would be on my hands and knees, just moving from story to story with it flat on the floor.”

Przybys (pronounced like Frisbees with a “P” instead of an “F’), now 61, has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. On a sunny Saturday afternoon, John sipped an iced tea as he reminisced on his childhood and career as a journalist.

Born in 1956, John and his three siblings grew up in what he described as a “blue collar” family. He attended Kent State University and graduated, working at several Ohio newspapers before moving to Las Vegas in 1988. He has worked as a features reporter at the Las Vegas Review-Journal for nearly 30 years, simultaneously teaching journalism classes at UNLV for over a decade. John has seen it all; his pragmatic viewpoint seems to contribute to his longevity in the field.

“The world is a great place, there’s wonderful things out there,” he said. “But there’s a lot of random crap that may hit you. And all you can do is enjoy the good times while you can,” John said, pausing.

“Ok, I’m done,” he laughed.

This is classic John Przybys. Often in conversation, he’ll get swept away and wax on about something that angers him, or something that he finds wonderful. He’s a passionate man, outraged by the moral and ethical shortcomings of the world. Yet he’s ever curious and willing to look at larger perspectives to search for solutions, while remaining humble and grateful for his life.

IMG_4976
John, on the right, with celebrity Chef Paul Prudhomme in the early nineties.

ALTG: When did your journalism career start?

JP: I was just always a reader.

John talked about his family’s set of Golden Book encyclopedias kept in his bedroom; since he wasn’t allowed to go downstairs until 9 a.m. on Saturdays, he would pore through the encyclopedias on weekend mornings.

I’ve always been interested in stuff, and I don’t know why. In seventh grade, our teacher brought in a bunch of Newsweeks and Times, and I was constantly reading those. Even to the point where, occasionally, I assume he would see me engrossed in one, and say, “Przybys, got a quick mind?” And I’d say “Huh?” I read the [Cleveland] Press, but I never really thought of doing this.

ALTG: In high school, what did you want to do?

JP: Most of my career, I wanted to be a teacher. It just seemed like a neat thing to do. I like to read, I liked to learn stuff; this would be awesome!

But then in eighth grade, I heard from the school paper at my little parochial school. The advisor said, “Have you ever thought of doing this for a living?” That was kind of like, “Huh, interesting.” Then in tenth grade, I had a creative writing teacher who was very complimentary about my writing, and said, “You should pursue this.”

We got off on the topic of our college journalism programs; John went to Kent State and called my journalism school “pretty good.”

“Pretty good?” I said. “The best!”

“Not as good as Kent State, thank you!” We laughed. “We’re all proud of our alma maters,” he said.

ALTG: So why did you go to Kent State?

JP: There were, at the time, 11 journalism programs in Ohio, and Kent State’s was very good. Cleveland’s would have been closer, but I commuted freshman year. It was 40 minutes away on the freeway.

I started in the fall of ’74. I did my freshman year, and then I left for a year and a half.

I entered as a journalism major, but you don’t start taking the courses until sophomore year. In retrospect, I think it was good that I dropped out because after making frozen food for a year and a half. . .

ALTG: And you worked for Stouffer’s, right?

JP: Stouffer’s, yes. An ingredient handler was the actual title. We were the people who lifted the boxes and dumped the stuff and mixed the mac ‘n cheese. It was very industrial. I had no idea that food could be so. . . like making a car.

ALTG: Did you enjoy that?

JP: No. (laughs). But I do miss the simplicity of it. So after doing that for a year and a half, I went back to school. I dropped back in.

ALTG: Did you always know you were going to go back to school?

JP: I think I did. It was March-ish, so I was able to get back in for spring semester. It was like, “I’ve saved some money, I’m done now, I think it’s time to get serious.”

That was my industrial experience, which, in retrospect, was wonderful. It was just another cool job.

John then discussed his high school job, working for city services. He worked in the sewers and cutting grass in the cemetery. He made $2.27 an hour, at a time when minimum wage was $2.25. “I was the envy of all my McDonald’s friends,” he said.

ALTG: So you are now back at Kent State, you’re taking your journalism classes. How do you start working in journalism?

JP: School paper. The Daily Kent Stater.

John stater staff_1
From the masthead of the Daily Kent Stater on May 24, 1979. John was a staff writer during his senior year, listed on the right.

ALTG: What did you do?

JP: My first one was, I covered religion, oddly enough. *(John has carved out a niche as a religion reporter throughout the years). And it was the first time a source had said, “Would you like me to pray with you?”

And then summer came, and by then I was going to school summers because I really had to concentrate to finish up and make the money last. What was great about college was that everything was just there for the taking.

ALTG: Food!

JP: I was just thinking more, in terms of knowledge. (laughs). Because never again will you be among so many different people.

We’d have the evangelical Christian group next to the junior Communist league at tables in the student plaza. Never again do you meet that diversity of people and ideas in one place.

ALTG: So you graduate…

JP: I finished up in the summer, this would have been ’79. Then that fall I interned at the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

ALTG: After that internship ended, did you get hired?

JP: No. I applied, and actually the guy, he said, we are hiring now, but frankly, we want someone more experienced than you, which I couldn’t argue with, and he told me to keep in touch. But it was the best thing that ever happened to me. Seriously.

I ended up going to the Salem News in Salem, Ohio. And it was a little, tiny paper owned by a very bad chain. It was an afternoon paper, I worked six days a week. I was only there for four months because it was so hellish. And we had to do our own photography. So even the hell was a good thing, because we really had to do everything. I covered, schools, I covered cops, I did features, I did everything.

ALTG: Did you quit after four months?

JP: I did, because I got a job in Sandusky. I was looking. And I loved it, and I loved Sandusky; I was there for 8 years.

ALTG: And you then came to Las Vegas?

JP: Right. I wanted to be a feature writer. I did features there, but it was covering beats.

ALTG: Why did you want to do features?

JP: I think I liked the diversity of it. I admire people who can do the same beat for 25 years, but I’m just not one of them. Basically, the job description is go out and talk to total strangers, and ask them intrusive questions, and find out stuff.

ALTG: It satisfies my natural curiosity so well!

JP: And that’s just it. Ask people questions, and learn something, find out how the world works. And then tell other people. We are professional gossips.

Isn’t it awesome, even though we cover something, a story that didn’t exist four hours ago is now there? It’s tangible.

ALTG: So why Las Vegas?

JP: I answered an ad. At the time, we had a Sunday magazine at the R-J. So I applied to that. This would have been in ’87. And they didn’t hire me for that job. And later that year, they expanded the feature department by one person, and they called me for that.

I came here, got off the plane, and immediately decided I don’t want to live here. (chuckles).

ALTG: Oh, why?

JP: I came because it’s exactly the kind of job I wanted to do. But I think you have a chemistry with cities. The editor at the time picked me up on a Sunday; they flew me in for the interview. And I didn’t know at the time that once they flew you in, you got the job unless you had three legs or something.

So the editor picks me up, he drives me around town, takes me to Caesar’s. He was well-intentioned. He takes me out to dinner, somewhere on the Strip, I’m sure. I guess I was not enthused. He picks me up on Monday morning, I come in for the interview. And, I had no idea at the time, but he told the managing editor, “I don’t think he’s going to take the job.” Which I’m sure never happens.

Ultimately, I had to take the job because it was exactly the type of job I wanted.

ALTG: When did you move here?

JP: February of ’88. I drove across the country. Somewhere in there are 5 or 6 tapes; I actually did a running commentary as I drove across the country. I’m frightened to listen to those now. Maybe it’s a function of what we do, that our immediate instinct is that, “I should record this, I should get this down, I should chronicle this!”

ALTG: We don’t want to forget things!

JP: Which is probably total arrogance on our part. But, it’s a three-person play, and you’re the minor character. So for me, the whole point is that I would like people to forget they are reading my words. I want them to be so in their heads that they’re making the picture in their heads without me being there.

You’re starting, I’m kind of figuring out my endgame here. Looking back, I’m just incredibly lucky. I made a living writing! I would never have imagined as a kid that I could make a living doing this.

ALTG: I still can’t imagine it.

JP: Well, me neither! Even if I end up working at Home Depot, I’m now ready, if I have to, to move on, because I’ve had a good career. To say nothing of the people you meet. Most people don’t get to do a phone interview with, say, Elie Wiesel.

ALTG: What has been the highlight of your career?

JP: Elie Wiesel! That, and John Updike.

ALTG: Tell me about Elie Wiesel.

JP: He was coming to town, the Adelson Foundation was giving him an award. I did a phone interview for an advance. He started off by saying, “Tell me about the paper you work for.” So I told him, and he wanted to know how we were doing. Maybe he heard the puzzlement in my voice, because he explained that the reason why he does that is because he was a journalist for years.

So he says, “I just want to see how my former profession is doing, I feel bad that it’s going through such hard times.” We do the interview, and at the end of the interview, he said, “You did a very good interview, you’re a very good reporter; tell your editor I think you deserve a raise.” So I put that in my story because I thought it was a tie-back to the beginning.

ALTG: But you didn’t get a raise?

JP: No, no. I did mention it at the time. But it was so him to be so other-person directed.

John discussed meeting several other authors, including John Updike and Amy Tan at the American Bookseller’s Association BookExpo and Stephen King while he was in town for the filming of The Stand. At the BookExpo, he waited outside John Updike’s room to speak with him:

I introduced myself and asked if he had a few minutes to talk about publishing. He said, “Why wouldn’t I?” Then at one point, he says, “Public speaking is such a strange form of  communication, don’t you think?” So here’s John Updike asking my opinion about something I know nothing about. This is like God saying, “I’m going to have a hurricane hit Houston, what do you think?” I’m sure I mumbled something stupid.

And then, I swear to God I’ve never done this before, I had a collection of the first three Rabbit novels. After the interview, I said, “I know this is really unprofessional, but. . .” And he said, “Why wouldn’t I sign it?”

Authors are cool. I think it’s because what they do is so solitary that they enjoy the chance to talk about it.

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A few press credentials from over the years.

ALTG: So you’ve lived here in Las Vegas for almost 30 years now. How have you seen the city change?

JP: I think it’s still the best place to be a feature writer. Nothing against New York or LA or Omaha or Cleveland. Las Vegas is the epicenter of weird.

We are Rick’s Cafe (a reference to the movie Casablanca). Rick’s Cafe is somewhere where people who have no reason to cross paths, cross paths.

I have met people here I would never meet anywhere else. That’s the thing people don’t understand, too. We have the Strip, but we have the city. This is a company town. This is Detroit with feathers, man! The dancers punch in and punch out; they are the assembly line workers. We are a blue collar town. We’re not all celebrity chefs and entertainers.

ALTG: In your 40 or so year journalism career…

JP: That long?

ALTG: What has changed in journalism?

JP: Wow, everything. Reporting is more important than ever now. Now, for the first time in history, people can go their entire lives and not have their opinion challenged, which I think is scary for democracy. Democracy depends on the good ideas driving out the bad, and the fact is, if you never hear a better idea, you’ll never realize your idea is bad.

I still maintain that you have ten percent of the people on the left are annoying and crazy. Ten percent of the people on the right are annoying and crazy. You will never reach those people, they are so stuck in their ways.

But the eighty percent in the middle is the average guy. These are the people who wake up in the morning and go to work and put their kids through school and try to do the right thing. If I didn’t believe in this eighty percent of people, I’ve got no reason to hang on anymore.

*This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

 

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