Friday, June 1, 2012

Writers and Writing: Tom McDonald

Writer’s Block airs every Tuesday, at 9 a.m. MST on KFUN/KLVF, streaming live at 


A journalist first and foremost, 
and a little fiction on the side

Tom McDonald has a passion for what he does. It is evident – aside from saying it – that he truly loves the newspaper business. During his May 29 interview on Writer’s Block he talked about his creative writing as well as his position as editor and publisher of the Las Vegas Optic, a small town paper in a community of about 13,500 people.

Although he didn’t get knee-deep into writing until he went to work in the newspaper business, he began writing from an early age. He started out with poetry, and then short stories. Now he’s into writing novels. “I had no discipline with writing until I got into journalism,” he said. 

Like many writers Tom uses words as a means of self-expression. Growing up he admired John Steinbeck and Ken Kesey, among others. “To learn how to write I read.” After reading the greats and trying his hand at different styles, Tom said he developed his own voice.

He talked about the differences between journalistic and creative writing. From the journalism perspective Tom enjoys taking on the challenges of making complex stories accessible to the average person. Stepping outside one’s own perspective isn’t easy but it is necessary for journalists. “Taking an issue you have an opinion about and being able to articulate the other side is a good mental exercise,” he said. And it’s responsible, objective reporting.

Tom quoted a line from another writer about fiction sometimes being more accurate than fact. “That’s why I like writing fiction. You can get inside another person’s head. The magic is that I can be or think from another perspective and I’m not limited by facts.”

Tom’s manuscript (one of several) is what he calls straightforward fiction. Resurrection is about a reporter covering a story about a cult located on the outskirts of Las Vegas, NM. The main character has personal and professional struggles that surface during the course of meeting with the cult leader, who is not what he appears to be.

“The character is not based on me,” Tom said, “but he is a reporter, which is what I know, and I have had similar struggles.”

Another manuscript he’s working on is entitled, Superpowers, about two girls who are feuding and who don’t always get along. He points out that if it gets picked up by a publisher he’ll have to change the names of the characters, currently named for his two daughters.

Tom started writing fiction with more intention after he got his new laptop. “I had the story about the cult leader in my head for a long time.” He’s working in familiar territory with the story line by making the protagonist a reporter and setting it in Las Vegas, NM.

Tom’s other recreational writing is rhyming poetry. In his view, poetry is painting a picture with words. “I can tap into feelings I have a hard time expressing elsewhere. Even though I’ve played with free verse, I like rhyme. It’s like I get a tune in my head, and since I’m not a musician, I put it on paper with words.”

His career as a journalist has spanned 20 years and counting, and he loves every minute of it.

“Simply put we generate news and put out views,” he said of the Optic. “I’m very proud of what I do. Newspapers are a cornerstone of democracy. Government functions better when citizens are well-informed. We put out what people need to know and what people want to know.”

Community conversation and debate are important to Tom, which is why the rich content on the opinions pages of the paper has grown since he became publisher. Differing views inform the public as much as front page news.

Tom said that while it’s important to highlight problems, the paper should also present possible solutions. “Criticism of newspapers in justified when all you do editorially is beat up on everybody else but never offer solutions. On our best days we make a difference. Not every day, but our job is to push the community, hopefully in the right direction. If we have one single agenda it’s to be transparent. Open and honest discussion is more important than whether you agree with me or not.”

Tom is encouraged that for the most part people understand and appreciate that the newspaper is an independent entity. “We think for ourselves and make our news judgment based on an independent line of thinking. It’s not unusual for us to express support for someone and then run a story that makes them look bad. It’s not personal; it’s the news.”

Tom McDonald is a native of Arkansas, where he grew up as one of seven sons to a teacher and a preacher, In his 20s he dropped out of college and held a variety of blue-collar and community oriented jobs throughout the South, then returned to college in his 30s to earn a bachelor’s degree, majoring in history and minoring in journalism. Tom has more than two decades of experience in the newspaper business, and has spent the past seven-plus years as editor and publisher of the Las Vegas Optic. In 2010-2011 he served as president of the New Mexico Press Association. Even though he’s yet to be published outside the world of journalism, he also writes fiction and poetry on the side, just for fun — or, he dreams, someday, just for the profit of it all. In the meantime, he says he’ll keep his day job, which he calls “the best job in town.”

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