Phil Kabler (BSJ, 1981; MSJ 1984) recently covered his final West Virginia legislative session, after 32 years reporting on it for the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
“The political climate has changed a lot, which is a reason I want to call it a day,” Kabler said. “Much less cooperation, collegiality among members, much more divisiveness and partisanship. It's like all the joy of a legislative session has been snuffed out. And yes, the media is targeted for trying to do our job.”
The political climate isn’t the only change Kabler has experienced in his three decades covering state politics. When he started in 1989, you had to either be in the room to cover committee meetings or listen via “squawk” boxes, intercom speakers that transmitted sound to other parts of the Capitol building. Journalists were provided with bill books – giant folders of copies of all the bills on the agenda for a particular floor session. Today, you can follow the session and view bills electronically.
Kabler has always been fascinated with the legislative process – the protocols, procedures, voluminous rules and formalities – and knew from a very young age that he wanted to be a reporter. In grade school, he wrote a neighborhood newspaper in his hometown of Chester, Virginia, hand-copying each edition. In junior high, Kabler did a term paper on the Civil War by recreating a newspaper of that era.
When the time came, choosing a college major was easy, and shortly after enrolling in the then-Perley Isaac Reed School of Journalism, Kabler began reporting for WVU’s college newspaper, The Daily Athenaeum.
“My most valuable time learning the craft was working at The Daily Athenaeum,” Kabler said. “Professor Paul Atkins was the greatest influence. He taught that writing should be crisp and concise and grammatically correct, while emphasizing accuracy in reporting. He would often take a red pen to the day's edition of the Athenaeum and post it, which was a stinging but valuable learning experience.”
After graduation, Kabler worked briefly at the Petersburg (Va.) Progress-Index, then went to the Raleigh Register which eventually merged into the Beckley Register-Herald. During graduate school, he interviewed with the Charleston Gazette, but was told by editor Don Marsh that he only hired “Ivy Leaguers” for reporting positions.
“The interview disintegrated into the two of us sharing our favorite examples of unintentionally vulgar headlines, and I left assuming I could write off ever working for the Gazette,” said Kabler. “Two months later, I got a call from Marsh offering me a general assignment position, and I would like to think I opened the way for a generation of WVU journalism grads to get reporting jobs at the Gazette.”
After about a year as a general assignment reporter, Kabler moved to the healthcare beat and eventually covered the statehouse. Although his full-time reporting tenure is ending, Kabler plans to continue writing the Charleston Gazette-Mail’s Statehouse Beat weekly column, which he started in 2003, allowing him to continue to offer commentary and perspective about state politics.
Kabler is retiring from a rewarding career spent almost entirely with the same news organization, but he worries about the future of journalism and journalists.
“I find it extremely hard to give advice to journalism students or aspiring journalists, because my first inclination would be to say, ‘Don't.’ I'm hoping I'm wrong, but I think I may be at the end of a line where a reporter could spend an entire career at a paper like the Gazette, now Gazette-Mail, and be financially able to walk away with a nice retirement,” Kabler admitted. “I'm hopeful that the route to the future is in nonprofits like Mountain State Spotlight because local reporting is critical. And besides, despite all the stress, frustration, and deadline pressure, there's no better job in the world than being a newspaper reporter.”