The August Sunday afternoon was sticky and hot, and the rugby fans on the sidelines of the annual Elvis 7s Tournament were ready to go home. The sun was setting when I noticed a crowd around the scorer's table. What was going on?
Michael Donahue from The Commercial Appeal had showed up to cover the awards ceremony, that's what. Sweat was dripping from his famous bushy hair, his notebook and camera were in hand, trademark Chuck Taylors tied onto his feet. He chatted amiably with sweaty players as he checked the spelling of their names, shot some photos and a quick video, made sure he saw everyone.
Of course he did. Showing up and making connections with people was what Michael did best.
More serious journalists sometimes sneered at him as just the "society" reporter, but his ability to see a story and interview just the right person to get it is unequaled. Though Michael worked in Memphis journalism for more than 30 years (he started at the old Memphis Press-Scimitar), he was always game for a new assignment, and stayed current with pop culture and connected to the real Memphis like no one else.
Corporate titans confided in him as he took their photos at parties. Young up-and-comers flocked to him at street fairs and benefits. His big heart and true concern for the people he met made him a magnet everywhere he went. Plus, you always looked good when Michael Donahue took your picture. He didn't like to publish photos that would make anyone look bad. He always wanted to believe the best about people, which was sometimes a challenge when, as his editor, I needed him to ask a tough question again.
Mostly, though, it was a joy to work with Michael.
Yesterday, this terrific guy got laid off from The Commercial Appeal along with nearly 20 other journalists, a heartless staff-cut cynically called "the first step to re-secure and level-set our economic vitality" by a Gannett executive who now runs what used to be our hometown paper.
My hope is that Michael and all of the other hardworking people who lost their jobs yesterday will find other work they love. But I know from personal experience that nothing replaces journalism. And nothing will replace what Michael Donahue meant to Memphis.