"When he gets to me," Hill recalls, "he finds out that I'm a reporter and he just talks and talks and talks and talks. I'm sitting there thinking, 'This is really interesting, I'm talking to this candidate and congressman about all of these big important issues.'" The host (whom Hill says was "in his cups") joined the conversation, threw his arm around Edwards and said, "Governor, I guess you know you're talking to the No. 1 political reporter in northeast Louisiana." (At the time, Hill says he was the only political reporter in northeast Louisiana.) "Edwin looks at me, winks and says, 'Yes, I know that. Why do you think I'm standing here licking his ass?' And that's how I started."
Later on in both men's careers, when Hill wrote unfavorably about Edwards, the governor charged at him at a public gathering and threatened to "whip his ass" once he was out of office. "So for my entire career," Hill says, "Edwin Edwards had this preoccupation with my ass."
The veteran reporter's career is ending on a higher note than the imprisoned Edwards, who's serving time in a federal prison on fraud and racketeering charges. Hill took a retirement buyout package from Gannett, and after 38 years as a reporter, his last day on the job is this Friday, Aug. 17.
Hill's first day on the job as a capital correspondent in Baton Rouge was Halloween 1973. He already had been reporting on politics for The News Star since 1969. At the time the paper was owned by the same family that owned The Shreveport Times. Hill had attended college at LSU, but he had no idea he would spend nearly 40 years working from within "the bowels of the Capitol," in a windowless office in its basement.
In 1979, Gannett bought both The News-Star and The Shreveport Times. Three years later, Hill would become a contributor to the fledgling USA Today, the national newspaper owned by the Gannett chain. When Gannett later acquired The Alexandria Town Talk and The Lafayette Daily Advertiser, Hill was named the capital bureau chief for all four papers, covering Baton Rouge and state politics.
Of all the stories he has witnessed and recounted over the years, Hill says the one he will remember the most is his own. In August 2000 he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and had successful surgery a month later. He wrote about his personal experience for the papers. "An amazing amount of men, one out of four, is going to develop prostate cancer," he says. "I wrote about it and opened the mail one day and there was a letter saying, 'Thank you for saving my life.' It was from someone who had, because of this series, went in and got a cancer check and found it through early detection." Hill heard from multiple readers who found and successfully treated their prostate cancer.
But the biggest political story of his career ' and the one that forced him to consider retirement ' was Hurricane Katrina. "My heart has been really in New Orleans since the storm," he says. Hill already was renting a second home there, part of an 1832 townhouse, just four blocks from the convention center. Four days after Katrina hit, he returned to the city, rented out two additional apartments in the building and spent more than a month running a bureau for USA Today.
"That's when I became committed to retiring as soon as possible and moving down here fulltime to help in the recovery," he says. "I felt like there had been a death in my family. I think the entire state of Louisiana felt like there had been a death in the family, and we all went into the stages of grief that we're still in. It was horrifying, and the stories were just so intense. All I had to was to walk out the door and find the first person I ran into on the street and there was a compelling story to be told. There were 500,000 compelling stories. Everybody went through this and had a unique experience. I remember telling a young [Associated Press] reporter, 'I really feel sorry for you guys because this is really the biggest story of my entire career, and I'm nearing retirement. You guys are just starting out. I don't know what you're going to do after this.'"
Hill later helped some friends, an 80-year-old couple, sift through the remnants of their lives with a shovel and a wheelbarrow, in hopes of saving some mementos and keepsakes in their flooded New Orleans home. "I can't say I know how it feels to lose everything, but I have a clue," he says. "I went through their lives day after day after day for about two months, sifting through their belongings, and I spent so much time there, at least I understood what people were doing when they went back into their houses ' the work they were doing."
The storm and its aftermath solidified Hill's resolve to retire and pursue other avenues. He's considering media consulting, teaching and even consulting for political campaigns, which he says he can't even consider or discuss until he leaves his current post. When he does, Gannett will not fill his position. "There will be no replacement," Hill says. "Mike Hasten will be the single correspondent." In his work with the American Journalism Review, Hill has watched the steady national decline in coverage of local politics. "Newspapers are cutting back and closing state capital bureaus," he says. "I always knew when I retired I would not be replaced. I've known that for some time."
Hill's also witnessed the rise of a new breed of media. Newspaper deadlines are no longer daily, but every second of every day, with papers pushing to post content online first and break news stories. He says in the rush to reinvent itself, the newspaper biz doesn't always get it right the first time and sometimes has to make corrections and provide greater context in follow-up stories.
"But the most alarming I think is the loss of civility," he adds. "People are no longer civil to one another in the political arena. And a lot of these angry people on blogs and talk radio are getting into personal attacks and nastiness. We were taught in high school debate that you could disagree without being disagreeable. Somehow, people are beginning to think that you have to be disagreeable in order to disagree."
Hill knew in December that it was time to ride into the sunset. "It takes an awful lot of energy to sit around and think up creative ways to cover a campaign that are fresh and better," he says. "It's just enormous. Right now, this is not the most fascinating campaign of my career either. So there were a number of things that just came together at this particular time. You sit down and in your heart of hearts, you know that it's just time to go. I want to leave this while I can still do something else. And the idea of avoiding having to cover an election campaign is really delicious."
State Rep. Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, surprised few in the Hub City Wednesday afternoon when he made (semi) official what most of us have known for months: He is running to replace Joey Durel as city-parish president.
Louisiana's first black Republican state senator since Reconstruction — who was a Republican before he was a Democrat before he was a Republican again — is accusing Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu of using the black community for votes and providing nothing in return.
LSU's governing board has backed new hospital privatization contracts that give hospital managers greater ease to leave the deal and fewer restrictions about must-have services.
U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu is courting young voters in several appearances across Louisiana this week, talking about her support for legislation that could lower students' college costs.
Coton de tulear joins Westminster; Paypal splitting from Ebay; first US Ebola diagnosis and more national and international news for Wednesday, October 1, 2014.
Wednesday's Blogs from the Bog!
Stage 4 vet takes on cancer and reminds us all what it really means to get involved.
Is Mary fading as Vitter solidifies his lock on the fourth floor?
Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration has renegotiated contracts for six LSU hospital privatization deals, hoping to reach a compromise with federal health officials that will keep Medicaid dollars flowing to the privatized patient services.
Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu is defending her record on gun rights, seeking to rebut sharp criticism from the NRA in a state where the right to bear arms is given special constitutional protection.
Citizens, you have less than a week to register to vote in the Nov. 4 election. Remember, if you don’t vote you can’t complain about the outcome. Well, you can but it’s kind of hypocritical.
After being forced out by its former landlords last year, the community garden has a new location and a 10-year lease.
The party says it has hit a milestone, reaching 10,000 registered voters in the state.
Defensive captain Junior Galette is disgusted by the Saints' sluggish start.
The use of $60 million in Louisiana's public school financing formula to pay for nearly three dozen charter schools violates the state constitution, a statewide teachers' union claimed Monday in a lawsuit.
February trial date indicates parties were unable to negotiate a settlement.
There was a time when United Ballot had a political stranglehold so tight on Lafayette’s black community it was nearly unbreakable, but that grip might be loosening.
The race for Lafayette city marshal may not be the most exciting of this year’s local political contests, but it could prove the most historic.
With the DA’s race too close to call and negative media coverage of Mike Harson on the ebb, will challenger Keith Stutes take the gloves off?
Gov. Bobby Jindal has been viewed as a health care policy wonk, and he's tried to build on that image ahead of a likely 2016 presidential campaign, positioning himself as the candidate with substantive ideas.
Jerry Jones watched what he called the best effort he's seen in 25 years as owner of the Dallas Cowboys in the first half, and that was before Tony Romo had the longest scramble of his career and DeMarco Murray finished off yet another 100-yard game.
Two of the most recognizable women in Republican politics, Sarah Palin and Mary Matalin, have been heavily involved in Louisiana’s current election cycle.
Even though the Louisiana Democratic Party has thrown its support behind former Gov. Edwin Edwards’ congressional bid, national Democrats are not expected to follow suit.
“[Mike] is no longer the energetic ADA that his recent ad is trying to portray. I just think Mike needs to get the hell out.” — Kermit Harson, DA Mike Harson’s brother
The New Orleans Saints have listed Jonathan Goodwin as questionable for Sunday night's game in Dallas, raising the prospect that second-year pro Tim Lelito will start at center for the first time.