Remembering journalist Steve Buttry, digital word minimalist

Any time.

Those words stuck with me when I heard the heartbreaking news about the passing of a journalism legend from a disease that afflicts millions and has touched my life.

Steve Buttry, journalist, teacher, human extraordinaire, told me that Dec. 20, when he reached out to me after reading a blog post about my second bout with testicular cancer.

Time is all he had for everyone even though his was marked. Steve succumbed to pancreatic cancer Feb. 19.

That two-word opening in this post is what Steve would have called a “string-bikini lede.” He taught me that when he spoke to our newsroom in 2013, while I was a sports reporter at the North Adams Transcript in Massachusetts.


Steve Buttry

Steve and my interactions were few, but never fleeting. I recounted our first encounter here.

After I got fired from The Transcript after 18 days, and landed at a Digital First Media sister paper in Torrington, Connecticut, Buttry visited a second time and spoke to our newspaper crew there, as part of his rounds with Thunderdome, what was then DFM’s national think tank.

More recently, Buttry reached out to me after my second diagnosis with testicular cancer to pass along words of encouragement.

Those words remain with me while I undergo chemotherapy at the University of Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia.

“So sorry to read of your diagnosis, Isaac,” Steve wrote, fittingly on Facebook messenger, given his affinity for social media. “You will rock this treatment, my friend. Thanks for the kinds words in your post. Though miles apart, we will be strong together.”

That conversation, when Steve told me to call him any time and gave me his number, has gnawed at me the last couple days while I try to digest his death.

I remember thanking Steve for reading my blog and telling him I hoped we’d be in the same area soon so we could meet up.

About a week before that, Steve credited me in a post for fighting for the right to publish details from a child abuse complaint I lawfully obtained.buttry-screengrab

A New Jersey judge issued an injunction preventing my publication from reporting freely on the complaint, which delves into a heartbreaking child custody case in Trenton.

The complaint traces the ongoing struggles of a 5-year-old kindergartner who was found with drugs twice in two months at his capital city charter school.

After publishing stories about the case based off my interviews and prior reporting, The Trentonian, under duress from the New Jersey Attorney General, suddenly abandoned the good fight.

The newspaper, after weeks of negotiating instead of litigating the matter in court, reached a settlement agreement with the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office calling for the newspaper to not publish anything from the document and to destroy it.

The settlement required me to sign off on those conditions. I couldn’t do it, knowing the deal tacitly criminalized reporting and impeded on the rights of other Garden State journalists.

Under threat of possible criminal prosecution, I declined to sign the slave-master agreement. .

“We need strong journos like you,” Buttry told me.

I felt strong because of Steve, but I don’t feel strong anymore. I feel guilty.

I never made time to call Steve, and that’s something I will always carry with me.

I think about how our conversation would have went:

Me: Steve, I love you. Remember in 2013, when we first met. You taught me how to be a word minimalist. That’s what reporting is all about, using the fewest words to convey the most. Now I’m thinking of going to law school, where they use more words to convey less.

Steve: Whatever you do, don’t lose your journalistic spirit, Isaac.

I won’t, Steve, because you’ll always be with me.

The last time I talked to Steve was on New Year’s Eve, when I told him he was the true “fucking warrior” for how he dealt with his terminal diagnosis.

My personal and professional battles are blips compared to the war Steve waged over the last 17 years, since he got his first cancer diagnosis.

He had been kicking cancer’s ass for a long time and bravely blogging about it, the Yankees, his love for his wife, Mimi, his three sons, Mike, Joe and Tom, and pretty much everything else.

The avant garde Buttry was a digital leader when the analog journalism world was still struggling to adjust to the demands of an ever-changing media world that now feeds people’s insatiable, 24-hour appetite for information.

Steve, a great journalist and a better person, leaves behind an indelible impression on this world. I’m glad he also left behind a giant digital footprint. I’m going to need it to cope with his loss.

Steve was a big proponent of Twitter, a forum he encouraged journalists to use to break news even if they didn’t have time to write a short breaking news post.

In true Steve fashion, there’s no better way to honor his legacy than with something I wrote on Twitter, when I found out about my cancer diagnosis.

“Legends don’t die. We multiple.”

Steve, you live on through the journalists you taught over the years. We love and miss you.


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