By Kimberly Mollo
Gwen Florio had only worked at the Denver Post for three months when her editors needed to send a reporter to Afghanistan. It was 2001, and the paper wanted to cover the aftermath of 9/11 with an overseas perspective. Although she was the new hire, Florio asked to go–and they let her.
With only certain hours safe enough to go outside to report and no electricity, she was too intensely focused to feel real fear.
“It wasn’t until later, looking back on it, that I realized the danger,” she said.
Still, it didn’t stop her from traveling to Somalia, Sudan, Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Syria in 2002 and Iraq and Egypt a year later. She never felt a calling for the embedded journalism seen so frequently on TV, so she returned to work in the States.
Florio, 55, started her college years without a calling for journalism at all. She chose an English major because she liked to read, but it was her father who told her to take a journalism course to better her chances of getting a job after graduation.
Realizing that journalism did appeal to her, she wrote for The Review and took more journalism classes. In 1977, two weeks into her last semester before graduation, she was offered a job at the Associated Press. She decided the job was too good to pass up.
“I thought, when will this opportunity come again? So I jumped on it and dropped out of school,” she said.
Florio spent five years at the Associated Press before moving to the Philadelphia Bulletin. It folded. She went to News American in Baltimore. It folded. She landed a job at the Philadelphia Inquirer, where she ended up staying for 15 years.
She could have spent those 15 years in the familiar Philly area, visiting her hometown of Smyrna, Delaware and perhaps returning to her former university to finally get that diploma. Instead, Florio became the Inquirer’s Denver correspondent. This, and a family trip, sparked a new interest in Florio.
After backpacking with her brother in Glacier Park she developed an affinity for Montana. After returning to work she felt a strong pull to pack up and resettle herself among those mountains.
“That was partly why I wanted the Denver job, so I could go to Montana,” she said.
She took a job at Rocky Mountain News in Denver after her job at the Denver Post, and the East Coast girl felt at home in her new surroundings.
“I fell in love with the West,” she said.
Florio was in the West, but she wanted Montana–she checked job postings constantly to see if there were any openings in the state. Finally, a job at the Great Falls Tribune opened up, and then one in Missoula, Montana, at the Missoulian, which is where she works today.
Florio likes hiking but feels that she isn’t “hardcore” enough to write for outdoors magazines (“The people out west get really into it,” she said with a laugh). She also had a love-hate relationship with her old position as city editor for the Missoulian.
“I loved the editing but hated the business aspect of the job,” she said.
What Florio enjoys is breaking news–it surprises her, but she still gets a thrill whenever she is the first reporter on a story. She currently covers the “Cops and Courts” beat for the Missoulian so a large chunk of her work involves crime. She is also surprised at her growing sensitivity to sad stories.
“I think I have become way more sensitive to the feelings of the people I write about,” she said.
Stories about children are especially affecting to her, as Florio is a mother of two, but her job at a small community publication also plays a large role in her sensitivity.
“The Missoulian has a personal relationship with our readers,” she said. “They read the stories closely, and a lot of times they come right into the office to say hello or to comment on what they’ve read.”
Florio still likes a “newspaper-paper,” but she does most of her reading online and has Facebook and Twitter accounts. She also blogs her stories on the Missoulian website. Web reporting reminds her of her days at the Associated Press, when the wire service format called for quick skeletons of stories followed by continuous updates to expand and fill in details.
She says her wire service experience astounds her colleagues on occasion.
“People say, God, you write so fast–and I say well, I wrote for the AP, we had to do it that way,” she said.
News reporting isn’t the only kind of writing Florio enjoys. Her father managed the Woodland Beach Wildlife Refuge, and growing up there spurred a lifelong love for animals. Florio, who owns an 8-month-old Brittany named Nell whom she describes lovingly as a handful, incorporates animals often into her short stories.
Her time in a newsroom has only reinforced her affinity for writing about animals. After her colleagues at the Missoulian began tacking the front page stories to the wall, they noticed a pattern: every story that made it to the top involved an animal.
“You can never go wrong with critter stories,” she said while laughing. “That’s Journalism 101.”