On Friday I walked out of a newspaper building as an employee for the last time. During the stroll to the far end of the parking lot, I did a brief review of my career. Here’s the high point: I’ve worked at newspapers that have won Pulitzer prizes. And the low point: None of those Pulitzers were won while I was working at the newspapers in question. Hey, I’m sure that’s just bad timing.
Of the half dozen papers I worked for, the best was the Philadelphia Inquirer. The worst was the Daily Inter Lake in Kalispell, Mont.
When you enter the cavernous newsroom of the Inquirer, you pass by a wall festooned with pictures of reporters and editors who have won Pulitzers. It is a measure of my love of journalism that when I looked at these pictures, I usually reflected not on the prize-winning stories they reported, but on the clothes they were wearing. Look at them: All these gifted journalists, photographed at the very apex of their careers, and most of them are dressed like the goofy husbands on “The Brady Brides.” It makes you think. Not just about the vagaries of fashion, but about the impermanence of glory. And yes, these days, the impermanence of newspapers.
Clothes were my first concern when I got into the newspaper business. On the day The Daily Inter Lake called and offered me $125 a week to be a reporter, I went to the Kalispell Mercantile and picked out a corduroy jacket the color of burley tobacco. I also bought a fat knit tie, maroon. I already owned a pair of flared polyester slacks. The resulting ensemble became my work uniform. After working the previous two years at a camper manufacturing plant, it felt good to get up in the morning and put on a tie. I would ride my bike to work and after getting a cup of coffee I would pull the knot of my tie down to about the middle of my chest. I wanted to look as though I’d been meeting anonymous sources in parking garages, then working late into the night crafting historic leads in clouds of cigarette smoke.
Not that I ever experienced such a thing. My main job at the newspaper involved cultivating my amiable sources at the county extension office. At other times I would wander through the courthouse and wonder if I shouldn’t be more brash. Mornings I would walk down to the police station to see if there were any scoops to be had. There never were.
At no time in three years of this did an editor pull me aside and mention that all my stuff was crap. There was no need, really. At a small-town newspaper, an editor has bigger fish to fry: hobnobbing with the Rotary, the Kiwanis, the Chamber of Commerce guys, trying to bolster fair attendance with feature stories that were identical from one year to the next.
You’d think the lack of supervision would have made me a real self-starter, the kind of hard-charging reporter they’re always talking about in the Editor & Publisher recruiting ads. But it didn’t really. It just made me more lazy. In between my City Council meeting stories and court briefs and rewrites of Forest Service press releases, I would usually spend hours working on my column.
At that time at the Daily Inter Lake, anybody who wanted a column could write one. At most newspapers, if you had a policy like that you’d end up with a lot of meandering, self-indulgent blather, and readers would phone to ask why they were paying for this crap. That was the situation at the Daily Inter Lake, too, but no one running the newspaper seemed to care. My column, like those of my peers, was sarcastic and uninformed and not very funny when it tried to be. It ran with my picture: a callow guy in need of a haircut, with a frozen expression that suggested world-weary cynicism, and just a touch of constipation.
I guess that is another difference between me and the prize-winners at the Inquirer, aside from the actual prize: they have a look of almost fanatical integrity, thin tenacious smiles that seem faintly accusatory. No matter where you stand they always seem to be looking at you. It’s disconcerting. In each of two or three column photos I had taken, I appear to be looking elsewhere, shifty eyed. No wonder: I was a fraud and I knew it. I couldn’t report my way out of a paper sack. If the authorities told me there was no story, I would believe them. If free stuff came to the paper I would keep it. Sure, it was a heady time elsewhere in the industry. History was being made. Injustice was being exposed. A president was being driven from office. But in Kalispell, Mont., chicken dinners were being covered.
That was my first assignment for the Daily Inter Lake: Covering the annual banquet of the Future Farmers of America in a high school cafeteria. I was assigned a Yashica 124D with an enormous Honeywell strobe attached to it. With such a strobe, you could stand at the back of a gymnasium and illuminate the whole interior. Anyone unfortunate enough to be looking at the camera would be seeing spots for days afterward.
Part of my assignment that night was to photograph the winner of a prestigious FFA award, the Silver Swine or something. The problem was, I was seated at a table roughly 30 yards from the lectern. I was kind of shy, unsure of protocol — what if I approached and was tackled by security? So at the moment the winner was announced I jumped up and snapped off a couple shots at my quarry, barely visible in the viewfinder. I sat right back down again, face burning, hoping no one had noticed.
I saw the contact prints later: two tiny figures in the distance across a sea of banquet tables, the few blurry heads in the foreground glowing like suns. The Inter Lake actually used the picture, enlarging it about 800 percent and power cropping to produce a two-column image that resembled a frame from the Zapruder film. No matter: Somewhere in there a kid was getting his trophy. Mission accomplished.
The first byline story I ever wrote was about a city council meeting. I forget what was on the agenda; something about sewer improvement districts, I imagine. I sat at the back for four hours, resplendent in my corduroy jacket, and came away with no idea what any of it meant. Back at the darkened newspaper, I sat down at my desk, spooled paper into my Royal typewriter and stared at it. I knew a feeling of total despair. I could not leave until the story was finished, and yet as far as my memory served, absolutely nothing had occurred.
Fortunately, I had kept meticulous notes. Since I was a new reporter, no remark or digression had been too inane to record. Using the agenda they handed out at the start of the meeting, I was able to determine, roughly, which quotes went with which item of business. I went to work, faithfully transcribing the contents of my notebook into a chronological narrative that was, if anything, more tedious than the meeting itself. I know it took longer to write.
I left the whole mess on the editor’s desk and got the hell out of there. It was long past midnight. The next afternoon I was afraid to look at the paper. But there was my story, on the bottom of page one. Except it wasn’t my story. The beginning was different. Also the middle, and the end. And it was very short. I reread it and it dawned on me that a long-suffering editor had done with my horrible story what the darkroom technician had earlier done with my wretched photo at the banquet: pared away the worst of the crap to arrive at something at least marginally useful.
You hear about prima donna reporters standing over their editors debating the deletions of single words, engaging in eloquent arguments over the placement of transitions and the aptness of metaphors. I’ve met reporters like that. But I wasn’t one of them. I could never forget that moment looking at the newspaper, supremely grateful, like a hit-and-run driver discovering someone else was suspected of the crime. I reread the story and thought: that editor knew better than I what happened, and he wasn’t even there.
The rest, as they say, is history. I became a copy editor and a news editor and have passed the intervening decades fixing the work of others, excising cliches like “The rest, as they say, is history.” Sometimes I’ve helped save reporters from catastrophic mistakes; at no time, I hope, have I ever made anything worse or harder to understand.
Does that constitute a rewarding career? From this side of it, no. I have a lot of amusing stories about headline gaffes and reporting errors, but my picture hangs in no newsrooms. Then again, I remember that corduroy sport coat and terrible tie. Maybe I should be thankful.