Thursday, April 25, 2013


With the release Monday of's latest best/worst jobs in America survey, which designated "newspaper reporter" as the No. 1 worst job, I started reflecting back over my more than 43 years in newspapers.

When I came into the business full time after getting out of journalism school at Indiana University and joined the staff of The Louisville Courier-Journal & Times as a reporter in the Indiana Bureau, it was my dream job -- newspaper reporter. I had no desire or plan to be anything in the business but a reporter, having arrived at that decision while in the Navy.

Although I served in a variety of editor capacities for the last 36 year of my newspaper career, I didn't set out to be an editor. It was a role I had thrust upon me quite unexpectedly one morning about four months after I joined the staff of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., as investigative reporting team leader, a position I accepted after seven years as a reporter at Louisville, the last two of which were spent as a member of The Times investigative reporting team.

I started my new position on Jan. 1, 1977, leading an investigative team that included two other very good, young reporters, Rick Tulsky and David Phelps. Although I lost track of Phelps after he left to go to The Minneapolis Tribune, I am still in touch with Tulsky who went on to be part of Pulitzer Prize winning efforts at The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Los Angeles Times and now is director of the Medill Watchdog investigative reporting program at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, one of America's finest journalism schools.

I'd been at The Clarion-Ledger just over four months when I walked into the office one Monday morning in April and found Managing Editor Don Ferrell, a former journalism professor at University of Missouri, pacing back and forth in front of his office just waiting for me to arrive. I had no sooner dumped the couple of file folders and note books I was carrying on my desk when Ferrell said, "Come into my office, I need to talk to you right now."

My immediate thought was "Oh, shit." I'd learned long before that when the managing editor demanded that you come to his office "right now" it usually meant you were going to get a chunk of you butt gnawed off.

Ferrell ushered me into his office, asked me to have a seat and then plopped down on the corner of his desk. Don was a big desk-corner sitter, something I think you learn to do as a college professor to keep from having to stand during an entire lecture.

"What's up," I inquired.

"Have you ever thought about being a city editor," Ferrell asked. It was a question I didn't even have to mull over for a nanosecond.

"No, why," I instantly replied.

"Well, because," Ferrell said, glancing at his watch, "in 10 minutes I'd like to go out in the newsroom and announce that you are now city editor." He went on to take a couple of minutes to explain that our city editor, who had always impressed me as a bit to jittery for the high pressure spot, had had some sort of breakdown over the weekend and wouldn't be coming back.

"What if I don't want to be city editor," I replied, with heavy emphasis on the "don't."

"Then," Farrell said, again glancing at his watch, "I am going to go out into the newsroom in eight minutes and announce that you've resigned."

Needless to say, I was stunned, but I knew Ferrell was serious. He was not a man given to running bluffs and was just brash enough to do exactly what he said. Considering the circumstance and the fact that I had gotten remarried just a few weeks before dragging my wife, Gail, away from her familiar home in New Albany, Ind., and brought her to Jackson, Miss., and figured that the last thing she would want to hear was that I was suddenly unemployed, I gave the only reasonable response.

"OK, I guess you've got yourself a new city editor," I said, stepping off the abyss into a newspaper role I'd never even considered and was not sure I had a clue how to do. Sure, I'd been city editor and even managing editor of my college paper, the Indiana Daily Student at Indiana University, but that was fun and this was serious.

Ferrell opened his office door and peered out into the newsroom, which by that time had much filled up.

"Let's go make the announcement," he said.

I stood up, feeling almost as though my knees were going to buckle, and followed him into the newsroom for the surprise announcement which stunned the staff almost as much as it did me.

Immediately following the announcement, I gathered by stuff from my old desk by the window and moved into the city editor's desk just outside Ferrell's office door. I sat down for the first time in the city editor's chair, looked out over the newsroom and said to myself, "What the hell do I do now."

At the time, I didn't realize how fortunate I had been to serve at The Louisville Times under City Editor Bob Crumpler, a man that many of the reporters who worked for him -- many of whom went on to make big names for themselves at papers like The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times -- would readily agree may have been one of best city editors ever. He had a keen mind, a brilliant news sense and an almost impish sense of humor. He sort of reminded me of an overgrown, salt-and-pepper haired Irish leprechaun. But he also coud be gruff and tougher than a $2 steak and knew, better than almost anyone I've ever seen, how to deal with reporter attitude. Above all, he was fair in his dealings with everyone who worked for him, even those with whom he had to occasionally butt heads.

I know, because as a reporter, I had been one of those head butters, or, maybe I should say, buttheads.

I got the full taste of Crumpler's toughness several month after moving from the Courier-Journal & Times Indiana Bureau in New Albany onto The Times city staff in Louisville and being given a split-days work schedule with Tuesdays and Thursdays off. The Times, which died a few years ago, was the afternoon edition of the Louisville papers.

After the move to the main office, I hurled myself into the work covering or coming up with lots of good stories that frequently made Page 1 and earned me accolades that left me feeling puffed up and very darned self important. In other words, I started developing an attitude, which led me to believe that I had gotten too damned good to have to work a crappy split-days-off schedule.

I decided one Friday morning that it was time for me to have it out with Crumpler and demand that my split-days-off situation be changed. I went up to his desk in the newsroom and said, "Mr. Crumpler, I'd like to talk to you."

He looked up at me, over the reading glasses he always wore low on his nose when he was editing copy, but dangled from a cord around his neck when he wasn't. "OK, come see me in my office after lunch," he said, then looked back down at the copy he was editing and quite obviously took to ignoring me.

As soon as I saw him return from lunch and head into his office, I got up from my desk, walked over, knocked on the office door and stepped in to confront him.

"What's on you mind, Fagan," he asked.

I stammered around a bit as I slowly built up my courage as I recounted all of the "wonderful" work I'd been doing since coming over to the city staff. He nodded politely and agreed that I'd been doing a good job, then asked, "Is there a point to this?"

"Yeah, Mr. Crumpler, there is," I said. "I want you change my split-days-off situation, or..."

"Or what," he countered.

"Or I am going have to look into going somewhere else," I said.

He pondered for a second and then said, "Tell you what, let me think about this over the weekend and come see me Monday after lunch."

I left his office reasonably sure that I had won. Monday came and I had my eyes glued on the clock. Deadline passed and Crumpler left for lunch while I sat at my desk anxious for him to return. As soon as he did, I ambushed him in his office.

As I sat down, he pulled out a yellow legal pad, glanced at it, then spoke.

"Fagan, I've given your request a lot of thought and have decided to go ahead and change your split-days-off situation."

I smiled to myself, quite satisfied that my bluff had worked. Before I could thank him, though, he spoke again.

"Beginning next Monday, you'll be off on Mondays and Wednesday's," he said, as my jaw dropped. He then reached into his bottom desk drawer and pulled out a large stack of file folders, held them up and said, "As far as you going somewhere else, I just want you to know that all these people want your job."

He then dismissed me and I exited his office nervous and a more than just a bit scared I might end up without a job. Essentially, I had my ego and attitude deflated in one quick stroke by a master. I sat back down at my desk and decided I'd better just do the job and keep my mouth shut, which has never been an easy task for me.

About two months later, I was busily working on a deadline story when Crumpler came up to my desk and said, in his sternest voice, "Fagan, when your done with that I want to see you in my office."

"Oh, shit," I thought to myself as I hurriedly finished the story, pulled the final take out of my typwriter, dropped it off in the city desk copy box and headed for Crumpler's office.

"You wanted to see me Mr. Crumpler," I said nervously as he summoned in and indicated that he wanted me to shut the door.

"I've been very pleased at the way you reacted to your new days-off situation," he said. "But, I've decided to make another change. Beginning new week, you'll be off on Sunday and Monday."

Thrilled to get consecutive days off, the only words I could find was a simple, "Thank  you , Mr. Crumpler." I got and turned to walk out the door when Crumpler spoke up again.

"Oh, and, Steve," he said, calling my by my first time for the first time since I'd move onto city staff, "why don't you just call me Bob from now on."

With that, I knew that I had earned something wonderfully intangible -- his respect. I can't think of any point before or since in my newspaper career that I'd felt any more pride than that.

So, as I sat there in the city editor's chair at The Clarion-Ledger for the very first time wondering what the hell to do, I thought to myself, "Maybe you just need to play it the way you think Crumpler would."

I picked up the phone to call my wife to tell her that I'd just been appointed city editor. The next call I made was to Crumpler.


Tuesday, April 23, 2013


  This just in from
     lists best and worst jobs in America asks this question every year: What are the worst jobs in America? What are the best?
Well the list is out, and it looks like newspaper reporters officially have the worst job in America, with a median income of about $36,000 a year.
The study takes into account things like income, industry outlook, stress and physical demands in its rankings.
The top 5 list of worst jobs include:
1- Newspaper reporter
2- Lumberjack
3- Enlisted military
4- Actor
5- Oil rig worker

Now that we know about the worst, what about the best? Being an actuary tops the list, with an income around $87,000 a year.
The top 5 list of the best jobs include:
1- Actuary
2- Biochemical engineer
3- Software engineers
4- Augiologist
5- Financial planner.

Please note that in this latest poll, "newspaper reporter" has managed to claw its way to the pinnacle of the "Worst Jobs" list, replacing "lumberjack," which formerly was the top worst job. At the top of the "Best Jobs" list is "actuary," you know, those wonderful folks who massage statistics for insurance companies to determine when you are likely to have a major car wreck or a fatal heart attack early enough to cancel your policy before having a major payout. As I see it, this is still further proof that when the world, as we know it, ends, the only things left will be cockroaches and insurance companies.

Of course, it's easy to make jokes about this sort of survey which takes into account only, as noted in the CNN story, things like income, industry outlook, stress and physical demands. Glaringly missing as being among the considered factors are things like the importance of the occupation to society and the satisfaction derived from doing the job.

For those of us who've been in the newspaper business for any length of time, low rankings of the reporter's craft are nothing new. When I came into the business 43 years ago, it was widely known that on the "who-do-you-trust" scale, reporters ranked just above used car salesmen near the bottom of the list. That was even before the advent of "best-and-worst-job" lists.

As you might expect, I disagree that being a newspaper reporter is the worst job in America. But, when you take into account the factors used by to come up with that ranking you can understand how it might have been arrived at.

In terms of income, let's face it, when we came into this business we did so with the understanding  that we would never get rich if we chose to stick with it. And in recent years, considering the condition of the business, that is getting even less likely what with layoffs, furloughs, actual pay reductions and no raises in years, unless you are working in a Newspaper Guild shop where there are contractual increases in scale up to, usually, five or six years of experience.

As for industry outlook, well, see the above. It's no secret that the newspaper industry is in trouble and is making nowhere near the border line obscene profits it previously made -- once about double the profits of most other U.S. industries. It was that level of profits that attracted the "outside investors," who today are putting on the squeeze that has shrunk every department in nearly every newspaper across the country in an effort to maintain those returns. The fact, however, is that, in general, newspapers are still at least as profitable as the average American industry while continuing to be the only industry that not only still sells its product for less than it costs to produce it, but has also resorted to giving its product away for free via the Internet.

The stress of the job is also something I think most of us understood coming in. Any job where you are constantly on deadline and racing with the clock from the moment you arrive in the morning until you leave in the evening is by definition stressful and that's on an ordinary news day. Then, when you add things like a terrorist bombing, a plant explosion, a tornado, a hurricane, a jetliner crash or any of the myriad of other breaking news stories that require extraordinary effort to cover --  and do so quickly and accurately -- the stress level can reach a near breaking point. Sometimes I think that the only job more stressful than being a newspaper reporter might be brain surgeon, minus the exorbitant fees, huge house and garage full of classic cars.

Of course, when it gets to the physical demand of the job...well, not so much. For sure, it is significantly more physically demanding to be lumberjack, the supposed second worse job. Let's face it, newspaper reporters don't to a lot of heavy lifting, except maybe to every now and then move a large stack of accumulated newspapers from on tops of their desks to the recycling barrel way across the newsroom.

What surveys like's best and worst jobs ranking don't take into account is the satisfaction of doing the job and doing it well. That's what still keeps so many of us in the newspaper business despite the low pay, the jakey industry outlook and the enormous stress. We do it because we firmly believe it to be a job that is important to society and this is especially true in today's era of so much opinionated and tainted misinformation that clogs the web and social media. We do it because, at the end of the day, there is still no feeling like seeing your name at the top of that column of type that is a story you had to struggle mightily, despite sources dodging you or obfuscating at every turn, to gather and write -- and write well -- against the pressure of time, with an editor screaming in your ear, "gotta have it and gotta have it NOW."

Yep, I suppose that by the way measures it, being a newspaper reporter might just be the worst job in America. However, by the way most of us who are in or have been in the business measure it, it remains among the most noble, meaningful and selfless of occupations -- not to mention being just a whole hell of a lot more fun than being an actuary.


Your comments are welcome.

Sunday, April 14, 2013


Note: This is the first of what will be a probably intermittent series of posts on newsroom legends. I hope that whoever reads them will find  them interesting, fun and not too overly self indulgent.

After nearly 43 years in the business, I have learned many things, among them is the fact that that there are two absolutely immutable truths of newspapering. First, when you spend a career in newspapers and look back, you will realize that no two days were ever exactly the same. I am not sure that anyone in any other business can honestly say that. Second, there is no other workplace on the face of the planet like a newsroom for longer variety or reasons than I can't even begin to list here, but all of you who are, or have been, news people know what I mean.

One of the things that makes -- or at least before the spread of corporate ownership and the introduction of domineering HR departments used to make --  newsrooms incredibly interesting environments to work in are the legends that are born there, many of which would give today's HR directors a severe case of the willies.

Like most legends, those growing out of newsrooms are a mixture of facts and hearsay that alter with each retelling until the kernel of truth that lies beneath them becomes hard to identify. Many of the tales growing out of the nation's newsrooms have their genesis in the fact that once upon a time they were home to little in the way of political correctness, or, for that matter, correctness of any sort. That began to change, I think, with the introduction of computers, carpet and corporate HR, but has not and will not ever disappear completely. That may be due, in large part, to the fact that every newsroom seems to be an island of misfit toys. I've never worked in any newsroom that didn't have more binders full of legends than Mitt Romney had binders full of women. Sometimes the legends involve people who have worked in the newsroom. Sometimes they are about stories the newspaper has covered.

Shortly after joining the staff of The Fort Worth Star-Telegram as business editor in 1982, I began to notice that every now and then I would see other staffers who'd been there longer wearing t-shirts that on the front had a cartoon of a little dog and the inscription: "When frozen dogs are outlawed." On the back was another cartoon of the dog lying on its back, stiff with its legs pointed skyward, "X"s for eyes and the inscription: "Only outlaws will have frozen dogs."

Finally, I asked someone what that was all about. I was told it involved a much covered murder that occurred several years earlier in a small Texas town a few dozen miles south of the Dallas-Fort Worth area involving a man who had been paroled after may years imprisonment at the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville. Upon his release, he moved back to the small town and into the house that had been left to him by his deceased parents. He landed a menial job, acquired a small dog and had every intention of living there peaceably for the rest of his life. The dog pretty much became his constant companion and only friend. Unfortunately, it also took to relieving itself on the beautiful flower beds of the two elderly sisters who lived next door. The sisters, upset with the little dog's urination habits spoke to the aging ex-con who promised to make the dog stop, but was unable to reason with the pooch.

One evening, he came home and was horrified to find his little dog dead on the front porch. Distraught and unable to immediately part with his friend, he put the dog in the freezer and began to drown his sorrows with booze. After several days of drinking, he started asking question around the neighborhood, trying to find out what had happened to his little dog. Finally, some kids told him that the elderly women next door had been suspected of poisoning other animals who had opted to use their flower beds as a latrine. The thought that his little dog had been poisoned so upset the ex-con that he took to several more days of drinking while he screwed up his courage enough to confront his neighbor ladies.

Finally, days after the dogs demise, he was ready. He went to the freezer to retrieve the dog, which by that time had become frozen stiffer than a supermarket turkey. He tucked the frozen pooch under his arm and headed next door. He knocked on the front door which one of the sisters partially open and then slammed in his face when she saw the rigid hound. The ex-con knocked again. This time the door was opened just a crack and he was told by one of the sisters to go away before she called the police. She tried to slam the door shut again, but he forced it open, barged in, got into and argument with the ladies and, in his drunken stupor, ended up beating them both to death with the frozen dog.

Just how true all of this is, I must admit, I have no idea. A further investigation by me into all of the facts never materialized while I worked at the Startlegram. I have tried in the intervening years to research the incident online, but to no avail since it occurred before the era of computerized court records or newspaper archives. All I know is that there must have been some basis in truth or the paper's staffers involved in the coverage would never have had the "When Frozen Dogs Are Outlawed, Only Outlaws Will Have Frozen Dog" t-shirts printed.

In newsrooms, stories often grow into legends and so do people. One news person who became a legend in his own time and about whom many stories were and, I suspect, still are told was Norman E. Isaacs, who was the executive editor of the Courier-Journal and Louisville Times when I started working there in January 1970 -- my first job out of college. Isaacs is widely regarded as the preeminent newspaper editor of the middle third of the 20th Century, in large part because he is the man considered responsible for instituting the code of ethics that most American journalists live by today and because he had an absolutely brilliant news sense that led to him and his papers to win three Pulitzer Prizes during his career. Under his guidance, the Courier-Journal and Times came to be regarded as among the five best papers in the United States. He also had a legendary temper which earned him the nickname "Stormin' Norman." He may have been one of the last of the newsroom absolute dictators and would have given today's newspaper HR directors both a heart attack and a stroke.

I met Isaacs just once before he left the paper a few month after I started working in the Indiana Bureau, headquartered on the third floor of the American Bank building in downtown New Albany, Ind., right across the Ohio River from Louisville. That meeting was on the day I was being interviewed for the job and found myself being taken from one senior editor's office to another for a brief introduction. After meeting Louisville Times Managing Editor Bob Clark and then Courier-Journal Managing Editor George Gill -- who, like me, was a product of the journalism school at Indiana University -- and carrying on 10 or 15 minute conversations with each, I was ushered into Isaacs' office. He spent a minute or two looking over my resume, stopping for a second to say, "Indiana University, good school." Then he went on reading and stopped again, looked up and said, "So you were in the Navy? Good. That means you at least can probably at least follow orders." With that, the brief meeting was over. When we left the office, I was sure that I had not gotten the job. So, I was surprise when Gil Neal, the Indiana bureau editor, who had been squiring me around said, "That went well. I think he likes you."

I got the job and several month later found myself in the middle of what was to become one of the Stormin' Norman legends.

During my first several months in the bureau, there were lots of good stories and things were going extremely well until the news seemed to just dry up as summer approached. Bit but bit, much of the bureau staff of eight reporters sank into a barely productive doldrums. Everybody, that is but Brenda Tyree and Bob Scully, two of our three old pros in the bureau. Somehow, the two of them just kept chugging along with the same high level of production of great quality copy they had always been their hallmark. Despite that, the overall production by the bureau had slipped to abysmal.

The bureau's production -- or, maybe I should say, lack of production -- level did not go unnoticed by Isaacs, who summoned Bureau Chief Gil Neal to his office across the river to "God damned explain what the hell is going on over there."

Nothing, but nothing, in world made Gil more nervous than having to explain anything to Stormin' Norman. With a great deal of trepidation, Gil showed up at Isaacs' office the next morning and was immediately brought before the boss who launched into a long tirade peppered with language that might have made even the crustiest sailor blush.

When the quaking Gil was finally given a chance to  "explain," it was his intention to let Isaacs know that not everyone had lapsed in to minimal productivity and that Brenda and Bob were still doing great work. He at first hemmed and hawed until Stormin' Norman again demanded to know "what the hell is the problem."

That's when Gil blurted out, "well, Brenda and Bob..." But, before he could get in another word, Isaacs slammed his fist down on the desk, saying, "Well, fire them!"

"But, but," Gil responded.

"No buts, you go back there and fire them right now," Isaacs ordered.

With his tail between his legs, Gil drove back the New Albany and dutifully fired the only two people in the bureau who didn't deserve to find themselves out the door.

Although is was in no way the right thing to do, it turned out to be another brilliant move on the part of Norman Isaacs, because it scared the hell out of the rest of us and bureau productivity immediately began setting new records.


Thursday, April 11, 2013


Thirty-seven years ago, the dons of the newspaper industry ignored and even ridiculed Courier Journal and Louisville Times Publisher Barry Bingham Jr. when he delivered a prophecy in which he predicted that within 10 years newspapers would be delivered electronically.

I guess you might say that as it turned out Bingham was wrong, at least about the timing, since the electronic delivery that we are all very familiar with today did not come in any serious form until nearly two decades after he was among the first to recognize where the industry was -- or should have been -- headed.

But, was he in fact wrong? I say no. He just did not, at first, anticipate several factors that slowed the process. First, the Internet, as we know it today, took a little longer to grow and develop than he anticipated. Second, it took a little longer than he expected for the means of receiving the electronic newspaper -- the home computer -- to catch on and its price to modify sufficiently to a point where it was affordable for the average American family. In full fairness to Bingham, within two years of his original prediction, he altered the time stamp, saying that the electronic newspaper was, instead, 15 year in the future. However, even with that newspapers continued in their fat, sassy and almost obscenely profitable way to ignore what a growing number of business executives in other industries were beginning to see as the inevitable Internet revolution that really built up a head of steam with the establishment in 1985 of AOL and its rapid growth in popularity as a home service provider.

There were some early Internet experiments by newspapers -- like StarText, a paid content model that was in operation at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram when I joined the staff there as business editor in 1982 -- but most languished and died before the home computer boom began in earnest in the 1990s.

Finally, in the mid-1990s, newspapers figured they'd better get on board with what was happening and most began establishing websites as stepchildren of their news operations, with little thought being given to the revenue generation possibilities of the Internet or the idea that just maybe the information explosion it was generating might jeopardize the position of newspapers as a primary source of news. Despite trends that were steadily growing more obvious, the primary focus of newspapers remained on their print product, with little serious strategic planning being done to take advantage of the possibilities the Internet provided.

Then -- and it seemed as if it happened almost overnight -- the panic set in. Suddenly, after years of complacency, we found ourselves playing catch up and some how most papers came to the conclusion that the best thing they could do to rapidly gain ground was to start giving away for free the content they were still trying to sell with their print product.

That was then, but this is now. A new opportunity is at hand and its name is MOBILE and the newspaper industry can't afford to be behind the curve when it comes to moving rapidly to take advantage of the possibilities it presents.

We already know that more and more people every day are turning to the growing variety of smart phones and tablet computers to get their news and information on the go. But is the newspaper industry, stigmatized by plummeting print circulation, dropping advertising revenue and declining profits really ready to make the investment it will take to move into the world of mobile in a big way or will it ignore mobile's prophets like Steve Buttry of Digital First Media and Cory Bergman, general manage of NBC News Digital's Breaking News?

Bergman on Wednesday had an extremely interesting post on the Poynter Institutes website headlined: "5 reasons mobile will disrupt journalism like the Internet did a decade ago." If you haven't read it, you should and here is the link:

Frankly, I believe that Bergman's article should be a call to action for every newspaper in the United States. If what he says is true, and I firmly believe it is, our industry cannot afford to ignore the new prophets of mobile the way it did Barry Bingham Jr. in 1976.


Your comments are welcome.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013


If you're taking your time to read this blog, I want you to know that any comments you want to make are welcome. In fact, any comments you make will be greatly appreciated for the ideas they may generate or the conversations they may kick off.

Three weeks from today will be the first time in nearly 43 years that I won't be waking up, putting on a pair of khakis, a fresh starched shirt, a tie and heading off for the newsroom where I could always count on stimulating, spirited conversations on a variety of topics with a variety of people.

In three weeks, instead of being the editor of a newspaper, I will become a retired man of leisure. When I wake up in the morning, I will probably put on a pair of jeans or shorts and a polo shirt, come into my home office and plop down in front of my computer and write a couple of blog posts. The only opportunities for intelligent conversation will be with myself or my cocker spaniel, Dylan. I have vowed that I will not spend the day making incessant calls to my wife who already has more to do at work than she can say grace over and hasn't time to babysit me on the telephone.

Your comments -- particularly those regarding the state of the newspaper industry -- will keep the blood flowing to my brain and my thoughts stimulated.

OK, yeah, I do plan to play some golf, but, at my age, you can only do that just so often without ending up in the ER.

So, if you are so inclined, please leave comments. I will answer back and maybe even get into a friendly discussion with you over where the newspaper industry has been and where it is going or needs to go.


Tuesday, April 9, 2013


 Most people who know me, know that I have always been a great admirer of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and strongly believe in his saying that we should judge people not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I am pretty sure that had he thought about, he might have added that we also should not always judge people by what comes out of their mouths, but, instead, by what resides in their hearts.
Over my nearly 43 years in the newspaper business, I had lots of calls that left by shaking my head in wonder. But, one particular call that I got in 1980 while I was still metro editor, shortly before becoming managing editor, at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., still causes me to shake my head all these years later.

I distinctly remember that it was a Wednesday morning, the day after we had prominently run a Page 1 story revealing that state officials had launched yet another of their periodic series of investigations of Charles Ever -- a Fayette business man and radio station owner and the brother of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers -- for some nebulous form of tax infraction. The state had previously conducted similar investigations, all of which had turned up nothing and most of which came after Evers had used his radio station to attack some state official for some form of alleged mis-, mal- or nonfeasance.
Shortly after our morning news planning meeting, I received a phone call from a woman with a heavy Southern accent. The conversation went something like this:

 CALLER: I was in Fayette yesterday and was in a restaurant where there was these four (n-words) sitting in the booth behind me and I overheard them taking. I mean, you know, I just couldn’t avoid overhearing them.

 ME (thinking oh geez, here we go again): Yes ma’am and?

 CALLER: Well I heard them saying that the state tax people are investigating that (n-word) Charles Evers. You know, the brother of the other (n-word) civil right fellow, that Medgar Evers.

 ME: (Starting to get on a slow burn) Yes ma’am?

CALLER: Well, those (n-words) were talking about how the state tax people are investigating that Charles Evers again.

ME: (Exasperated) Yes, ma’am, we had a front page story on that yesterday.

CALLER: Well, you need to do something about that.

ME: Yes ma’am we did, like I said we had a story on it yesterday.

CALLER: No, I don’t think you understand what I’m saying. I mean you need to do something about it because that (n-word) Charles Evers is one of the finest men in this state. He’s done more for poor colored folk and poor white folks that anybody. And you need to do something to get those state tax people off his back. They’re only doing this because he’s speaking up for civil rights just like his brother did. That Evers is a fine man just like his brother and doesn’t deserve to be treated that way and you need to do something about it (she insisted).

 In total shock because she had gone so far outside the stereotype I had set for her, all I could say was: “Yes ma’am, rest assured we will do whatever we can.” Apparently satisfied with my answer she thanked me and hung up.

 After all these years, I am still in disbelief and try to rationalize the apparent fact that despite my personal feelings about the use of the n-word, it isn’t necessarily always a pejorative (even though always objectionable) for everyone who employs it.



In early 1976, Barry Bingham Jr., publisher of The Courier-Journal and The Louisville Times, in Louisville, Ky., called the staffs of the two newspapers together for a chat. First, he informed us that the company was going computerized by buying a whoppingly expensive Atex computer system which would precluded any sort of pay scale increases because "equipment amortizes itself over five years and people don't." Needless to say, that pretty much ticked off everyone in the room.

However, before we got a chance to get too steamed, he began talking about something that left us all with dumbfounded, blank stares.

Within 10 years, he told us, we would be producing electronic newspapers that would be some how or other magically transmitted electronically to our readers. Frankly, we all thought that he had lost his mind, especially since he could provide only sketchy concepts on how this might come about.

Our skepticism and lack of comprehension did not, however, deter Bingham, who started delivering the same message to his fellow publishers around the country. Their reaction to his message was pretty much that same as ours, but they added outright ridicule to their skepticism and lack of comprehension.

Absolutely no one seemed to grasp Bingham's message and, frankly, no one really wanted to. After all, why should they? Print newspaper circulation was growing everywhere as were advertising lineage and ad revenues. Newspapers were building new buildings, buying new presses, hiring more staff and chewing up newsprint at a rate that left many in fear that forests in Canada and the U.S. Northwest would be denuded before the mid-21st Century to feed the hungry paper mills. Those were the days when editors used to complain that they had so much space to fill that they had to edit their papers with shovels.

I don't think that in 1976 the word "Internet" had even been invented and once it was, the newspaper industry -- which had always been quick to write about new developments of all sorts -- failed for decades to really grasp its impact, importance or potential.

Our scoffing ignorance of what Barry Bingham Jr. was trying to foretell, as we all know now, has come back to haunt the industry. Had we listened and tried to comprehend what he was talking about 37 years ago, we might not be in the state we are today.  Had we investigated and acted rather than being content to be fat, happy and stupid, we might literally own the Internet today, instead of being involved in chasing our tails trying to play a possibly futile game of catch up.

Oh well, its seems that no one wants to listen to prophets while they are happy with their profits.



While I was metro editor at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., the staff produced many extraordinary investigative projects, but few were better than one we published called "North Mississippi Justice." It was deep look into the circumstances surrounding the unsolved murders of a number of African-American men in North Mississippi. The bulk of the work was done by Rick Tulsky, who is now teaching at Northwestern University and was one of the best and toughest bulldog reporters I have ever known.
We gave the question of presentation at lot of thought and finally decided to publish the project as a tabloid special section instead of a series because we figured the subject matter was better presented en masse instead of piecemeal considering the racial attitudes that still prevailed across most of the state.
The project went on to win a bunch of awards including the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Journalism Award print media, photo and grand prizes -- the first triple crown winner in the history of the awards. (At first, Publisher Robert Hederman Sr. didn't want us to accept the award because he hated the Kennedy's, but his son, Executive Editor Rea Hederman prevailed and we accepted it anyway). In addition to the awards, the project also prompted a visit from a man who at least claim to be the grand Kleagle or head beagle or whatever the call the state's top Ku Klux Klan moron and a henchman who had the butt of a .357 magnum poking out under his sweater. But that's isn't the point here.

The Monday following Sunday's publication of the special section, I started getting the "how-dare-you" phone calls, lots of them, from irate white readers. All of whom were upset not about the murders, but about the fact the we had exposed the racist reasons behind their having gone unsolved for years. Finally after something like the 100th call, I had had it. The next call was from an ignorant (there, I said it) sounding woman with a very heavy drawl. It went something like this:

CALLER: I'm tired of this, y'all are turnin' this into nothin' but an (n-word) paper. Nothin' but stories about (n-words) and pictures of (n-words). Everywhere I look nothin' but (n-words). Y'all ain't become nothin' but a bunch of (n-word) lovers.

ME: Ma'am, sorry but I really don't care to listen to this any longer.


ME: Well, because I'm black.

CALLER: (After a protracted pause) Oh, uhhhh...I'm sorry (Click)

I never knew whether she was sorry for herself because of what she said, or sorry for me because she thought I was black.



I was at the Texas Associated Press Managing Editors meeting in San Antonio over the weekend when the ceremonial reading of Texas newspaper people who had shuffled off the mortal coil over the past year touched off one of my "Memories of a 43-year newspaper career." Among the names read was that of Robert P. (Bob) Clark, who I had all but forgotten had moved to Texas many years ago and who I probably would have thought had died years before if I spent much time thinking about that sort of thing. Bob was 91 when he passed, pretty surprising longevity for a newspaper editor.
It was Bob, a very affable fellow, who hired me at The Times. and I always got along pretty well with him. However, the same could not be said for Harry Ammon, the only person I've ever known who got away with refusing to be fired.
Harry was an interesting character and one of the best writers and reporters I've ever known. When I started at the Times, he been there about 25 years during which his career went through an incredible cycle of ups and downs. At the time, he was pretty much at the bottom of his worst-ever and longest down cycle and had found himself back working Saturday mornings. But this didn't bother Harry, because it gave him a chance to engage in one of his favorites side businesses -- bookmaking.
Every Saturday morning, when the only two other people in the Times newsroom were me and Assistant City Editor Harold "Gentle Ben" Benjamin, Harry would pull to his desk two or three phones from other adjoining desks and use them to take, make and layoff horse race bets -- an avocation that earned him the nickname "Harry the Horse," and brought him an estimated $50,000 a year income in 1972 dollars. In addition, Harry had inherited a family printing business, which he had other people run for him and drew another income of about $65,000 to $70,000 a year. Unlike everyone else, Harry really didn't need to work at the paper for the about $15,000 he was being paid. That fact, I suppose, was the source of his free-wheeling, independent attitude that had resulted in him having and displaying a lack of respect for people he chose not to respect -- one them was Bob Clark.
Things had gotten to a point where Bob had pretty much had it with Harry and decided to fire him. Bob -- who always spoke in the first person plural when he had a dirty job to do, I guess because it made he feel like he had allies -- called Harry into his office one Friday morning for a conversation that supposedly went something like this:

BOB: Harry, we've been giving this a lot of thought and we feel you would be happier somewhere else. (Sheepish smile.)

HARRY: No, Bob, your wrong. I am actually perfectly happy here.

Harry then got up walked out of the office and sat back down at his desk, where he remained for quite a few years after Bob had left the paper.

Monday, April 8, 2013


Time for another tale from my series that I call "Memories from a  43-Year Newspaper Career." This one is from The Morning News in Florence, S.C., my last stop before The Monitor -- my final stop before my impeding retirement on Apr. 30. OK, I am being self indulgent to a great degree in these posts but...Oh, what the heck.

Shortly after arriving at the Morning News in January 1998, Publisher Tom Marschel and I drove to nearby Hartsville to be part of a round-table discussion event put on by the Hartsville Chamber of Commerce. At that event, I met Richard Puffer, chief of public relations for one of the area's largest employers, Hartsville-based Sonoco Inc. When he came up to introduce himself, it was a chore to keep from falling into a fit of offensive, childish snickers since, as bold a day, his name tag read: "Dick Puffer." The story, however does not end here. In fact, this is just the build up.

Unbeknownst to me, about two years later, Puffer was transitioned from being PR chief at Sonoco to being the vice president for university relations at Coker College, a private college in Hartsville pretty much owned by the same family that controlled Sonoco.

Anyway, one morning I was sitting at an assistant city editor's desk in the Morning News newsroom when I picked up the phone to take a call the operator was transferring to me at that location. On the other end, a woman with a youngish sounding, voice with a pleasant southern drawl introduced herself as being with Sonoco in Hartsville. Since I did not recognize the name, I asked:

ME: So, what do you do at Sonoco?

HER: Oh, well, I guess you hadn't heard.

ME: Heard? Heard what?

Then, without her thinking one thing about how it would sound, came the proud announcement.

HER: I'm the new Dick Puffer.

I bit my lip and tried to control myself, but, as usual, just couldn't.

ME: Wow, with an introduction like that, I bet you get lots of dates.

There was a moment of silence, before I heard an outburst of laughter on the other end of the line.

HER: Guess I'd better start rephrasing that.

Ya think?


Sorry, but I think that as my retirement date (Apr. 30) draws nearer, I will have to bore my facebook friends and anyone willing to read this blog with a few newspaper career quick hit (and some not so quick) posts that I will call "Memories from a 43-year career in newspapers."
As most who know me or who've worked with me know, I've always been something of a rebel. Although that sort of attitude actually started while I was in the Navy (that's right, ours, not "theirs"), I think it escalated while I was a reporter at The Louisville Time, my first full-time job out of college in 1970.
My desk in the newsroom got moved around a lot depending, I think, in large part on how pissy my attitude was over any given period. Finally, it end up right outside of Managing Editor Mike Davies' door.
As ...everyone knew, Davies, who took over from the much more affable Bob Clark, was not one of my favorite people. So I hung a sign on the pillar right in front of my desk so that Davies could see it every time he walked out of his office. It read: "Editors are like flies, all they do is eat shit and bother people."
It didn't make me any more popular with Mike, but I sure got a lot of pleasure out of it.
In the interest of fairness, however, I will have to admit that after I became city editor at the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., I, for a while, posted a sign on the pillar beside my desk that read: "Reporters are like flies, all they do is eat shit and bother people."
Funny how circumstance alters beliefs. :)

Catch y'all later.

My New Blog

On April 30 I will be retiring from the newspaper business after a total of nearly 43 years at eight different newspapers in seven different states, having spent the past almost 12 years as editor of The Monitor in McAllen, Texas. But, just because I am leaving newspapers doesn't mean that I don't still have something to say. Of course, whether anyone is interested in what I still have to say -- or ever was -- remains to be seen. However, after 43 years of being able to add your two-cents worth to the public discussion, it's hard to break the habit. It's kind of like trying to quit smoking and everyone who knows me knows how successful I've been with that.

I am not exactly sure where I am going to go with this blog, but then that is the beauty of blogs isn't it? You are on your own and can go pretty much anywhere you want whether or not anyone else really cares to follow. For me, this really is a brave new world because for the first time in 43 years I am going to be able to say exactly what I want to say without worrying whether I will get into trouble with my bosses because what I might say doesn't jibe with what my paper philosophy is and believe me, over the years THAT has been a problem. You see, I am really among the last of a disappearing breed: the actual LIBERAL newspaper editor. Yep, there, I said it -- the dreaded "L" word. For years, conservative politicians have enjoyed hiding behind the term "liberal media," using it to blame the press every time one of them steps into a pile of smelly political poop. The truth, however, is that if the media ever really was once by and large liberal, it isn't anymore -- decades of expending corporate ownership have seen to that. When and if some newspapers -- and I can only really deal with newspapers because that's where all of my experience has been -- could honestly be called "liberal" was in the days when a high percentage of them were family owned. During my career, (actually near the very start of my career) I was fortunate to work for one newspaper organization that truly was liberal, The Louisville Courier-Journal & Times -- a morning and afternoon newspaper combo owned by the Bingham family of Louisville, Ky. At the time, the Courier-Journal and its sister paper, The Louisville Times, were regarded as being among the 10 best papers in the country and were fiercely liberal, an identification that has largely disappeared in the decades since the family sold them to Gannett.

But, I digress here. This is not really supposed to be a blog about the history of newspapers or even a bemoaning of the way they have changed over the more than four decades since I started my career. At least, I don't think that is what it is about even though it may, from time to time, fall into digressions that lean in that direction.

To start this blog off, it is my intention to provide some of the memories of my 43-year career in newspapers, because most of us newsroom rats who've been in the business as long a I have have accrued some interesting memories -- it's just the sort of thing that happens when you spend as many years as I have dealing with the public and with the diverse personalities that work in the nation's newsrooms. Hopefully, those of you who -- if any of you do -- read this will find these memories interesting and in many instances fun. For any young journalist who happen upon this blog, I am hoping you find it in some way instructional and helpful.

Since I am getting way too long winded here and don't want to bore you, I am going to end this introductory first installment. With my next post, I will being my series of "Memories of a 43-year career in newspapers." Thank you for reading this all of the way to the end -- if you did. If you didn't, well, shame on me. Catch y'all later.