With the release Monday of careercast.com'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.