Monday, August 12, 2013

NEWSROOM NOVICE

In our lives, we all have "firsts" that we look back on fondly across the haze of time. Maybe it's a first car, or maybe a first love. For me, one of those is my first newsroom job, although it is a position that I am not sure I have ever even listed on any professional resume, especially since it lasted such a short time and ended so abruptly. But, if it hadn't been for that job, my life might have headed in a different direction and I might not have had the nearly 44 years worth of newspaper jobs that I do list on my resume.

My first newspaper job, which I sort of fell into a couple of months after my discharge from the U.S. Navy in 1966, was at the New Albany Tribune in New Albany, Ind., the city just to the west of Clarksville, Ind., where I spent part of my younger life.

I didn't start at the Tribune, then an about 8,000 circulation daily, immediately after the Navy even though by the time I was discharged, I knew I wanted to go back to college and become a newsman.

I joined the Navy to escape my father's wrath after managing to amass a 0.4 average during the first semester of my freshman year at Indiana University. I failed out not because I was all that stupid, but because I had no desire to go immediately from high school to college. I actually wanted to enlist in the service and see something of the world before tackling another four years of schooling, but my parents wouldn't hear of it. Since I was only 17 when I graduate high school, I needed their signed permission to enlist.

So, instead, I went off to IU and found that I enjoyed playing euchre at the Student Union building more than I liked going to class. Consequently, failing out was not that difficult a chore. What WAS a chore was gaining readmission to the university after my discharge from the Navy. I was granted "conditional" readmission. The condition being that before I could return to IU's main campus in Bloomington, I had to take classes at Indiana University Southeast, then in Jeffersonville, and bring my GPA up to at least 2.0. This I did in one summer and one fall semester by getting all "A"s in 16 hours of course work at nights.

To support myself during those semesters, I had to find a job. The first one I took was as a collector for a loan company. However, I quickly tired of repossessing cars and pressuring payments from people who'd been duped into taking loans at interest rates bordering on usury.

I quit that repugnant post when an old high school friend told me about a job at the Tribune, then owned by Thomson Newspapers. I applied and got the job. That position, however, was in the advertising department, but it got my foot in the door.  I almost immediately began bugging (maybe I should say begging) the editor, John Anderson, to give me a shot as a reporter, which he finally did.

Anderson was one of those old-time editors who could sit at his desk typing faster with two fingers on an old upright Royal typewriter faster than most people can touch type with all the fingers on both hands on a computer keyboard. And, yeah, he had the omnipresent cigarette butt with a two inch ash that steadfastly refused to fall off until he was ready to dump it in his always overflowing ashtray. He also kept a bottle of Rebel Yell bourbon in his bottom desk drawer and nipped on it regularly during the day.

Anderson had been around the block a couple of times and even though he was then the editor of a small community daily, he had worked for some much larger papers in some big cities. In his early 40s, Anderson was a World War II Army combat veteran who'd been wounded twice, once at Anzio and once while making the mad dash across France with Patton's army. When he was discharged, he took advantage of the GI bill and went to college after becoming enthralled with a newspaper war correspondent he'd met in a foxhole on the Anzio beachhead.

Once I took a desk in the newsroom, I was off and running and Anderson liked what I was doing as much as I liked doing it and compared to what I had been making as a 2nd class gunner's mate petty officer in the Navy, the $65-a-week paycheck seemed like a fortune.

Maybe because I was a fellow veteran and maybe because of my charming personality, Anderson seemed to take a liking to me and took it upon himself to tutor me in newspapering. I actually learned a lot from him and much of what he taught me I spent years as an editor passing along to the young reporters who worked for me at various newspapers.

One of the things I learned from him was how to write a grabber lead.

"Look," he told me, "if you don't craft a lead that grabs the reader's attention right off, you're gonna lose 'em. A good lead should grab the reader by the lapels and give him a good shaking. If you do that, it almost doesn't matter what comes next because they'll follow it whatever it is. That's even more true if you write a great lead followed by three or four more strong paragraphs." Over the years, I found that to be unerringly great advice.

He also taught me that if a great lead didn't pop immediately into my head,  go on and write the rest of the story because in doing so, "the right lead will eventually reveal itself." He was right.

He also insisted that every good news story has a beat and a rhythm, just like a good song.

"Your job is to discover that beat and that rhythm and then write the lyrics," he told me.

He also instructed me in the now seemingly lost art of calling in and dictating a story off the top of my head. After my first pathetic attempt to do that while providing updated coverage of a trial, Anderson pulled me aside, got up in my face with a waggling index finger and growled:

"I have neither the time, nor the inclination to write your fucking stories for you. From now on, when you call in, you'd better be ready to dictate a real story and not that notes bullshit you hit me with today."

All were lessons that served me well throughout my long newspaper career.

But my career as a reporter at the Tribune ended rather abruptly after five months when I told Anderson that I'd decided that rather than going back to school in Bloomington, I would as soon just continue reporting for him.

"Look, kid," he told me, "you're good, but you'll be a lot better if you go back to school and get an education. Your fired. But, if you really want to come back to work here after you graduate, you can have your job back. Now, get the hell out of my office and go back to school."

A week later, I was standing in the registration line at IU's main campus in Bloomington, taking advantage of the GI Bill's education benefits, just like John Anderson had done 21 years earlier.

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