Thursday, June 5, 2014

HOLD THE PHONE!

It's funny what will sometimes set a person's -- particularly a journalist's -- memory banks in motion.

This morning, my friend Scott Maier, who is now senior public information officer at the University of California, San Francisco, posted this photo on Facebook with this accompanying text: "Yes, these still exist where I work. Anyone remember, or ever use them?"



Well, of course, being almost 70, I remember them and, as a reporter in the pre-cell phone era, used them frequently. In fact one of those stupid working pay-phone booths was every bit as important -- although frequently far less reliable -- a reporting tool in those days as a "smart phone" is today. Back then, a good reporter had to be just as resourceful as, and sometimes a whole bunch sneakier than, today's reporters when it came to beating the competition on a breaking story -- something that could become a bit problematic back in the phone-booth era.

As I prepared to respond to Scott's post, my memory banks kicked into motion.

Back in 1973, I was the crime and courts reporter for the now long-defunct afternoon paper The Louisville (Ky.) Times and, as part of my beat, covered the Jefferson County Circuit Courts. At the side entrance to the circuit courts building, there was one, and just one, phone booth.  When covering a particularly big, "hot" trial, I had to rely on that phone booth as my primary mode of contact with the rewrite desk to call in and retop and update my story between each of the paper's four daily editions.

When I first was assigned to the beat, I often found that when I'd come dashing out of a courtroom and head to the solo phone booth to call in a story update, it would be in use by some lawyer or other miscreant. That would sometimes cause me to miss a deadline which was never something that sat too well with my direct boss, Assistant City Editor Harold Benjamin. So, after several ass chewings as only Ben, as he was known, could deliver them -- and remember, this was long before dyspeptic HR twits had much say or any sway over what happened in the newsroom -- I decided that I would have to find a means of making certain THE phone booth was not in use when I needed it. Let's face it, one can take just so much brutal verbal abuse before the resourceful and creative juices begin to flow.

It didn't take me long to come up with a solution.

First, I "acquired" an official Southern Bell "OUT OF ORDER" hang tag. Then, whenever I was covering a major trial that required me to call in regular updates to the rewrite desk -- yep, newspapers had those back in the day, staffed by generally older, burned-out reporters who took notes or dictation from their colleagues in the field and made sure that stories that needed it got retopped in time to meet deadlines -- I would hang it on the phone booth to discourage use by others. As an added measure of insurance, I would also unscrew the mouthpiece cover from the receiver, take out the speaker and pocket it just in case someone didn't believe the sign and tried to make a call anyway.

Then, when I needed the phone, I simply removed the sign, reinstalled the speaker, dropped my dime in the coin slot and dictated my update. When finished, I'd check to make certain no one else was around and remove the speaker from the mouthpiece, rehang the sign and head back into court.

Was this fair to others in the media who were covering the same trial and might need a close by phone? Nope, but I did in particular love the way it drove the reporters from the three local TV news stations nuts.

Was it ethical? Well, I'll let you be the judge of that.

Did I feel bad about doing it? Although I hate to admit it, not in the least because it helped me to get the job done and keep each of the daily editions of The Louisville Time current and relevant in their coverage of big, important trials at a time when that mattered every bit as much as it does today.

-30-


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