Do It Quickly, Well, and Don’t Get Us Sued
I got into journalism by accident. During college, I was majoring in English Literature. I thought I wanted to teach college. I inadvertently signed up for a writing class for which I got more than I bargained on. I was probably hungover the day I registered for classes. Anyway, I ended up in a beginning reporting class by mistake.
When I realized I was in reporting class, and that the teacher was a former newspaperman, bent on turning us into news reporters, I was horrified. The teacher’s name was George Meyer, a former AP reporter/editor. He was bearlike, blond, with a big ’70s wife-swapper mustache, and an infectious laugh. I had shoulder length hair and a smirk. On the second day of school that semester, annoyed that I’d wasted my money on a reporting class, I arrived in the room wearing a felt fedora with a card that said “press” stuck in the brim. This brought snickers from the class as well as the teacher.
In the coming weeks, I tried to make Mr. Meyer’s life hell, refusing to take the impromptu tests, and lecturing everyone on how newspaper journalism wasn’t really writing, but, as someone (Truman Capote?) said of Jack Kerouac’s work on his novel, “On the Road,” it was “only typing.” Finally, two or three weeks into the semester, Meyer called me to his office after class. He asked me what was going on. I told him I thought newspapers were shit. He said, “O.K., if that’s the way you feel. But you are either going to have to stop disrupting the class or drop it.” We shook hands.
The next class, I decided, what the hey, I’d paid for the tuition. I started applying myself. In every class, Meyer would give us a reporting assignment. They were brilliant. He would say, “Put a piece of paper in your typewriter.” (We had IBM Selectrics back then.) Then he would give us the facts of a news story: “A man named Boise Snide, 32, robbed a bank in Tampa today at 1 p.m. He used a gun …” Meyer would spend three minutes laying out the details. We had seven more minutes to write the story, which we had been typing all along as he spoke. Four minutes before the deadline he’d say, “Sorry, all those facts were wrong. It wasn’t a man, it was a woman named Nebraska Wildsouth, she’s 26, she robbed a bank in Clearwater and used a knife.” And so forth. Then you had three minutes to write a front page news story.
By the time of the last class, when we took the monster final, another student, Lisa, and I were the star pupils. She had slightly higher grades than I, because I had wasted the first few weeks thumbing my nose at the teacher. Luckily, I smoked the final, getting a higher mark (we got graded on a 1 to 100 scale) than Lisa. She was mortified. Although her class average was still higher than mine, I had beaten her on the final. She was one of those people who had to get an A+ in every class. I was happy getting mostly A’s and B’s, with the occasional C for classes I just couldn’t stand. Oh, well.
Lisa and I, as it turned out, were the only students from that class of maybe 12 who actually ended up being reporters on newspapers. But before that day, I spent the next two years writing for my college newspaper, The Oracle. I was the Editorial Editor, writing five editorials a week, and served as the second-string film critic. I also freelanced for a large city daily, writing film and other entertainment features.
The day I went for my first, full-time journalistic job, which I got while I was still in college, the publisher, a skinny, bearded, former Chicago Tribune reporter named Steve, told me to put a piece of paper in the typewriter. He handed me something that read like Mr. Meyer’s instructions in our class exercises. “Write a news story out of this. I’ll be back in 10 minutes,” Steve said.
Frankly, I hand never been given that much time to write a news story. When the publisher came back into the room, I had my feet on the desk and was looking out the window. “What’s wrong he said?” I told him, “Nothing. The story’s on the table.” Steve shot me a troubled look and picked up my story, He read it for no more than 90 seconds, put the paper down and shook my hand. “Congratulations,” he said, “you just got your first job as a newspaper reporter.”
Now, when I look back on the writing I’ve done in the past 30 years (as a journalist, playwright, author, song, script and advertising/marketing writer, etc.), I realize that newspaper reporting was the best possible training. You have very little time to crank out something compelling. If you make a major fact error one day, they warn you. If you do it twice, they fire you. So, you are taught to turn out readable copy, about virtually any subject, on impossible deadlines. And if you get anything wrong, it had better be slight enough that nobody complains. That’s a pretty good recipe for writing in general.
Oh, yeah, the old feature writing/film criticism gig also meant that and I got to live as a foreign correspondent and stringer in France for several years, the first seven months in a chateau on the outskirts of Montpellier, the rest in Paris. Yeah, journalism used to be a pretty sweet setup before citizen journalists/blogs/the Internet murdered the media.
Anyway, in this section of my site, you can read some past stories that I’ve written as a journalist: running the gamut from hard news, to features and reviews — domestic and foreign.
I’ll just close by saying, “30.” (That’s how reporters used to slug the end of a story, when Humphrey Bogart was playing an editor in the movies.)