Saturday, December 6, 2008

How you became a newspaper reporter

You took six years to complete college -- with two years off to sell popcorn from a cart in midtown New York, then live on a commune in Virginia, then live for a longer period in Europe, and then hitchhike around the United States. After graduating in 1974 you decided you wanted to find a way to make a living as a writer.

Some choices that seem obvious now were not so apparent then. For instance, writing for television. Despite being 24 years old, you had yet to own a television set, and never watched TV. You did have a distant relative, Morrie Ryskind, who co-wrote many of the Marx Brother’s plays and movies, but it still did not occur to you to pursue screenwriting.

Instead, you believed the best path was a career in journalism. But finding a job as a reporter, you understood, would not be easy. The country had recently been captivated by the Watergate reporting exploits of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Thus becoming a newspaper reporter was a popular goal among many college graduates.

Having no formal education, or training, in journalism, it appeared that the odds were against you. Especially when colleges were busy producing thousands of journalism majors. Plus, a significant number of young people were getting masters in journalism from schools like Columbia. The desks of newspaper editors were awash with job applications and resumes from candidates far more qualified than you.

Given those poor odds, you were told by someone wise (you can no longer remember who) that your best, and possibly only, chance for finding a job was to show up at newspapers in person and attempt to talk your way into the office of someone – a managing editor? A publisher? – who was in a position to hire you. You were warned not to call and announce your visit in advance, as that would give someone the opportunity to say no, don’t come.

In order to accomplish this task in a somewhat orderly fashion, you took a map of New York and drew concentric circles at ten mile intervals emanating from New York City (you skipped the newspapers in the city itself, since they only hired reporters with many years experience). Then you started driving. First to every newspaper within ten miles of the city, then 20 miles, then 30, and on and on.

Remarkably, once you arrived at a newspaper office, you were often able to get into see someone, if only for a few minutes. The security measures that today prevent most people from getting through the front door did not exist then. But alas, not a single newspaper had a job to offer.

You then tried newspapers in the 40-, 50-, and 60-mile radius. Finally the day came, approximately a month and a half into your search, when you walked into the office of Glen Doty, the managing editor of the Middletown Times Herald Record, 74 miles from New York City.

Mr. Doty’s door was open, but you knocked anyway. He looked up from a pile of papers on his desk and asked who you were. You explained that you were looking for a job as a reporter.

“Do you have any experience?” Mr. Doty asked.

“I wrote for my college newspaper and was editor of the literary magazine,” you said.

Mr. Doty tugged at his moustache thoughtfully for about three seconds and said, “Can you start a two-week tryout tomorrow?”

The next day you returned to the paper and sat down at your assigned desk, where a pad of mostly illegible notes lay next to an ashtray half-filled with cigarette butts. A half typed story was in the typewriter beside the desk. Clearly, someone else had recently been using this desk.

You turned to the reporter at the desk next to yours. He had a beard and was busy typing a story with two fingers.

“Is this another reporter’s desk?” I asked.

He glanced up at me for a second. “Not anymore,” he replied.


“It’s Gil’s desk,” the reporter said as he began to type again. “But Gil got shot two days ago.”

Timing is everything. You got the job.

(It turned out that Gil was shot point blank with a shotgun by his wife for reasons that were never completely divulged. Gil lived because he held his hand up in front of the barrel just before she pulled the trigger. Charges were never filed because Gil told the police it was an accident. Gil eventually returned to the newspaper and worked as an editor because it’s hard to be a reporter when you only have one hand.)

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