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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Ten Years In the Newspaper Game, part 3

[Beatrice Boedefeld was the society editor and a general reporter for the Elkhart Truth in Indiana from 1910—1919, after which she was a reporter for the Casper Tribune in Wyoming. She published this series in late 1924 through spring 1925 in a news trade magazine called The Nation’s Publisher. She changed many names, but some are easily identified—for example, Concordia is Elkhart—and those known are explained in the notes at the end of this post. If you missed the first two parts, they are: I. Becoming a Sobsister and II. Tramp Reporters.]

III. City Editors I Have Known.

(Third in a series of stories by Beatrice B. Andrews of Casper, Wyoming. You will enjoy this whether you have read the first two or not.)

It has been said that your genuine city editor is known by two infallible earmarks. He always blows up half an hour before press time and he always expresses his feelings by a savage use of the word “Hell.”

Some of the city editors I have known ran true to type and some did not. There are worse and better newspaper editors than the half dozen under whom I have worked but I would give up only one of the lot, and he was no true newspaper man.

My first two years in the newspaper game were spent under Ben Parker, ruthless, devoid of conscience, and absolutely ignorant of ethics. As business manager, he directed the policy of The News, even after he ceased to be city editor, and I wonder how I managed to keep any ideals after such an initiation into the news game.

“Get your story, no matter what the means,” was his idea. “Print what you know, whether they like it or not,” was another Parkerism, and the individual who incurred his enmity could hope for no quarter if the News ever dug up a story to his discredit. If hard pressed, he was not above printing newspaper hoaxes of purely mythical character. I remember one concerning an automatic telephone company which was to invade the field at Concordia, printed when Parker had just had a fight with the local phone company. There was no truth to the story but Parker ran it for several days, and the opposition was unable to deny it or run it down.

His political enemies had particular cause to fear his vitriolic pen. Campaign years were one long welter of mudslinging and backbiting. Parker loved nothing better than an editorial argument with the opposition sheet, but for all his cleverness he was never quite able to best George Stein of the Press. They presented much the spectacle of a huge ugly bull dog being tormented in a fight by a dancing, yapping fox terrier. Parker’s lunges were heavy, determined, and generally effective, if they hit, but by the time he had reached one mark Stein had shifted ground and was ki-yi-ing at him from another angle.

The local option fight in Indiana furnished them with endless material. The Press was pro-option and the News anti. The campaign of Senator Roberts, the boy-orator of Concordia for the Governorship on an anti-option platform brought on a fight of months which ended when the Press proved that Mr. Roberts was not old enough to be Governor.

Having backed Mr. Roberts in the lie about his age, the News stuck it out even after baby pictures and baptismal records had been produced.

Whenever a fight was on Parker was frightfully particular about the accuracy of everything we published although it did not matter so much at other times, and every story which was at all doubtful fairly bristled with the word “alleged” inserted as he edited the copy.

It was in the midst of one interminable argument between the two papers in which the underhanded methods and inaccuracy of the News was being flaunted daily in the Press that poor little Dick Davis, our hard working little cub, put over a “wooden scoop” that nearly disrupted the force.

Dick’s great ambition was to get a “big scoop.” He was always coming in with false alarms which more experiences reporters had to run down. Most of his stuff had to be re-written, and most of us were ready to vote him a real pest, although his willingness to run down tips was valuable to us all, at times.

Most of Dick’s stories were taken with salt, then, but this one seemed like the real thing.

“Yep, I talked to her myself,” Dick said when House questioned him about the story. “She was telling her friends at the dance Saturday night how she was locked in the filing vault at the plant where she works, see, Saturday noon, and might have had to stay there over Sunday, only her chum missed her, see, and went back to look, and they had to get the combination from the boss. She told me all about how she felt in there, and how she fainted when they got her out.”

So House added the thrills to the story in proper fashion and it was run under the heading “Trapped in Dungeon of Death.” It was a scoop, too.

But the next night—

“Movies Inspire Girl’s Yarn,” said the Press.

The heroine of our dungeon story confessed to having imagined herself in the role of some screen favorite she had just seen and to having deliberately “strung” poor Dick. The file vault in the factory proved to be a small affair with a window and an ordinary door, not a vault at all, in fact, much less a “dungeon of death.”

Parker wrote a retraction of the story, blaming the girl and exonerating Dick whose intentions were good. And he carried this policy into the office, blaming House and not Dick for allowing the story to get by.

About this time Parker was promoted to the post of business manager and J. D. Mathis became our city editor.

J. D., as he was known to us, will always be my idea of everything a newspaper man should not be. He was a liar, a hypocrite, and a coward. He went out of his way to lie when the truth would have been easier, it seemed to us, and he justified many of his untruths by a perverted philosophy which he said was the creed of some religious cult which he had embraced. Evidently, his crooked brain had misconstrued the teachings, however, for nothing with the name of religion could justify the lies which he told.

Wild promises of unlimited publicity were made by J. D. to people with projects to put over, and never fulfilled. Poems and manuscripts were accepted for publication and lost.

We all felt in mortal terror for our jobs, never knowing what sort of lie J. D. might tell Parker about us in an effort to excuse some of his own failures. If the paper was late it was always the fault of some reporter or of the leased wire operator. The operator got back by dating and timing his reports and keeping duplicates, but we had no such recourse.

My most disagreeable experiences in the news game were while J. D. was editor. Once he accused me, behind my back, of having appropriated theatre comps, promised to the bookkeeper, and really given by J. D. to a personal friend whom he happened to meet on the street.

When I learned of the accusation from Bert, the bookkeeper, I was fortunate in being able to produce the stubs of my balcony seats for which I had paid good money, and to tell him who had occupied the seats always reserved for the News.

“Good thing the desks in this office aren’t worth taking.” Bert remarked. “Maybe I’d better keep an eye on that fellow.” And the matter went no further.

Another time Dick informed me that Mathis had promised my job to a stenographer who had substituted for me during my vacation and I put in a few anxious moments although I knew that the conventions and other important doings in my field which were due at that time were entirely beyond the ability of my substitute. J. D. knew it too, as it happened. He had merely wanted to flatter the girl.

So, knowing his true character, we were none of us surprised when J. D. was found to have opened business office mail left by mistake in the editorial rooms, and to have appropriated to his own use several checks made out to “Editor, News.”

For several months, John King, formerly with the Press, had been our star reporter, and we all rejoiced when Parker made him city editor. King was a human dynamo, a small man, but the volume of work he could turn out was enormous. He had been brought up in Concordia but served his newspaper apprenticeship elsewhere. He had worked under Stein and knew all his methods and with his own ability added was without doubt the best reporter either paper had on its staff in a decade.

There was no loafing in the News office once King took charge. He set us a terrible pace, nerves were often strained to the breaking point, but we got out a great paper and we were proud of it. We were disgraced when we did not scoop the Press once or twice a day at least.

King had no patience with inefficiency or time killing.

“If you’ve got anything to write, write it. If not get out on the street,” he told us a dozen times a day.

“He oils the news machine with vinegar and sand and expects good work,” Brooks complained, but the fault lay in Brooks’ inefficiency. King soon transferred him to the mechanical department and Walker, who was always vacillating back and forth between the two papers, took his place.

While King was city editor we tried a six months experiment with a Sunday paper which came near killing all of us, although King was the chief victim.

Writing a feature article or two a week in addition to the daily stuff was interesting as soon as we learned how. Those features lurked in the most unexpected places. I interviewed the conductor of my street car one day and got a most interesting story on life from his point of view.

One night I stayed in the box office of the local theatre and made a story from the comments of the people who approached the window.

“Ish-ga-bibble,” that strange word which floated through our American slang for a season and then vanished, provided another interesting story—where did it come from and why?

But the rub came when we had to add a Saturday night session of work after getting out the regular Saturday edition. King always put in a straight 24 hours from 7 o’clock Saturday morning until the same hour on Sunday, for no extra Sunday editor was employed. I generally worked until midnight and the boys were on call until 2:30 a.m.

Often King would be found in the press room, helping insert the magazine and comic sections in the news section for the carrier boys, so tired he couldn’t have told his name. But as long as he could give such service Parker was willing to accept it.

One hot June night King collapsed and the Sunday News was not issued that night or again thereafter.

The News gang reached a high point of efficiency under King. Gone were the tramp reporters. Walker, who knew the town inside out, covered the city beat and the sports; Old Mac , who had been reporting when the rest of us were in our cradles, had deserted the Press and covered morts [deaths] and the courts for us. Frank Morris began as cub and worked up to star reporter during those years, finally taking the journalism course at Columbia and working for us in the summers. The high school paper was generally able to furnish us with a promising cub.

The News scintillated with unusual feature stories. We developed originality of style. Each of us had a coterie of fans who would give news stories to us first of all. We were delighted when they called on the telephone and insisted on speaking to Mac or Jim Walker, or Morris as the case might be.

Shortly before America entered the war, our owner, the grim old man whom we never saw, sold the News to a syndicate of Concordia business men, and overnight we changed all our policies. From a Democratic paper we became independent with strong Republican leanings, and there were other changes in policy just as drastic.

Parker resigned and King was promoted to be managing editor by the new owners.

We were not surprised when Frank Morris, who had completed his Columbia course, appeared as the new city editor, but it seemed strange to be working under him after coaching his beginning efforts.

Morris started a column in the News as an outlet for the wit which we had hitherto wasted in “pomes” pasted on the office wall. Before long we had regular contribs who found as much joy in getting into “The Office Window,” as we called it, as the Chicagoan does in “making the Line.”

The new owners provided us with a brand new building, but while we thrilled at the prospect of clean linoleum-covered floors, steam heat, screened windows and brand new shiny-topped desks, we all felt real regret at parting with our battered, paper-littered, dirty den in the old building. Then Morris enlisted.

With dismay we heard that the Press was going out of business and that Stein had been hired as our new city editor. It was worse for Walker and Mac, who had left the Press to get away from him, than for me. I can see old Mac’s face when they broke the news to us, yet.

For Stein had fixed notions on the conduct of a newspaper which nothing could change. He left nothing to the reporter. There was no place for originality or individuality in his scheme. Even society news must be written after one stereotyped pattern.

I was on a news beat and Ellen Bell held the society desk. Poor girl, how I pitied her. She knew how her people wanted their items written, but had absolutely no chance.

We were the most bullied, nagged and pestered lot of reporters you can imagine, and after the freedom we had enjoyed under King and Morris, the most miserable.

All our little pet individualities of style were cut out, old hackneyed leading paragraphs were substituted for our original ways of putting old things. There was no incentive to hunt for news off the beaten track and it was nag, nag, nag all day over trifles which had never seemed to matter to any of our previous editors.

Yet there were good points in Stein’s method. We overlooked nothing in the daily routine under his system. We were glad he had brought with him the “Black Maria”, which was responsible for many a beat [scoop] which the Press had secured over the News. This was a city directory of Concordia in the year 1900, and as Stein had checked his paper through the years he had noted interesting facts after the names of old residents, so that a reference to Maria revealed the dates of marriages, deaths, removals and other important facts at an instant.

If the name of a former resident appeared in the telegraphic news, Maria showed just where in the files the prized local end to the story could be found.

Stein’s system of keeping clippings on all future events so that all data at hand could be handed the reporter with the assignment was a great time saver. We had been accustomed to looking up our own material in the files.

On the whole, Stein came nearer the accepted idea of the city editor than any of the others I had known. Certainly his explosions as press time approached were classics. His vocabulary in times of stress was profane and picturesque. He made himself hated and feared in all quarters—until the press began to roll—and then we forgave him for half of it for the genial fun which followed the ranting and the raving. But the Stein rubber stamp which blotted out our individualities, that we never forgave.

During the flu epidemic of 1918 I had my one and only experience as city editor of the News.

Stein was called to a distant part of the state by the death of his father-in-law and was obliged to be away over a week attending to business details.

On the day after his departure, King, who had intended taking the desk in his absence, succumbed to the flu and had to be taken home after exposing the entire force. Walters was also down, which left old Mac, Jack Lester, Ellen Bell and myself.

“I guess it’s up to you, Miss B—,” the business manager told me the next morning, and I found it very much up to me.

Jack had practiced head writing to some extent and undertook to edit the telegraph report, while I attended to the local news. Both of us had news beats which we felt must be covered, and the day was one series of mad dashes to get stories and madder efforts to write, copy read, and head-line them. Ellen got everything possible over the phone. Old Mac even added a burst of speed to the pace at which he generally ambled over his beat. Our lunches were brought to our desks that we might save a little of the precious time. We were only half an hour late in going to press, and rather congratulated ourselves on our first effort.

The next day was Friday. The time was shortly before Thanksgiving, and the Friday paper always carried heavy advertising for Saturday sales.

Upon my arrival at the office at 7:30 Friday morning, half an hour ahead of my regular time, I found that the plague had indeed struck the News office. The proofreader, the copy boy, two girls from the business office, four out of five linotype operators, two ad men and one pressman had all succumbed and a sixteen page paper was due.

At 8 o’clock not a line of news copy had been set, the one machine operator left being the man who set the running matter for the ads. Ours was a union shop and the only linotype men available in town were non-union men employed by a patent medicine house which printed its own advertising matter.

Would our men work with them if the business manager could get them to come?

Heaven be praised, they would. The foreman of the composing room took the attitude that the flu was an “act of God,” and superseded all union rules.

As I remember it, that day was the longest, slowest, I ever experienced. It took those linotype men, unused to the hurry of newspaper composition, endless hours to set the copy which our regular men devoured with such rapidity, and other hours to make corrections. Some of the galley proofs looked utterly hopeless when corrections had been marked. Press time came and half the forms were still on the stones. It was fully six o’clock before the last page came from the stereotyper and was on the press. And to cap the climax, a dozen carrier boys, having routes in the outlying districts, refused to carry their routes at that late hour through the cold, wet snow which was falling, declared a strike, and either tore up their papers or dumped them in the alley. So after all our work only about a third of the edition was distributed to the readers that night.

How we got out a Saturday paper, I do not know. I can only remember sitting at my telephone, Jack and Ellen doing likewise, and saying over and over—

“Yes, we issued a paper last night but it was very late and some of the boys refused to take them out. The circulation man will see that all routes are carried today. Yes. We are very sorry that you didn’t get your paper. I am sure you will get one tonight,” ad infinitum and very much ad nauseum.

By working all day Sunday we got a little ahead of the game. Two of the machine men discovered that they did not have the flu, after all, and somehow we limped along until Stein returned. He gave Jack and me full praise for our work, for once, and with all his faults we could have embraced him. We had no desire to wear his shoes one minute longer.

Perhaps that year on the News was a purgatory to make me appreciate the almost newspaper heaven which I entered when I went to Wyoming to work on the Tribune at Casper.

No cramping of individual style there. It was Casper at the end of the boom, but teeming and bustling with life, ambition, prosperity, and a great pride and belief in her future. Everybody had news to give out. Everybody was eager to help the papers tell everything about Casper to the world. More news everyday than the paper could print.

Ray Edmunds, the city editor, had no time to work out assignments. We reporters worked them out for ourselves. He merely expected us to do our best and we did. I found myself covering stories which only men in Concordia ever handled. I stayed up until midnight covering council meetings and enjoyed the novelty of hob-nobbing with sheriffs, fire chiefs, policemen, justices and railroad officials.

Seemingly, Edmunds never got excited. He took things as they came, and they came thick and fast some days, with a calm and even manner which could not be ruffled. And what a paper he could turn out!

Ten years and six city editors, and of them all, only one who was in all ways disappointing. They didn’t all blow up at press time. They didn’t all say “Hell:” Some of them didn’t even smoke. But with the one exception they were real city editors, every one. I learned all I know from them, and they, themselves, were all worth knowing.

[Coming Next: IV. Paste and Shears and Colyums.]

******************************
Notes:


1. Ben Parker’s real identity was Fred Palmer, born in Iowa in January 1877. He was married to a woman named Winnifred and had two daughters and three sons. He got into the news business early in life.
2. Stein’s real identity was Frank George Stahr, born in Indiana in March 1869. He was married to a woman named Jessie and had four children. He was a lifelong newspaper man, retiring from the Truth in 1945.
3. JD Mathis’s real identity was probably Irwin David Landis, who was the city editor in 1912 and did not stay in the newspaper business very long.
4. Bert Myers, the bookkeeper, did not have a pseudonym in this series.
5. John King was Tom H. Keene. He was the city editor from 1913 – 1916. In September 1914 he married Mrs. Bessie Simmons Coulson of Wenatchee, Washington; the couple had two children. Tom worked in newspapers all his life.
6. Jim Walker was James Blaine Walley, born in 1887 in Indiana. He was a cub reporter and then worked his way up to being a star reporter, but he did not stay in the newspaper business after the 1920s. He married Nola Schultz in 1917; the couple had no children.
7. “Old Mac” was probably J. G. McCloskey, born in the 1860s, who was maybe also a tramp reporter after all, but apparently very talented. He went to New England after working for the Truth. His wife, who divorced him eventually, lived in New York City. He was called Jack, and was always a newsman, also probably an alcoholic.
8. Frank Morris was Maurice Mahurin Frink, who went by the name “Mahurin.” He was born in Elkhart in 1895 and had been a cub reporter for the Truth before he went to Columbia University in New York City in 1914 or 1915, completing the School of Journalism course and graduating in the spring of 1916. He continued with his journalism career after serving in the military in World War I.
9. Maybe Jack Lester was really Mac Gildea, although Mac went to Columbia in 1916 and enlisted in the Ambulance Corps in 1917, so the dates do not match. However, she seems to have made composites of several reporters she had known, so this might be one of those.
10. The reason union men and non-union men could not work together was that the unions had strict rules forbidding the practice. Otherwise, company bosses could have hired a mix and lowered the pay rate.
11. Bee started work on the Casper Tribune in September 1919.

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