Ten Years in the Newspaper Game
I. Becoming a Sobsister.
|Bee around the time she started|
working for the Elkhart Truth
“There’s nothing in all the world like it, equal to it; nothing that has its fascination,—if you like it,” Matty told me the day I started out to be a reporter, in explaining the news game to my ignorance.
“That’s the biggest thing you have to decide. You must like it if you are going to make good. If you don’t like it with all your heart and soul, you’d better quit right now. A newspaper man or woman must never forget for a minute that his paper comes first, that it owns his every act and thought, that if necessary he must go cold and hungry to get his story.
“If you like it enough for that, kid, you’ll make good.”
That was his creed.
Does it matter that Matty, himself, was a tramp reporter? That he had lost the night city desk on a big Chicago daily because he couldn’t stop drinking? That even while he was pointing out the straight and narrow path to me he was far from sober?
To me it doesn’t. He was a real news man in spite of his fault, and I owed much in the years that followed to the brief three weeks in which he coached my beginning efforts toward becoming a newspaper woman.
How I envy the assurance with which the high school girl of today asserts her intention of entering journalism when she has finished school. She is able to view her school and college work with that end in mind and get so much more from her course because she has her vocation decided. They hadn’t put vocational guidance into the curriculum when I was in high school. Never will I forget how lost I felt when I had gone through the excitement of commencement, emerged with a diploma and a classical education, and found that the family would not be able to afford college in my case and that delicate health would prohibit my earning my way through.
What place was there for me in the workaday world?
After experimenting with clerical work, a library apprenticeship and spending six horrible months as assistant in a dentist’s office, I knew some of the things I did not want to do.
Chance it was that threw me into the newspaper game. O happy, happy chance!
At the urging of a friend I had tried for a place on The Concordia Press [The Elkhart Review] while still with the gory dentist. But a more experienced applicant got the job.
“I know you can do newspaper work,” my friend continued to tell me. “Your English work was every bit as good as mine in school. Watch for another chance.” And as she was making good in Chicago, I continued to watch for my chance in Concordia.
Then came word that the society editor of The Daily News [The Elkhart Truth] was going to Indianapolis, had heard that I wanted the place and had recommended me to the editor.
It took heaps of courage to tackle the society job on The News in that little Indiana town for it was democratic in politics in a republican community, dirty in policy, and yellow clear through. [Note 1]
My upbringing had been such as to make me fastidious concerning my surroundings and the people with whom I associated.
“I just don’t see how you can!” some of my friends exclaimed. “If it were The Press it would be so different!”
Working on The Press would have been quite ladylike, in other words, but seeking a job with The News smacked of the daring.
“Why, Mary Roland used to wear rubber boots when she worked for them, and wade through the mud down at the roundhouse, just like the men reporters,” was another discouraging comment. “Being a reporter doesn’t seem like you at all.” [Note 2]
Probably it wasn’t.
I was self-conscious and terribly shy as well. Approaching strangers was an agony and I was a poor talker at best. I hadn’t an idea I could hold down the job once it was mine, but the more attempts to dissuade me, the more determined I was to try—just to see if I had it in me to succeed against all the odds which seemed stacked against me.
So I applied.
I nearly backed out when it came to seeking the editorial room of The News. The filth on the unswept stairway which led to the office was simply unspeakable. Dust, expectorations, dirty paper, the litter of a week had to be waded through. Germs fairly crawled on the walls. And the room which held the “brains” of the newspaper’s organization was as bad as the stairs or worse.
The News used two floors of an ancient tin front store building, which was prevented from falling down, I firmly believe, only by the fact that there were buildings on both sides of it.
|Perhaps the old Truth building was like |
one of these smaller buildings.
The editorial room, in the front of the second story, had once been the living room of a flat, to judge by the faded drab wall paper of a once elaborate pattern, the marble mantle and fireplace, now so thick with dust as to be almost obliterated, and the bay window at the front.
The late afternoon sun struggled through glass so thickly coated with dust as to look as though frosted, and revealed to me a room which might have been the farthest corner of a junk shop. Most of the tables had four legs but were “shy” casters and so battered as to seem fit only to be burned. There were several backless chairs; others with the seats mended with boards; a rusty stove; a roll top desk minus all varnish; a battered clothesbasket which evidently did duty as a wastebasket, although most of the papers had overflowed onto the floor.
Near the roll top desk, which stood between the largest windows of the “bay” was the only good table in the room, an oak affair which was roomy of top and still boasted much of the original finish. A swivel chair, which had a spike in place of one of the casters, stood between the desk and the table. The floor beneath was splintered and worn from the dragging of that spike until the under flooring showed through. I used to wonder, sometimes, how long it would take Parker, the editor, to wear a hole sufficiently large to allow him to drop through to the business office below.
I inquired for him, then, of three young men who lounged in the other half of the “bay” not preempted by the editor.
He would be up as soon as the press started, I was told, and was invited to take a chair near his table. I was dubious about that chair, but it proved fairly substantial after all.
Was my heart in my throat?—well, rather.
Could I possibly endure to work in such a place?
Distastefully I glanced at the litter on the floor; at the stack of old files, covered with black dust, which occupied a table and overflowed to the floor in the far corner of the room; at an old white dresser, from which the white enamel had mostly peeled and one end of which was sprayed with tobacco juice; at the cigar ashes and cigarette stubs which were part of the general mess on the floor; at the ashes and coal cinders which surrounded the rusty stove in front of the disused fireplace.
In spite of all my resolves, I almost said I wouldn’t wait—almost,—but just then came a rumble from the depths which shook the frail old building.
“There she goes,” breathed one of the boys in the window.
They so soon became “the boys” to me, as they always will be.
And Parker appeared through the door at the rear of the room, his head buried in the still damp sheet, smelling of fresh ink—the first of the run.
He was a huge man, with unruly hair, bright blue eyes, a puffy red countenance, a cruel mouth, utterly conscienceless and unscrupulous, but a brilliant writer and as keen a politician as I have ever known. He was hated and feared by almost all his associates, but while we who worked for him did not love him, he had our loyalty for the energetic way in which he backed us in our work. The News never made mistakes and reporters for The News were always in the right, according to Parker. Nothing ethical about it, but I doubt if I could ever have become anything of a reporter if I had not had Parker’s strength to rely on in those first years while I was learning to forget myself and my own timidity in the glory of the chase for the eternal “something new.”
The interview was perfunctory. Miss Stamp, who had left for Indianapolis that afternoon, had presented recommendations from the public librarian and my high school English teachers before asking me to see Parker. I belonged to several organizations and a prominent church. So I had those news contacts and I had friends who were “in” society. I had the typewriter to learn and all the technique of the business, but Parker took the long chance.
I was engaged at the munificent salary of six dollars a week and told to begin the next morning.
Suddenly that dingy, dirty, indescribably filthy and repellent hole was transfigured before my eyes.
It became The Office.
Place where My Paper was written.
Where My Stories, children of my brain were to be created and perhaps find place in my paper. The dirt was only part of its picturesqueness, the necessary atmosphere for creative effort.
I shook hands with “the boys.”
There was Matty, who did police and city hall; Brooks, whose specialties were deaths and the railroad; Jim, the cartoonist who could report a story in an emergency; and Dick, the cub, who did a little of everything. They constituted the staff, and though, in the ten years in which I held down the society desk and covered women’s activities for that and other papers, I knew many of their kind, those four will always be dear to me, for from them I received my initiation into that great realm, the fourth estate, and took my first lessons in the trade which, as Matty said, is like no other in all the world. [Note 3]
The office wasn’t so bad the next morning.
The janitor made at least a half-hearted effort to clean it up each night. The jam of table and chairs which had seemed, at first view, so hopelessly unrelated had a semblance of order down the two sides of the room when seen at 8 A. M. instead of 3:30 P. M.
There were typewriters for all, some of them lame and halt and several of them “blind” as well—that is, of the old invisible writing type. [Note 4] An old blind Fox fell to my lot on which to learn. No one else had been able to operate it, I later learned, but, using only the “Hunt and Peck” system I soon attained considerable speed on the poor old wreck, and I really grieved when a wily typewriter agent finally persuaded the business manager to trade it in and get me an almost new L. C. Smith.
During those first weeks I covered miles of copy paper with “This is the time for the quick brown fox to jump over the lazy dog,” or “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party,” those trusty practice sentences with which all followers of the “Hunt and Peck” system occupy their spare moments.
|A Fox understroke typewriter.|
I was handed a notebook filled with undecipherable hieroglyphics, that first morning, and told that my predecessor had left it as data upon which to begin my work. It was pure Greek, as far as I was concerned. How in the world did one go about getting society news? Later I decided that the dear public had just as vague an idea about it as I had, that morning. Most of my friends seemed to think that I viewed the town with an X-ray eye from some marvelous balloon and so was able to know all that occurred without any assistance from them. [Note 5]
“Better get the announcements of meetings held last night,” Brooks suggested. “Call up the people and make them tell you what happened.”
These announcements I found pasted in Miss Stamp’s book. Here at least was a beginning.
The phone rang.
Matty answered it and called me. I took my first party over the phone. I wrote it up, handed it to Palmer [Note 6] and had it handed back with question marks after every name.
I verified what I could by the telephone book and the city directory and found to my chagrin that most of them were wrong!
Right then I was introduced to A as in Andrew, P as in Peter, B as in Bartholomew, S as in Samuel, and all the other alphabetical saints who save newspaper folk from errors in names, than which there is no greater sin.
Answering the telephone was my job, I learned, whenever I was in the office and the great necessity for accuracy in getting telephone reports was speedily impressed upon me.
So I set out to combat the idea with all my might. I chummed with unpopular girls in the stores whom my rival often passed by without even a nod. I tried desperately to write every item from the point of view of the person who had given the information. I was constantly assuring people that we never revealed the sources of our news. And I found that while My Lady of the Press skimmed the cream of the news on the beat, my column was daily growing larger on the rich milk which she left behind.
“The News always prints things just like you want them,” they said at last, but that was the work of years, not of weeks.
My big assignment in those first weeks was the publicity for the Charity Ball which was about to be given by the Civic League of the town on a scale surpassing all previous Charity Balls. I had to interview the chairman of the publicity committee in person, each day at her home, for she was deaf and never used a telephone. She was a very terrifying person and how very particular she was that everything should be “just so” in the articles we wrote!
Work! Never since have I worked as hard as I did to get that Charity Ball publicity written up just right. And I attained the dignity of headlines on the front page far sooner than I had any right to expect, because of the importance of the people who were behind the affair. One day the publicity committee asked if I could not persuade the editor to write an editorial boosting the ball. Rashly I promised to try and was surprised when he consented.
But noon came and he had not yet written it.
While I waited in the office for someone to relieve me for the noon hour I tried my hand at writing what I thought the committee wanted in the way of an editorial, leaving the sheet in my machine, not quite finished, when Dick came and I was free to go to lunch.
When the paper came out that night I was absolutely dumb with astonishment when my half written editorial, in blackface and boxed, appeared as the lead of the Charity Ball story.
“How on earth did that get in?” I exclaimed.
“Huh!” grunted Dick, the cub, “I knew you wouldn’t have sand enough to turn it in, so I turned it in myself. Saved Parker the trouble of writing one and he used it.”
The Charity Ball furnished me another thrill.
We did not run many pictures in The News and society folks in our town had not been trained to furnish their pictures for newspaper use. In fact most of them adopted a pose that to be mentioned in the society column at all was a great bore and rather common, which did not make my job any easier.
But Jim, the cartoonist, who was having a hard time trying to boost the Charity Ball pictorially, decided that a spread of pictures showing the members of the committee in charge of the ball would be a good feature, just before the affair took place, and I was told to get the pictures.
With fear and trembling I broached the matter to the publicity chairman. She didn’t favor it, but referred me to the chairman of the entire committee, who lived across the street.
How I talked to that woman—I, who had never been a good talker!
Finally she consented to bring up the matter at a meeting of the entire committee that afternoon.
“You had better come back and ask them yourself,” she suggested.
My trembling soul! to face the social elite with such a request!!
But I did. There were many “I don’t want to’s” and “I should hate it’s” and my heart went down and down. I might lose my cherished job, which I already loved, if I couldn’t put this assignment over, I thought.
Finally one lovely and gracious woman whom I shall adore to my dying day, stood up and said, “Now girls, of course none of us are crazy to see our photographs in print—we can take that for granted—but it will be perfectly splendid publicity as Miss B— says, and I’m for it, myself. Everybody always looks at pictures and they’ll read the story too.”
That decided it.
I felt like carrying a banner when I was able to go back to the office and report that photographs would be forthcoming the next day.
My hunch concerning the getting of those pictures was partly right. Miss Stamp, my predecessor, had not found her Indianapolis job as likable as she had expected and had written Parker offering to come back if I was not making good.
Matty told me a few days afterwards just what her letter had said.
“We checked up your columns with those of the Press and the old man wrote Peaches that you were O. K.” he informed me. Another thrill. To be sure, I was a much more economical item on the salary sheet. But that didn’t occur to me then.
Peaches was Miss Stamp’s nickname. My first name being Beatrice I had been dubbed “Miss Fairfax” as a matter of course. [Note 7]
The Charity Ball story got first-page, seventh-column place with a big head, and with that honor I felt that I had put in my probation and was well started toward being a real “sob-sister.”
“You’ll have to get the human interest touch in a murder story or two before you can really have the title,” Matty explained.
“Yes, and interview the starving mother just as her little one breathes its last,” Jim added. “Girls always get those little details that make you want to cry, that’s why we call them sob-sisters. No man can do those fine bits just right.”
I hadn’t liked the title before. Now I saw it was an honor.
Would I ever have to cover murders?
Well, I never actually saw blood. But I have interviewed the families of the slain, getting the real sob stuff.
I have helped break the news of accidental deaths in distant places to those who were bereaved and I hope have been able to be of comfort and service even in such trying circumstances. I have put my soul into stories of the afflicted when drives for public purposes have been able to persuade a few more dollars into the coffers.
Once I covered a murder trial. But my apprenticeship was far behind me when that occurred.
Coming next: Part II. Tramp Reporters.
1. The term “yellow journalism” was coined in the 1890s to describe the sensationalized, unethical, unsourced treatment of the news, especially in the New York news wars between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst.
2. A “roundhouse” is a building with a turntable used by railroads for servicing locomotives.
3. The “fourth estate” refers to the free press. The first three estates were broadly the basis of French medieval society: the clergy, the nobility, and the masses. Any entity acting freely outside those categories was referred to as a fourth estate.
4. A “blind” typewriter was an early model that used an understroke design; the typebars, arranged in a circular basket under the platen, would strike its bottom surface. This meant that the typist had to lift up the carriage to see the results.
5. The first x-rays were made in the 1890s.
6. Mostly she calls the editor “Parker,” but she calls him “Palmer” too. That was his real name.
7. “Beatrice Fairfax” was the name made up by newspaper advice columnist Marie Manning (1872 – 1945). Her advice column began in the New York Evening Journal in 1898.