On the first day of the first real job I ever had, if they had told me they couldn’t pay me a dime and I would have to work for free, I would have said OK. And I would have jumped into the work with total enthusiasm.
My first real job was as a summer sports reporter for the Binghamton Evening Press in upstate New York. I had delivered papers for the Press for six years or so during junior and senior high school and in my last year I had won a Frank E. Gannett newspaper boy scholarship (named after the founder of the company that had just recently added the Press to its fast-growing chain). Along with the award notification came a letter from the publisher of the Press, Fred Stein. “You have done you and your parents proud,” the letter said, using a construction I thought a little strange. Then the letter continued, “if we can ever do anything for you, do not hesitate to ask.”
Even though I had already been offered a summer job by IBM, where my father worked, I immediately had an idea. I can’t recall if I wrote a letter back or picked up the phone and called, but I certainly did not hesitate in asking if the Press would hire me — the high school newspaper editor — for a summer job.
The answer was yes. The paper hired me as a summer reporter in the sports department. The pay would be $55 a week (the minimum wage was a dollar an hour). The alternative was $70 at IBM, where I would be taught how to operate a forklift. Quickly comparing the long-term value of knowing how to run a forklift vs. the value of working at a real newspaper, as compared to the high school paper, I accepted the newspaper’s offer.
The first day was Monday, June 28, 1965, 50 years to the day that I am writing this column. It’s been a good time for half a century.
That first day began at 7 a.m. — with a mistake. Either John Fox, the sports editor, or Russ Worman, the “slot man” as the chief copy editor was called, took me aside and said there was a problem: I wasn’t wearing a necktie. I was shocked. When I was introduced to the guys in the sports department on the day of my job interview, no one was wearing a necktie. But now, on the first day, I looked more carefully. Everyone had a necktie on, but most of them were just draped around their necks, not fully tied. Lessons from day one: Pay attention to the details, and don’t assume.
In that first week the five-man sports department — Fox, Worman, Dave Rossie, Dennis Randall, and Bill Dowd — struggled to keep me busy. Eventually I was given a place on the “rim,” the semi-circular desk surrounding Worman, in the indented slot of the desk and next to the pneumatic tubes that would take the copy from our office to the linotype operators in the composing room.
Worman would throw me a story from the AP machine, and I would copy edit it to conform to Binghamton Press style and then write a headline. As the rookie on the rim, I was given the smallest of all stories, one and two-paragraph items that commanded tiny single-line headlines. You couldn’t fit more than two or three words into any of those headlines.
But I knew that the Press, the afternoon paper, was locked into a mortal battle with its morning competitor, the Sun-Bulletin, and was trying to give a “feature” touch rather than a hard news feel to everything it produced. That even included the two and three-word headlines I was writing. So I agonized, wrote, and rewrote. Then I would hand it back to Worman, who would read it, frown, and then cover the copy with his hand to protect me from his next act — using his soft lead pencil to obliterate my words and replace them with his own felicitous phrase, always better than mine. (Later I would realize another lesson from those first days: The best headlines are not written, but re-written.)
At the end of my first week on the job, despite the fact that I had not written more than one or two headlines that passed muster with Worman, he took me aside. He wanted to let me know that he thought I was going to make it in this business. I was dumbfounded. How could he possibly know that?
Fifty years later I have to say Russ was right. I never became a star, but I did have my major league moments. More important, I gained a professional’s sense of knowing what I know and knowing what I don’t know. In other words, if you ask me to do a job, and I say I will, it probably means that I will do it reasonably well, and probably without too much drama. If I can’t do it, I will just say so, and spare everyone the drama.
The summer job at the Press turned out to be a successful gig, and I got hired back for two more summers, learning more from the pros each time around. At college I became the chairman, as the top editor was then called, of the Daily Princetonian. That led to a stint with Time magazine, and than a freelance career that culminated in the founding of U.S. 1 and then the West Windsor-Plainsboro News and more recently the merger with Community News Service.
Before I continue let me tip my cap to anyone who has 50 years of service with the same company. Given the flux in the corporate world in general and the journalism business in particular, the half century of service seems almost impossible to me. Fifty years in the same profession, however, is another matter, and I am sure there are many lawyers, accountants, teachers, auto mechanics, and various other chief cooks and bottle washers who would look at my record and say, “what’s the big deal?”
Not much, but milestones count for something. In the battered business of journalism, for example, some high school graduates from the Class of 2015, getting their first taste of the profession through a summer job, may already be discouraged by the changing landscape in the business.
The fact is that, in 1965, most of the papers and magazines I have worked on from 1974 to the present did not even exist. And in 1965 the chance that a freelance writer could start his own publication on a shoe string, with no outside financing, seemed impossible. Yet in 1984 I was able to do just that, thanks to the changing technology in the business. Today the possibilities seem endless and with far fewer (and much lower) barriers to entry.
Two factors have kept me engaged in this profession all these years. First it’s been a necessity, both economically and psychologically. I can’t imagine myself lasting long at a big corporation. And I had no other obvious, marketable skill to fall back on (unless I had gotten really good at that forklift job back at IBM).
Even as a person of retirement age, with Medicare, Social Security, and some personal savings to cover my basics, I still can’t imagine fully retiring from what I do professionally. If I see a story (and somehow I see stories in the strangest places) I need to tell that story. I can’t help it. If I edit a story, I want to make it better. Can’t help it.
Second I have always viewed what I was doing as important — important to me even if not to anyone else. I remember a moment in the mid-1970s, when I was freelancing for the community newspaper, the Town Topics. An editor living in town liked my work and said he would recommend me for a fulltime job at the daily Trenton Times — at the time a financially secure job. No thanks, I said. I was using the work at the Topics to help me define a writing style of my own. That was more important.
So how am I spending this 50th anniversary? Among other things I am editing Dan Aubrey’s operatic treatment of Declaration of Independence signer Richard Stockton. Opera? Not something I could have imagined 50 years ago, or even 50 days ago, but this is the news business and new stuff washes over you every day.
I think my enthusiasm for the task at hand — or who knows what task on the horizon — is no less than it was on June 28, 1965. But some things have changed. For one I took a half hour off to take a brisk walk around town. For another, if they tell me they can’t pay me a dime, then we’ll have to talk before I jump in.