On the first day of the best summer job I ever had I couldn’t do a single thing right. An 18-year-old kid just out of high school, I showed up without a necktie in an office that expected everyone to wear a necktie, even if it wasn’t properly tied. My bosses — the sports editors at the Binghamton Evening Press — didn’t know what to do with me, so I spent the entire day reading other newspapers.
On the second day of the best summer job I ever had I got to write a few headlines. Starting at 7 a.m. sharp I sat on the “rim” of the U-shaped copy desk at the Press. Russ Worman, the copy editor, sat in the “slot” and handed out tiny AP dispatches to me, the beginner. I was supposed to pencil edit the one or two-paragraph shorts and write a one-line, one column wide headline.
Two or three words at most — how hard could it be? I wrote the first one and handed it to Worman. He re-read the copy, looked at the headline, and frowned. Apparently thinking that he should spare me from the sight that followed, he cupped one hand around the copy, and with his writing hand — holding a heavy-leaded copy pencil that looked like the sharp end of a banana — scrawled out the headline I had written, and replaced it with his own.
That process repeated itself with every single headline I submitted that day, and the next. Throughout each day, in the background, was the constant cursing of one of the writers sitting near me on the copy desk. The story was that Dave Rossie, the lion of the department, had a painful cough that was causing the cursing. But the word on the street was that Rossie was upset that he and the rest of the department would be stuck babysitting a high school kid all summer.
On the fourth day of the best summer job I ever had, after several submissions and several more obliterations, I turned in one more headline, and this time Worman didn’t change it. Later that day Worman took me aside. Don’t worry about Rossie, he told me. And, he continued, he thought I was getting a “knack” for writing headlines. Maybe I had a future in this business, Worman thought.
Carrying on despite our mistakes is what this and the next few columns in this space are all about. It began last week with a letter from a reader gently pointing out a few typographical errors that had creeped onto the cover of our previous edition. That got me thinking of how easy it is to be paralyzed by the fear of making even one mistake in a business that makes them every day. And that got me thinking of the great mistakes — and occasional great lessons — learned from 40 years in the business.
I could not have gotten off to a worse start than I did at the old Press Building on Chenango Street in Binghamton in the summer of ‘65. From the mistakes, I gradually did get a knack — or at least appreciated the need — for writing a headline that had some edge to it.
I made all the classic mistakes, but survived and came back for a second summer as a reporter in the city room and then a third summer. A distraught tenant got me on the phone and regaled me with tales of his oppressive landlord. I listened for an hour, took a ton of notes, and came to the city editor with plans for a major expose. Forget it, the editor told me. We don’t do tenant-landlord disputes.
In the third summer I was assigned to fill in for the Press’s bureau chief in Oneonta, New York, Pete Dobinsky, otherwise known, with fear and awe, as the Mad Russian. Prior to his two-week vacation, Dobinsky gave me his basic training — two days of never getting anything right, and when and if you ever did, having to retype it because it was “sloppy.”
At the end of the two weeks, I got a call from Dobinsky asking me to have a few drinks with him at his cottage on the river, no more than five miles out of town, where he had spent his entire vacation, mostly monitoring what I did to see how many mistakes I made.
But he was mostly pleased with my effort. By the end of a long evening we had each consumed a case of beer, at least. Could I drive back to the motel, Dobinsky wondered. He called his buddies at the police and asked for help. Sure enough, out on the main road, I was met by two Oneonta police cars. One in front of me, one behind me, I was escorted safely back to my motel.
By the end of the third summer I was a little cocky. Another mistake.
On one of the last days of the best summer job I ever had, just minutes before the presses would roll on the paper’s first edition, I got a call from a breathless police officer in Endwell, the quiet little town where I lived. There’s been a fatal shooting . . . a love triangle . . . Ralph Ingalls [the 80-something doddering president of the school board] and Jane Smith [the prim, family-values advocate on the board] . . . Her husband . . . a jealous rage . . . a gruesome scene . . .
Incredible! I stood up and hollered over at the city editor. There was a major story breaking. If I didn’t say “stop the presses” the panic in my voice must have suggested it. The city editor looked skeptical and in the background, a few desks behind me, I heard a voice: Hey, Rein. Better check your sources. Rein. Rein.
I looked back. Dave Rossie was grinning ear to ear. The rest of the room was in stitches. I had been had.