Thursday, May 16, 2013

Newspaper Days at -30-: Anecdotes with Questions


The stories about photographers in the last post were longer than I had announced, so maybe I have less of Montaigne's declared advantage of a short memory than I thought. I can tell long stories, just like all too many people.  So  here's an end to that as well as an end to the blog's "Newspaper Days" series. The title can go back on the shelf on H.L. Mencken's memoir, from which I filched it. And who can feel bad in this business about being left with questions, in honor of which I offer these stories in which the questions are as impertinent as they are sometimes pertinent?

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Before computers, storage of information was bulky and time-consuming. Newspaper libraries had books on shelves around the walls, but much of their space was taken up with large metal cabinets containing file after file of newspaper clippings, scrupulously organized by topical, organizational and personal titles. In those often bulging envelopes with the tops open for easy retrieval were years of newspaper articles, carefully clipped out, folded neatly after being stamped with the date and a few words circled or underlined to match the category found for the clipping. "Check the clips" was the direction often given when a story idea was pitched or as it started developing.

Once before 1979, Flint was visited by the man in charge of the Shah of Iran's music. The Shah, to his eventual sorrow, looked West for the cultural trappings of his rule, from ceremonial fashion to torture. Assigned to interview the ruler's music man, I wanted to see what the Journal had published about the Shah; sometimes wire stories about important people were collected in clip files. It was not necessary to suppose the Shah had ever come to Flint, but he could still have had a file.

So, one day I walked into the library and asked: "Got anything on the Shah of Iran?"

The library assistant, eager to help, paused and looked puzzled.  "Is that a local group?" she asked.

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Another time, before the universal adoption of "911" as an emergency phone number, Genesee County (of which Flint is county seat) adopted a new seven-digit emergency phone number. A reporter was assigned to write a brief story and it was placed under a banner headline on page 1, right under the nameplate. The headline contained the number. The story contained the number. It was the wrong number.

Next day, the largest correction in Flint Journal history was published. It appeared in the same position and with the same-size headline as the original story. The number was correct this time.

"How'd that happen?" I asked the reporter later, honestly supposing he'd been given the wrong number and that his source was to blame.

That wasn't it, his glare told me. "I f****d up," he said in the tone one uses when answering dumb questions.

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Josef Brodsky was an eminent Russian poet kicked out of the Soviet Union for vagrancy. About the first place he landed in the United States was Ann Arbor. A University of Michigan professor was his chief translator and saw to the publication of his work here. Flint was favored by a Brodsky visit; his English was good and Cold War stories involving culture were an easy sell, even if they failed to excite the masses. Hardly anything I ever covered did. Brodsky eventually won the Nobel Prize.

Assigned to his reading and talk afterward,  I included in my account something provocative Brodsky said about "the giants of the Russian novel, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky." I was shocked when the phrase appeared in print as "the giants of the Russian novel, Alexei N. Tolstoy and Fyodor M. Dostoevsky." This was the era when first name and middle initial were usually de rigueur on first reference; it was not commonly applied to world-famous cultural figures, however.

I asked the copy editor who'd handled my story where he'd gotten the extra parts of those "giants'" names. "From the encyclopedia," he said. "But I'm sure Tolstoy's first name was Leo," I protested. He shrugged and I went to the source to look for myself. Sure enough, there was a writer named  Alexei Tolstoy, with about a four-inch entry. But turn the page and you found several full pages on the author of "Anna Karenina" and "War and Peace," a relative of Alexei's named Leo.

Returning to the responsible copy editor, I conveyed my findings. "Didn't you think for a moment that perhaps the first giant of the Russian novel Brodsky mentioned had to be Leo, not Alexei?" I was getting the idea the copy editor had never turned the page. But he offered the perfect, blandly "objective" copy-editor response:  "Well, something like that is always a matter of opinion, isn't it?"

I immediately counted myself lucky there wasn't a writer named Boris Dostoevsky.

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There'd been an accident at an elementary school about the time of dismissal, with lots of school buses and kids thronging around. A little boy had been injured in an encounter with a school bus and taken to the hospital, where he was in stable condition. The reporter had written an account for the next day's paper and gone home. The editor assigned to the story in the evening had a few questions, points she felt needed clarifying. But the reporter didn't answer his phone; in those days, there was only the home phone number available for reaching a staff member after work, unless he was known to have a favorite bar. The editor was becoming frustrated. Finally she reached him and started asking her questions. Then, filled with the importance of her mission to move the most accurate possible story into the paper and chafing at the delay in getting it into shape, she asked one more question just to be sure:  "Was the bus moving?"

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The Journal had a smart but somewhat excitable reporter assigned to day police. He'd bounced around a bit; he was an excellent political reporter but had capsized his career more than once because of an alcohol problem. One day he was at police headquarters at City Hall and called the newsroom.
He had to speak to the city editor, he asserted loudly. He was told that hardworking but untypically placid person was unavailable. The reporter insisted that every effort be made to find the city editor and get him to the phone pronto. The assistant who'd answered the phone said indulgently. "All right, Ray, calm down. So whaddaya got?"

"What do I got?" Ray shouted in reply. "I'll tell you what I got:  I got two cops out back behind headquarters shooting at each other. That's what I got, and I need some help."

The newsroom was suddenly galvanized: The city editor was pried away from his meeting or his cafeteria card game, Ray was kept on the line to give to the rewrite man whatever he'd been able to gather,  and several staff were dispatched to City Hall to get the story. What was it all about? Well, you can't make this stuff up: A young black female officer with an attitude and a 'fro and a beefy white middle-aged veteran were assigned to go out on patrol together. And what brought about the gunplay? The answer involves more symbolism: disagreement about who was going to drive.