A friend, Luke Phillips, who used to work in the composing room at the Optic, when it was on Lincoln Avenue, dropped a note recently, in which he explained that the city council session he covers in a California town had been meeting for three hours and had yet to finish Item #1 on the agenda.
Ah, the glamour people in the news business can experience amounts to pure splendor!
It’s true that members of the press try their darnedest to keep the public informed, even if the topics are mill levies, referenda, sewage treatment plants and endless processions of proclamations. And yes, I’ve done my share. People who cover government meetings generally receive that assignment the day they’re hired.
Even Jason W. Brooks, our new editor, has already written several items on our government.
I covered public affairs, first in Las Vegas, in the days when we had two municipalities, two school boards and two town councils. That kind of schedule doesn’t conduce to providing quality nightlife. The next batch came when I moved to Gallup and was allowed to cover the Town Council, the Indian Community Center, and the local school board.
The same things happened during my years in Naperville, Ill., and then in a much larger city, Aurora. “We prefer to allow our more experienced reporters cover public events,” my boss said, and instantly I felt I was on vacation.
All of that coverage is mild compared to doing it as a student. In the early ‘70s, I decided to enroll in the masters journalism program at the University of Missouri in Columbia, the oldest J-School in the U.S., one of the largest, and one with a great reputation.
But survival in the graduate program required passing something called Journalism 307, a course that “even Dan Rather, Harry Reasoner and Walter Cronkite would have to sign up for if they were to survive our program,” our director proclaimed. Any experience students might bring to the program was for naught. And when a fellow student asked how many courses from other colleges might transfer, the adviser said, “We don’t even accept courses from Northwestern!”
I’d had about 10 years’ experience over the much younger students. Students half my age must have thought of me as a senior citizen and often asked me for advice.
But all the advice-giving didn’t excuse me from Journalism-307, the class in which I expected to find William Randolph Hearst reincarnated. The arrangement was simple: For the frequent council meetings in that city of 65,000, Casey, Ruth and I were assigned the coverage. We didn’t have cell phones in that day and were unable to speed messages to the office. So Casey covered the first hour, Ruth did the second, and I handled the last part and was expected to wrap up the article before the midnight deadline.
For the first assignment, I learned that there’s no such thing as successful writing by committee. I asked my team members simply to hand me their notes and let me write the entire story.
It worked, and we all got our own byline.
A local magazine once ran an in-depth article about our J-School. The cover showed an army of reporters, photographers and camera operators swarming around a kid who sold lemonade. But suddenly the boy raised the price of the drink from 5 cents to 7, and in so doing, created a Second-Coming Event.
The magazine’s cover illustration only slightly exaggerated the way the J-School operates. My master’s adviser told me, “In Columbia, if it moves, we write about it.” His assistant added, “And sometimes even if it doesn’t move….”
The graduate school unabashedly made it clear that those enrolled in Journalism 307 would be expected to be on duty 18 hours a week. As a result, many of us signed up for only that one class.
So what do you do in a place whose population doubles when school is in session? And what do you do when the enrollment in J-307 rivals that of the New York Times newsroom? All of us were required to find a news story each week. That sounded fine, but it was like going into a cherry field (in New Mexico, it would have been a pinon field) after everything had been picked over.
At a church service one Sunday, I marveled at the skill with which a young man used sign language to translate the entire service to the several hearing-impaired churchgoers. I thought, “It would be great if I could write an in-depth, page-one article, with photos, for our Sunday newspaper,” published by the journalism school.
The “signer” had no hearing impairment at all, and I thought it a plus when he returned my call and told me he’d be happy to meet for an interview and photos. I was elated.
Yes, I was elated until we met at the church office and he handed me a bundle of previously published coverage about him as a sign-language interpreter. And even at the time, a couple of the articles were five years old.
When I first met him, I’d failed to ask him whether his skill had already been written about.
Yes it had — several times.
The university has its own clipping service, located in a large room with every conceivable kind of article catalogued neatly. Nowadays, instead of articles literally clipped from newspapers, the material is in an electronic format.
When I went to that library for background information, there was no file on my subject — nor any record it ever existed. Some thoughtless reporter, who had hoped to cover the young interpreter, had simply taken all the files, dropped out of school and disappeared.
That kind of experience is what embeds nails in the road for aspiring journalists.
Writing the stuff — that which we were able to locate — was the easy part. Dodging the obstacles was a bit more challenging.