Monday, January 4, 2016

Newsroom memories: Wendy and me

Part One

Near the end of another night shift more than 30 years ago, a man named Rollie walks toward the copy desk. He is carrying a piece of paper and wearing a devilish grin.

Rollie is in charge of what is called the Telegraph Desk, which handles copy from the AP, UPI, the Los Angeles Times and maybe one or two other wire services. This piece of paper is from one of the many wire service machines that sit in a nearby room, tapping out the day's news.

Within a few years these machines will be removed and the paper will get its news by satellite dish, but Rollie's department will still be known as the Telegraph Desk for a few more years, perhaps out of habit and perhaps because nobody wants to answer the phone by saying "Dish Desk!"

Rollie hands us the piece of paper. It is a news story. At the top of the story is a note from the wire service: "Editors: Note nature." Translation: Be very careful about running this story lest you get a slew of angry phone calls -- or worse, an unhappy note (to put it mildly) from your bosses.

No one will argue that this story merits that note. It is about a man who went to a hospital for an operation to have something removed but afterward found that, um, something else had been removed.

Of course we're not going to run the story, but news folks are inclined to gallows humor -- helps them cope with the awful stuff that they find out about during the course of the job -- and the story makes the rounds of the desk as people try to come up with a headline for it.

Mine is "No jack, no play makes man a dull boy."

Part Two

It is some months later, and I have been reassigned to the Telegraph Desk. Rollie is now my boss.

It's a Monday night, and the person on the desk who handles the makeup chores in the composing room has Monday nights off, so I have to fill in for her.

During this era, the job of makeup editor is one of the most unsung tasks in journalism. I eventually get to the point where I am good at it, but as the automation of the newspaper business proceeds inexorably, the time will come when this will be like saying that I can make a top-notch buggy whip as well as anybody else.

Being makeup editor means that after taking care of my regular duties -- editing the people news and the weather report and laying out and editing stories for a few more pages -- I have to go out to the composing room, where printers are pasting up the next day's pages, and troubleshoot problems for the next couple of hours, often at breakneck speed, always under deadline pressure.

Among other things, I have to keep an eye on what is called the "slop class page." It is many years before Craig and his list and other Internet desperadoes will raid newspapers everywhere and steal most of their classified ad business, so there are still a lot of ads to be pasted up, and for the next day's paper they are pasted up on deadline.

Because of this, you never know exactly how much space these ads will take up until close to the last minute. In anticipation of this, someone from the ad department usually calls the managing editor with an estimate during the afternoon. These estimates might be right on the money or a little off either way.

Tonight the estimate is way off, and I suddenly have a big hole to fill, maybe two columns by 14 inches. I need to find a way to fill that, and fast.

I rush back to the newsroom and find that Rollie has placed a story on my desk. He often does this if it's an update to a story I've been handling, or if it's something else he would like to get in.

The story is about Wendy O. Williams, a singer, who has been arrested and accused of obscene behavior. More precisely -- but not too precisely -- police say she inappropriately placed her hand microphone in a certain place on her body.

From glancing at the hard copy I know it'll be enough to fill that space, so I call it up on the computer, do a quick edit, slap a headline on it, push a few buttons and send it to the composing room so we can make the headline.

And by now I'm sure you're way ahead of me: The story was one of those "note nature" stories (can't remember whether that note was on top of it, though it might have been), and Rollie had put it on my desk just for my amusement.

And you won't be surprised to find out that when I returned from the composing room a little while later, laden with page proofs but flushed with pride after meeting yet another deadline, Rollie took one look at the "slop class page" and, in a voice that I can still hear 35 years later, said:

"You put THAT in the paper?!"

I don't think we received any angry calls, and we didn't get a note from the executive editor because he almost certainly never saw it. Our newspaper at that time had five editions, and at the earliest opportunity we replaced the wandering microphone with something that was less likely to make the boss cough up his Cream of Wheat.

I wish I could say this was the only time I ever messed up in what used to be called the newspaper game.

There was the time I wrote "China" in a headline instead of "Japan." (Or was it the other way around?) Or the time I put together an obit for Ira Gershwin, with a good picture, a story edited to a fare-thee-well and even a sampling of his lyrics.

My supervisor said it was a very nice package, well laid out and all, but, um, it never said the guy died. (Luckily, we again had time to fix it.)

And there was the time that one of our star columnists, who often ran caption contests whose winning entrants received special T-shirts, misspelled “T-shirt” and I didn’t catch it.

Yes, that misspelling.

It's just as well I never became a surgeon -- my prowess in the O.R. would probably have been enough to convince that poor guy in Part One that he'd been let off easy.


Jim McKeever said...

This may be an apocryphal tale involving a sketchy sub shop near the paper ... the North Country edition (aka rough draft) once included a line from a sportswriter who wrote this about a high school football team that faltered late in the game: "Their offense wilted like the lettuce on a XXXXX XXXX sandwich."

Mark Murphy said...

Jim: Thanks for the comment.

I hadn't heard that story about that particular sub shop. If it's the one I'm thinking of, it had dressing that you could smell across the newsroom. And the shop was later closed because of tax problems. I remember this because officials came into the shop one day and closed it down. Tom Rose had just paid for a soda there, and the officials wouldn't let him have it!

Which reminds me of the time the P-S retirees group was having its monthly lunch at Weber's and, after they ordered their drinks, the waitress apologetically told them they'd have to leave because -- again -- the place was being shut down for tax problems. I believe Rollie, always the journalist, called it into the paper. Weber's reopened not too long afterward but then it soon closed for good.

Maybe we shouldn't be talking about this, lest restaurateurs begin thinking of journalists as bad luck and ban them from their establishments....

Jim McKeever said...

I'm surprised any establishment allowed us in, even when we had money.

Tom Foster said...

If it was the sub shop on the corner my only visit there was on my first day at the paper. Got my food and a grease fire broke out. Maybe there is a curse...