"I didn't say get the story. I said get the kid his peaches."
In the 1970's, in part of my mad scramble to pay my tuition for college, I worked as a part-time beer truck driver, disk jockey, clay mixer for the school's art department, bus driver for a halfway house, Marine Corps officer trainee, and cab driver. My most lasting impressions from those days, though, was when I worked as a stringer for a news agency.
For those who are unfamiliar with the term, a stringer is a reporter hired on a temporary basis to cover large, complex stories that develop quickly; things like natural disasters, acts of war, political scandal or tragedy, and the like. A stringer may be called upon for extra on-the-scene coverage, running down multiple sources, digging through a newspaper's "morgue" for old stories about a related subject, running to the library for extra research, and a lot of time on a telephone. At least, that's what it was like in the days before the Internet and online search engines.
Stringers also tended to be hired in the summers and during holidays when the regular staff members were on vacation. If there was a particularly dull or onerous regular assignment, a stringer was usually dispatched to handle it. Hence my regular gig as the reporter at the monthly meetings of the local sewer board.
Stringers had no job security and received no benefits. If a stringer wrote a story, whether an obituary or the caption to a photograph, we would expect to be paid 5 cents a word. This was why my sewer board reports tended to run about 5000 words; reports that the editor would cut down to about 300. Still, it was a heady and fun experience. I don't know what it's like these days, but there was something about walking into a large room filled with mad chaos, the clatter of typewriters, reporters hollering for copy boys and girls to rush to their desks to deliver their initial reports to the editors' scrum, and phones ringing and ringing, that was intoxicating.
Reigning over all of this was the city editor or editor-in-chief, a figure of unquestioned authority, power, and respect within the organization. What he [and, in those days, it was always a "he"] said was law, and even the publisher, if he or she were smart, would bow to the editor's wisdom. Such editors tended to be gruff, terse, critical, shirt-sleeved, heavy-drinking, connected, and absolutely dedicated to ensuring that the facts were presented cleanly and clearly to the readers. They almost always smoked too much and, when they did, it was either a cigar or equally pungent and very cheap cigarette. As with all strong characters, there is an archetype. In the good, old days of typewriters and telephones, that was Alfred Pierce Reck.
I could collate information about Reck and present it through my own questionable editing process, but I'd rather simply link to two stories written by proteges of his. The first is a portion from Reck's obit as it appeared in The Oakland Tribune, the newspaper he served as city editor for 22 years, upon his death in 1967:
The men and women who learned their craft from Mr. Reck, a restless soul, recognized him as a professional. He was a product of an era when newspapers expressed the American conscience and journalism was a brawling art. He began his career as a reporter in 1919 in his native Piqua, Ohio, after an Army tour in World War I that read like an adventure novel. Commissioned before he was 21, he was wounded, left for dead in the field for three days, captured by the Germans, escaped, recaptured and finally released on Christmas morning of 1918.
He returned to Piqua something of a local hero, with a reputation that helped land him his job on the weekly Call. His ability to recognize and write the news soon became apparent, and in less than a year he moved from the 4.000-circulation Call to the 40,000-per-day Dayton Journal. It wasn't long before he moved again, this time to Washington as a congressman's secretary, a post he held long enough to nail down some of the news sources that were to serve him well for the rest of his life.
Finally, in 1924, after interrupting his Washington sojourn long enough to work for a while as a free-lance foreign correspondent in South Africa, Mr. Reck, by his own admission, couldn't hold still. It wasn't because he was a drifter. It was just that his urgent sense of history-in-the-making demanded action. He pursued the breaking news wherever it seemed to be breaking the fastest, from the Tampa Tribune, to the Washington News, to the old United Press, to the Deseret News in Salt Lake City and finally to the Oakland Tribune.
However, the best of the Reck stories was this reminiscence that captures the rough-and-tumble world of 20th century journalism along with its common-sense and compassion. Please read the whole thing:
As we live in an era where news readers and their organizations "exaggerate" stories for personal and professional effect, or are satisfied to have smug comedians deliver the news, or turn the simple exercise of reportage into ideological advocacy, it's worth remembering that there actually was a time when it was the facts, rather than the narrative, that were important. It was also a time when the people who served as the subjects of their stories were as, or more, important to the media organizations as were the advertisers.