Paper Trained (2012)

Once upon a time I wrote for a newspaper. I wasn’t there very long, less than two years, but never in my life have I learned so much about writing. If the gig paid more than $18,000 a year, it just might have been my dream job. 

I’ve been giving my tenure as a newspaper man a lot of thought in recent days. So I decided to dig up a few of my old posts on the subject.

The one below is from June 24, 2012 and it’s always been one of my faves. Here’s hoping you agree!

***

Need a little advice, kids? Well have a seat.

I work at a high school, which means I often interact with high school students. It’s not nearly as bad as it sounds.

Most of them know I do this writing thing and can tell that I’m pretty happy, so the aspiring wordsmiths among them often ply me for advice.

“How can I become a writer?” they ask with wide, dewy, earnest eyes.

“Work for a newspaper,” I reply.

Without fail, they then look at me as if to say, “Gee, thanks for the advice, Grandpa, but the world doesn’t work that way anymore.”

Punk kids.

Yeah, Mr. Allegra, you’re still cool!

Sheesh, I’m not stupid. I know where newspapers are going. A couple of years ago I even wrote a feature story titled “Black and White and Dead All Over.” The fate of the daily newspaper is obvious.

I wasn’t telling those kids to work for a daily, though. The weeklies are where the action is. Unlike their big city cousins, weeklies aren’t in financial trouble – and they’re great places to get your boots on the ground, learn the trade, slough off a few failures, and develop a local following. Also, weeklies happily accept journalism newbies. They have no choice, really; their salaries are much too low to attract anyone who has already proven himself.

So, Go Greenhorns!

My old paper, Suburban Trends, was published on Wednesdays and Sundays. Each reporter was assigned a town to cover. Then each reporter was made to understand that he or she was to submit six stories about that town every week. Three stories per issue. “At least three,” Mr. Editor would then tell you with a solemn nod. “Because, you know, four stories are better than three. Better for you, if you get me.”

Oh, I got him.

The job was not as ominous as I make it sound, really. The stories didn’t have to be long or involved, they just had to be in Mr. Editor’s grubby little hands before deadline. This, of course, taught me how to bang out punchy, polished copy on a variety of topics—which is excellent training for anyone who wants to write.

The greatest benefit of this system, however, was that it forced me to be independent and resourceful. You see, Suburban Trends editors didn’t oversee their reporters very much. They gave you a list that told you when the local committees and boards met. Then they showed you the door and told you to come back with three stories.

At least three.

You soon learn that only four of these local meetings are worth going to:

1. The Town Council Work Session, where the council talks about what they’re going to talk about at next week’s Town Council Meeting.

2. The Town Council Meeting, where the council talks about about what they said they were going to talk about the week before—only, this time, instead of talking they yell.

3. The Board of Education Meeting, where a small yet vocal minority tries to get a beloved principal fired.

4. The Planning Board Meeting, where people argue about whether or not they should let some guy build yet another ugly strip mall. (Don’t worry ugly strip mall fans; they always get built eventually!)

All of the other township committees and boards exist only as an excuse for middle-aged men to get out of the house, eat butter cookies, and talk about fishing.

Okay, everyone, enough chit chat. Let’s get down to the first item on tonight’s agenda: Jerry’s golf swing.

A good reporter on a good news month might be able to get three stories from the Town Council Work Session, four from the Town Council Regular Meeting, two from the Board of Education, and two from the Planning Board. That adds up to 11 stories per month.

Only 13 to go!

So government news wasn’t going to get me anywhere near my quota. Once I wrapped my brain around this (I believe the epiphany came during my attempt to turn a new pooper scooper law into a three-part exposé), I got out from behind my desk and trolled the streets.

It’s so easy for a writer to forget how important it is to walk away from the desk. Granted, meeting a person face to face takes more time and work than a phone call or an email, but you can get so much more out of it. People tell you things over coffee or a beer that they would never ever tell you under any other circumstances.

I made a point to get to know everybody. And while it might sound cliché, everybody does have at least one good story to tell. Before long there wasn’t a conversation that took place over a back fence in that town that I hadn’t heard about. People I would’ve never noticed (or would’ve actively avoided) under normal circumstances became valuable sources. A lot of them became wonderful pals. And many of my experiences with these unique, eccentric, delightful, and slightly-dangerous-looking people inspire my fiction writing to this day.

A possible source. A scary one.

I had no problem finding story ideas after developing these relationships. Even during the summer, when the Board of Education didn’t meet and the Town Council members were too hot and sleepy to muster up the energy to yell, I never missed my twice-weekly quota.

In fact, I often submitted four stories per issue. And y’know what? Four really is better than three. Because when you have four stories you can tell Mr. Editor to get out of your face and go bother someone else.

40 thoughts on “Paper Trained (2012)

  1. Good insight that has come to real life. It’s kind of sad though how the daily newspapers have diminished but people, particularly the older generation, still enjoy the old tradition. Without adjusting, I wonder if they feel left behind – sort of? Good example of how we all must adjust along the way in life as best we can.

      • I know what you mean. I’ve seen production cut back and local reporters retire or switch elsewhere due to a drop-off. I think media adjustment to social media and a change in strategy has helped many survive.

  2. Nice post that stirred up memories for me.I really understand and relate to your great article. I majored in journalism in college in 1973 and wrote for a number of newspapers. I remember being drilled in “yellow journalism” and keeping your politics out of your work. I remember the leap from led type to other modes, manual typewriters to electric and then to computers in the 80s. It makes me sad to see how papers have shrunk in size and carry basic info to papers on-line which I don’t enjoy reading. Like you, what I miss the most is the one-on-one, face-to-face, sit-down interview with people. You are right, If people were comfortable they’d tell you things that touched them — and then follow up with a call, “You won’t print that will you.” That was a different time. But, I miss it

    • I came into reporting in the 1990s just at the tail-end of the pasteup era. My computer was something from a distant time, with orange type on a black screen. It was hell on my eyes, but I learned how to compose my stories with a squint, which helped.

      It saddens me, too, how papers have shrunk—not only the number of pages, but the size of the newspaper page. It feels all wrong that a wide open newspaper page can no longer cover an entire kitchen table.

  3. You are in the company of greats like Mark Twain. And you both share that special witty outlook on life. Hmm, methinks there is a connection. But why no mention of the library board. You would be surprised at the scintillating line items. Especially patron outrage at Sendak’s Night Kitchen illustrations. Missed out, Mike.

  4. Our daily has gotten to the point of pulling in stories from 4plus hours away to fill. I really could care LESS about some thug in Milwaukee that got stabbed/stabbed another thug/or stabbed himself.

    The pages are WAY smaller, way fewer and repetitive. I get the online version and it is the SAME stories all week long. Boring. I only get it now for the obits.

  5. Newspapers really were a great way to learn to write. Especially if you had a good editor. You learned how to spell, proper grammar and the value of being able to cut your article down. Good luck with that now!

  6. This is how good a writer you are. You make it sound like writing for a newspaper is FUN. I just love reading your ‘take’ on things, Mike. Yes, I worked for some newspapers too: my high school newspaper, first. Mainly for the socializing, but Mr. Chard, the English teacher, also gave some great pointers about writing. Tight. Then after graduate school (’cause we all know we need a Master’s in English Lit to work for a tiny feminist newspaper in northern NJ on a federal grant that helped me feed my …. pet hamster) I was the writer/semi-editor for New Directions for Women. I learned a lot. Mainly, that journalism would not feed my pet hamster.

    • It WAS fun! It was exhausting, too. And low-paying. And the hours were weird. And I got yelled at a lot. But I did love it. My editor trusted my abilities and judgement. I could tell stories about all kinds of things to a guaranteed audience of 15,000 twice a week. And, dang, that job turned me into a disciplined writing machine! Woo!

      • Like all good internships (and your job was in a sense an internship in writing), the pay is minimal, the work is long with drudgery, and the rewards are immense.

  7. My dad was a town manager for years and your descriptions of town meeting (regardless of the type) is spot on, Mike. My poor dad, he was doomed. 🙂 How did you ever keep the humor out of your articles? Or did you?

    • Town Managers were fascinating people. During my tenure I dealt with four. They were either my strongest ally or greatest foe. There was rarely a middle ground with those guys.

      As for humor, my straight news stories didn’t have much of it (though one ad sales rep, said that my prose had “flash”). My feature stories, however, had plenty of witty bits (or, at least, what I thought was witty at the time). I lived for those features.

  8. Back in the day…way back…newspapers were the only way you knew what was going on in town, especially if you lived out on the farms. I was grateful for the fact that my ancestors came from a town that had five newspapers! They even wrote when out of town visitors came and who they spent their time with – I learned so many intimate details about my family because of them. My great grandfather was both writer and editor for one of them. I loved running across several of his articles…more than 100 years later.

    Personally, I never had any interest in working for a newspaper but I concur, that face to face…people share things that they wouldn’t likely share over the phone or in an office.

    • That’s fantastic that you still have clippings from your great-grandfather!

      I sure hope my great grandkids hold onto my articles— especially the one about the pooper scooper law; that shoulda won a Pulitzer.

      • Couldn’t help but laugh out loud…

        I think as long as you make them accessible, people will find them but it may be several generations from now, which is actually pretty cool. By the way, those newspapers had a centennial edition some time back and they did a whole spread on the early pioneer days, which included mentions of my fourth great grandfather, born at the beginning of the Revolution, who walked across Pennsylvania on the way to Ohio. He was a mill right but saw an opportunity fording people across the Ohio river for $1.00 and ending up making a living out in western PA were they would have run ins with Indians once in a while. Real treasures…I am so grateful for these papers.

  9. As a photographer on a daily, my favourite experience was to arrive at 8a.m. on a slack news day and be told “we need a photo for the front page. Be back in an hour and we need the print asap – 3 columns by xx inches”. The deadline was 11a.m. No pressure, eh?

    • Ha! Yeah, I’ve had a couple of those “Gimmie something an hour ago” requests.

      My editor usually paired me with a photographer named Joe. He was a nice guy, but had this creepy habit of photographing people through other things—like windows or fence slats. Like the subjects were being spied on. One time Joe traveled to a daycare center and took a pic of a little girl through a hole in a tower of blocks. The pic was technically accomplished, but, weeeell, it made my skin crawl.

      I wonder if Joe is in jail now…

  10. Sad about the daily papers, but good news about the weeklies! And there, of course, you get to be a big fish in a (very) small pond. The rewards are few, but there for the taking—if you want them!

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