Reminiscences and Ruminations on Journalism

Washington Daily News being soldBy James A. Kidney

In the spring of 1966, when I was home in Chevy Chase, Md., on spring break from my freshman year, I ventured downtown to visit the newsroom of The Daily News, Washington’s tabloid newspaper, which was owned by the Scripps-Howard chain.  It was an old brick pile at 13th and Massachusetts Avenue, NW, a stone’s throw from where the Washington Post’s new headquarters are now.  The News was D.C.’s third newspaper, after the Post and the dowager of local journalism, The Evening Star.

I was quite familiar with the bus route to The News and with its inside geography.  I had been there many times.  The building carried with it recent childhood memories.  The tiny, rickety elevator to the newsroom with a creaky steel grate enclosure did not put me off one bit. It, along with the sweet smell of printers’ ink wafting from the pressroom in the basement, incorporated the raffishness of The Front Page in my unschooled mind.

My dad had been the Washington correspondent for three other Scripps-Howard newspapers, including The Indianapolis Times, which the chain already had folded by 1966. He often took my

Ernie Pyle at war
Ernie Pyle at war

brother and me to his office on weekends.  He occupied the desk previously used by Ernie Pyle, the best-known Scripps-Howard correspondent. Pyle who was killed in World War II, was known for his folksy coverage of small town America and, later, for highly personal accounts of GIs overseas.

The Scripps-Howard Washington bureau was just down the hall from The News newsroom. That hall was decorated with the heavy plastic molds from the steel plates of old letterpress print stereotypes.  They showed major historical front pages from Scripps-Howard papers.  Those included the New York World Telegram and Sun, the Cleveland Press, the Cincinnati Post, the Pittsburgh Press, the Houston Press, the Rocky Mountain News and the Memphis Press-Scimitar (a memorable name).  All of them are long gone now.

Scripps-Howard was started in the late 19th century as a liberal chain, a reputation it had long since abandoned.  But The Daily News still was considered a “peoples paper” and was popular among the city’s majority black population.  It had a good sports section, tv coverage and a strong focus on local news.  Bill Beall at the News had won the Pulitzer Prize for photography in 1958 with a still-iconic picture of a cop and a small boy.

1958 Pulitzer winner by Bill Beal, Washington Daily News
1958 Pulitzer winner by William Beal, Washington Daily News

Dad retired shortly before the Indianapolis Times folded and was ailing in a VA hospital, but memory of him was recent and favorable in Washington press circles.  I had taken advantage of that fact to launch my post-high school journalism “career” by getting a copyboy job at The News in the summer of 1965.

There was so much nepotism in hiring for the copyboy (and copygirl) jobs at The News that each summer employee was hired for only one month so that all applicants could be accommodated.  I worked with at least two other offspring of Scripps-Howard or Daily News employees in 1965.  I spent the rest of the summer unloading filthy bags of mail from boxcars at the post office across from Union Station before heading off to my freshman year at college.

The following spring I bussed down to the News, confident that I would at least qualify once again for a month-long job as a copy boy.  My ambitions started and stopped at getting a job.

Nick Blatchford in later years.
Nick Blatchford in later years

I walked into the glass-walled office of Nick Blatchford, who was the managing editor.  Blatchford was a perfect boss for anyone, but especially for the young charges in the newsroom.  I don’t just mean copyboys.  Most of the regular reporters at the News were young and scrappy, with well-nourished ambitions, not satisfied by working at the third paper in D.C., but having a good time.   Blatchford scratched their egos, served as counselor as well as editor, and put out a pretty interesting newspaper on a shoestring budget.  He was tall and lean, with salt-and-pepper hair at nearly 47 years old in 1966.  I don’t recall ever hearing him raise his voice in my short tenure at the paper. His 2009 obituary  called him “a lover of people of all walks of life.”  I can believe it.

Blatchford was gentle but blunt.  “You don’t want to work here,” he told me.  “This paper has no future for a young man.  I don’t think it will last much longer.  Why don’t you try to get a summer job with the AP (Associated Press) or UPI (United Press International)?”

I was astonished to receive this news from the man who was No. 2 on the editorial side of the paper.  But I wasn’t speechless.  I asked him where the AP and UPI offices were.  I now had to look desperately for a summer job before returning to school in Illinois.  Blatchford told me that the AP was near Connecticut and K Streets.  UPI was in the National Press Building at 14th and F — much closer.  So I went there.

Blatchford was right.  The News was bought and put out of business by the Evening Star in 1972.  The Star itself folded less than a decade later.

UPI LogoI was hired by UPI and worked in the Washington bureau for two summers taking deadline-every-minute telephone dictation from reporters such as Merriman Smith and Helen Thomas, who covered  the Johnson White House.  I especially remember being on the line for hours with Smith, who earlier won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the JFK assassination in Dallas, as Johnson went by motorcade to Glassboro, N.J., for a summit meeting with Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin in 1967.  Smith was gruff and difficult on the phone — a radio phone that lost contact under every overpass (there are many between D.C. and Glassboro) — but he produced great deadline copy.  Later, I worked in Raleigh, N.C. and New York, I was bureau chief for UPI in Kansas City and covered the Supreme Court in D.C.  I quit journalism to become a lawyer in 1978.

I covered some fairly big events in my career, especially at the Supreme Court.  But the biggest event was meeting in the UPI newsroom the woman who was my wife for 38 years, the late Sara Fritz.  In a way, I have Nick Blatchford to thank for her.

I recount this story partly because it’s my blog and I liked writing this bit of reminiscence which I burden you with.  But I also was prompted by a column in the Post today by Margaret Sullivan spelling out her rules for covering politics in the Trump era. I am not sure I agree with all of her prescriptions, but her column caused me to reflect, not for the first time, on how tough even the best reporters have it today, especially print reporters.

I won’t say politicians didn’t lie in the 1960s.  Johnson knew he lied — or, at least, exaggerated — the alleged attacks by North Vietnam on U.S. ships prompting the Tonkin Gulf resolution and nearly a decade of pointless war.  And ever heard of Watergate?  Before Watergate, a strong case can be made that the press was too cooperative with news figures and probed them insufficiently for the truth. Some claim the pendulum has swung too far the other way.  I don’t think so.  But it has gotten harder to perform the job effectively.  Increasingly, it seems, the facts don’t matter much to readers.  It is entertainment and stories that confirm their own prejudices that readers want.

What has gotten worse for solid, professional reporters who seek to report the truth fairly, other than a different kind of audience, are the economics and means of delivering news.  When I was a wire service reporter, I envied the reporters for the Post, the New York Times, the Star and other newspapers.  They had all day to write about opinions issued at 10 a.m. by the Supreme Court, for example.

Seconds after an important opinion was issued, I was pressed to hop on the phone, and later a computer keyboard, to meet the “deadline-every-minute” wire service mantra of getting the news first, but also getting it right.  Being first with a bulletin to be broadcast and printed was a rush familiar to any gossip monger, but the pressure rarely led to the most complete coverage of an issue. Ever try to get the gist of four or five separate Supreme Court opinions with a desk editor breathing down your neck for a bulletin summary that is supposed to be completely accurate?  Reporters for newspapers did not confront that problem in the old days.

With the volume of coverage required by a news service — some small town newspaper client always

Sara Fritz and Ronald Reagan at White House Correspondents Dinner, 1984
Sara Fritz and Ronald Reagan at White House Correspondents Dinner, 1984

wanted a special story about a matter of no importance outside its own circulation area — there rarely was time to revisit a story later in the day for reaction and analysis.  That also was not what most of the broadcast and print clients wanted from UPI or the AP, anyway.  They could get analysis from the New York Times or Washington Post-LA Times wire much later in the day. They wanted the stripped down version of what was news quickly from the basic news services.

Scripps-Howard also owned UPI when I worked there.  The combine sold it for a dollar in the early 1980s.  It exists in some form still, but is nowhere near a full-scale news service.  That role is now served exclusively in this country by the Associated Press. But for stories competing for national attention, there really are many, many suppliers.

In fact, almost everybody in journalism is now like UPI and the AP of yesteryear.  Reporters for big papers must file stories for the internet, sometimes taking video or sound at the same time. Meanwhile, the major broadcast outlets file “print” stories on the internet.  Speed is everything.  Who will be the first to file a breathless pop-up on a cell phone?  Deadline every minute?  The good old days.  It’s deadline every second now.

At the same time, Scripps-Howard was only among the first of the newspaper serial killers.  (It now makes its money on cable TV channels it owns, such as House & Garden and the Food Network.  Property Brothers is way more profitable than news, I guess.) Every week brings news of another newspaper going out of business.  Every day it seems there is a story about a newspaper’s struggles to remain afloat.

Meanwhile, Trump is taking advantage of the new rules by happily becoming “click bait.”  If Sarah Palin was a pioneer in bringing mediocrity lots of internet stories and broadcast clips, Trump has mastered the concept.  And the public is responding.

When I had my conversation with Nick Blatchford 50 years ago (!), I am sure that both of us had the same definition of news.  Despite the 29-year generational gap between, we could agree that facts mattered, and that it was the job of a newsman (that’s what even the women were called then) to report the facts.

Since then, we’ve had “new journalism” (its pioneer, Tom Wolfe, is now reduced, at 85, to pretending that old sexual voyeurs have some universal truth worth writing about), expanded analysis by hundreds of talking heads and bloggers (like myself), plus a geometric expansion of outlets for news, most of which are slapdash and uninformed.  Are we any wiser or more knowledgeable than we were when newspapers came out twice a day? Or when there were only four or five TV stations and when radio focused on rock-and-roll instead of Rush Limbaugh?

When I was a college kid, the notion of being a reporter was romantic and adventuresome.  Being one was all that plus interesting and challenging.  Get the facts. Get them right.  Report them.  Be at least a small cog in the business of writing history.  You were raffish in your own mind, even if nowhere else.

Now, it’s all different.  It is more corporate.  More subject to metrics, such as number of internet clicks.  This might make short-term economic sense, but it is contrary to the best principles of journalism.  The news business never has been entirely or even mostly “eat your spinach,” but there was a clear division between the publications that were good for you and those that merely entertained.  Now, it’s nearly all entertainment to get the clicks that get the advertising.  I imagine that telling a reporter his or her piece got lots of “hits” is at least as much cause for celebration as “good story –well reported and written.”

As noted, reporting is much more subject to manipulation by political carnival barkers as a result.

I never regretted leaving journalism, though I always found it an interesting profession to follow from afar or through my wife (who was lamenting the state of journalism when she retired after 40 years in the field).

So much has changed since that bus ride to the Daily News long ago.  In journalism, at least, has the change been for the better?  I’m not sure.

Are there any Nick Blatchfords anywhere out there?

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