Circular Journalism

Shafer_cartoon_about_Hearst_publicizing_himselfI spent the summer of 1972 as a nightside copyboy in the third-floor newsroom of the New York Times on West 43rd Street. At the end of the summer, Sammy Solovitz, the legendary head copyboy who had waltzed into the building to deliver a telegram in 1943 and never left, asked if I wanted to stay on—a first step to a possible career at the Times. I would have had to finish college part time and in New York, and I didn’t care as much for Brooklyn College, where I had taken classes the summer before, as I did for Beloit, so I sadly said no. Though I have worked in journalism occasionally since, that was a key decision, shifting me from one word track to another, though I would not know that for a decade.

That said, I loved it at the Times.

If you are going to speed around in circles, picking up pieces of paper one place and depositing them in another, constantly on alert for the yelled word “copy,” you might as well do it during the summer of 1972. Watergate, George Wallace shot, what seemed like continual airplane hijackings, the Fischer-Spassky chess match, and political conventions: going to work was never boring. The learning was phenomenal—and there were no tests.

It was only later, though, that I learned to write for a newspaper. I learned it from an
editor at The Westerly Sun in Rhode Island during the summer of 1975. I was a temporary replacement covering outlying town councils and school boards and writing the occasional feature—along with non-reportorial duties at the newspaper. I would cover something in the evening and arrive at the paper at five o’clock in the morning to prepare my story for an eleven o’clock deadline. The editor—whose name I wish I could remember—would show up between seven and eight. And he would immediately tear my story to pieces. I would try again, and again, finally beginning to understand what “audience” meant (he was it, though as advocate for a larger one) and how to structure a story for readers.

Somehow, I must have started to please him, for I began getting really fun
assignments. The best was a week at the county fair with my own photographer, a feature a day. Saturday night was the big show, starting with a bluegrass band from Maine and closing with a beauty pageant. One contestant stood out. She was smart, talented, and attractive. The photographer and I agreed. When all of the runners-up but the first had been announced, leaving only two possible winners out of the finalists, I sent him around to get a picture of the winner as she was announced.

Instead, he got a perfectly marvelous shot of consternation and disbelief. The first
runner-up knew she should have won: the winner was clearly not in her league.

The photographer quickly got a few other acceptable shots, and I wrote a rather vapid
story.

I did a little bit of investigating and learned that the winner was the niece of the
organizer of the pageant, a woman with quite a bit of influence in town. When I suggested there might be a story there, I was told that there was not. And there never would be.

That’s when I realized that I had made the right choice, back at the Times. Journalism
could not be the career for me.

[From Unfolding, an academic autobiography I wrote several years ago.]

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