Once upon a time, in a place long ago and far away, I was a newspaperman --- a real, genuine ink-stained wretch, hard working, young and ambitious newspaperman. And I wrote thousands of stories on deadline for multiple newspapers. I wrote for The Associated Press. I wrote as a staffer for The Tampa Tribune, The Springfield (Mo.) Daily News, The Fort Lauderdale News and Sun-Sentinel. And I freelanced for several other papers, too.
I did it professionally. I got paid (sort of), but mostly I did it because I loved it. I loved the whole damned thing. The people, the hustle and bustle, the adrenalin of the deadline, the interaction with all walks of people, from sports stars to convicted felons; It was, in short, the coolest job I’ve ever had. And I’ve had some pretty cool jobs. But none of them were cooler than being a newspaper columnist.
Every week, sometimes two or three times a week, I’d write a column. It could’ve been about politics, sports, life in general, issues of controversy, elections, movies, cigars, babies born, soldiers dying, whatever. In truth, I could write 15 inches on just about anything that moved. And even if it was dead, I could still write about it.
Many of my freelance assignments paid by the word. So, being a starving writer, I did the math --- 10 words to a line, 5 lines to the column inch. 50 words per inch, times 15 inches = 750 words. At 1 cent per word, that was $7.50 per column. Clay Today, a weekly newspaper in Jacksonville, FL, sent me a check for over a year for six stories a month, when I worked in Tallahassee as the Sports Editor of The Flambeau. That $45.00 per month helped to pay for books, tuition and beer. Thank you Clay Today.
For those of you who don’t read newspapers anymore (and the data suggests millions of you no longer do), 15 inches was about the length of about two-thirds of a newspaper broadsheet; one Column (among six) of a Newspaper. Filling inches and pages is the job of editors and newspaper desk people. Did it for years -- copy that just fits the news hole, is always welcome. Editors will always find a way to pick up your column if it’s reliable, legible, funny (or not) and well, around 15 inches. Most will deny it, many will do so vehemently, but they’re all full of it. They’ll take their 15 inches, write a headline, maybe do a copy lift box or some art, and presto, the page starts to take shape.
I grew up reading Dick Young at The New York Daily News, Red Smith at The New York Times, Edwin Pope of The Miami Herald and Tom McEwen at The Tampa Tribune. Great sports columnists who would grind it out every day, five days a week in their heydays. It was wonderful to read, and always kept you up on the latest gossip about the Yankees, Mets, Dolphins, Buccaneers and college football. Some of it was great, some of it was less great, and as McEwen told me, some of it was “shit.” But, they showed up, and got the job done. It was amazing, and it taught me about reporting, editing, writing, interviewing, the vitality of daily journalism, and of the power of personality.
In short, it showed in actions and words, the power of a great work ethic.
So, I wrote from 1977 until 1982, when I left newspapering and went to work in Public Affairs at IBM. After IBM my career moved along, and with it my ability to make a living with my pen, (typewriter, word processor, laptop, video tape, website, et al) slowly disappeared. By the time 35 years had passed, I couldn’t honestly tell you the last time I’d written anything longer than about two pages --- a speech at my son’s wedding or a memo in the office seemed the longest stories I could remember.
But recently, after successfully selling my company, I found myself semi-retired, with a lot of time on my hands.
So naturally, I started to remember fondly my salad days as a newspaperman, and began to think about writing.
I’m going to write a book, I said to my friend Dennis Richardson, another former newspaperman. Dennis, it turns out, really was a genuine newspaperman for over 40 years, at various papers in Missouri and Florida. I asked Dennis if he’d be willing to edit my proposed tomb. “I’d be honored to help you,” he said, always the gentleman.
So I wrote a book outline, and a draft of a first chapter, and then, well, nothing. Total writer’s block. I tried reading, watching movies, playing golf, drinking copious amounts of Scotch (that always worked back in the newspaper days), but nothing worked.
So, I put the laptop away, and figured somehow, someday, I’d find it again. That was four months ago. This is my first attempt at writing something since then.
Hemingway realized he was all written out, and in the end couldn’t take it. He shot himself. Fortunately, I’m not nearly that despondent. I just want to find the rhythm of writing again.
Once writing a column, to me, was easy, hard, fun, difficult, constraining, frustrating, joyous, challenging and sometimes humiliating.
In 1979 I had a small apartment in Springfield, Mo. I lived next door to Mrs. Johnson, who was a nurse at the local hospital. She was in her late 50’s, and took no prisoners.
I went to Mrs. Johnson’s apartment one morning to pick up a package the UPS man had left with her for me. In her living room, she had a small yellow parakeet. At the bottom of the birdcage was that morning’s Springfield Daily News sports section. My column, with my photo and by-line, was lining the bottom of the birdcage.
“I see you are getting use out of today’s newspaper,” I said as I motioned toward her bird’s droppings.
“Yes,” she said. “And I purposely selected to place your column at the bottom of the cage, too.”
Now she had me.
“Why is that?” I asked. “Didn’t you like the piece?” Which happened to be about Lou Brock, the great St. Louis Cardinal.
“No I didn’t,” she said. “It was not one of your better efforts. You made Brock sound old and worn out. I did not appreciate it,” said Mrs. Johnson, a life-long Cardinals fan. “Though my parakeet apparently does, as you can see from the results. Work harder.”
As I said, she took no prisoners.
But Mrs. Johnson’s lesson was an important one to a young writer. People read this stuff. People you know; People who rely upon you to get it right. It was a humbling lesson, but also an important one. And it’s one, I’ve never forgotten.
So I shall try over the next 20 weeks to write 20 columns. I will do my best to accomplish this, and try not to let life get in the way. I don’t know if I can do it, but at least I’ve gotten a start.
All 1,208 words of it.