( Originally Published 1916 )
His dealings with reporters who affect a weekly bust
J. B. McCULLAGH, famous as manager of the St. Louis Globe Democrat, the " Little Mack " of the poem, once defined successful news-getting as the art of knowing where " hell was going to break loose next and having a man there."
The man " is the reporter upon whom falls the chief burden of the trade. He is ubiquitous and versatile, possessing a heaven-born quality, called " the nose for news." Like much talent in other lines it may lie latent, awaiting some discoverer, but once made known it flourishes. The " nose for news" is a very real, but scarce and most valuable proboscis ! Under present-day workings, the writing side is the least of the newspaper's troubles. Re-write men and trained copy readers shape up the stuff. The problem is to get it. That is the reporter's job.
Dr. Talcott Williams, Dean of the School of Journalism at Columbia University, New York, gives an apt illustration of the lacking sense. The " kid" reporter sent out from the office of the Philadelphia Press to " cover "three assignments turned in two at the night desk and was departing for home when the Night City Editor, checking up his schedule, asked for a report on the third--a wedding. "Oh," said the boy, " there wasn't anything to write. There wasn't any wed-ding. The bridegroom didn't show up ! "
Here is the lesson of " knowing news." Next to knowing news it is important to know how to write it. That can be taught. Indeed, I got my first knowledge from Simeon Drake, who instructed me in the printer's trade in the old Advertiser office at Norway, Maine. I was printer's " devil," but as I worked for nothing and boarded myself, my liberty was considerable and my privileges many. Uncle Sim wanted items. He thought a boy who loafed around as much as I did ought to pick up a few. I rather timidly thought so, too, but effort soon showed that the picking was bad. For the life of me I couldn't see anything or hear of anything in Norway worth printing. But during six unfruitful weeks' search an item had been rapidly growing in the garden next door. Uncle Granville Reed's two hills of Southern corn had hustled until the tallest stalk was thirteen feet high. Like a flash the importance of the event possessed me and I sat down to "write it up." Try as I would, I could not seem to get the words together, and finally the struggle resulted in a measly little paragraph to the effect that " Granville Reed had a stalk of Southern corn in his garden thirteen feet high." When I handed it in Mr. Drake looked at it critically, took off his glasses and looked at it again, cleared his throat a couple of times and then taught me my first and fundamental lesson in journalism, big or little.
" You don't say who Mr. Reed is," he began, " you don't tell us where he lives and you don't make any point that is complimentary to him."
Mr. Drake rarely wrote anything, but set his matter up out of his head from a much used case of bourgeois. In a few minutes he gave me the item to read in the composing stick. In its new form it ran something like this:
Former Selectman Granville Reed has an agricultural wonder growing in his well-kept garden on upper Main street in the shape of a stalk of corn which under his able attention has gained the extraordinary height of thirteen feet." " You will notice," he said gently, "that I have cut out the word ` Southern ' before ` corn.' Southern corn ought to be thirteen feet high."
Here it was all in a nutshell! State the facts, nothing but the facts, but state all of them attractively and if possible amazingly.
There is interest in almost everything, and it is the newspaper maker's business to find it and make it plain to his readers. He who does this has succeeded.
The late Professor Thomas Davidson, most learned of men, once asked Joseph Pulitzer why he was so tolerant kindly towar reporters and so severe in his judgement of editors.
" Because," he replied, " a reporter is always a hope and an editor always a disappointment."
One reason for the frequent truth of the epigram was that too often a good reporter had been taken from the task for which he was so well fitted and made an editor with disappointing results. It is not given man to possess too many perfections. The good news-getter is not always a good writer, and less often a good administrator. To reward the reporter with a deserved promotion too frequently lands him in failure and disrepute.
From twenty to thirty in the life of a man, no more agreeable profession can be selected for him who has the instinct for news-getting and the itch to write. The rewards are considerable. For a reporter succeeds from the outset. He " makes good or fails promptly. His is not the experience of the young lawyer, doctor or business man, slowly picking up his load. He reaches his task full grown or not at all. True, he can find lodgement in certain lines of mediocrity, but if he has it in him to be a reporter of merit, the fact is soon revealed and at once rewarded. But as it is a form of precocity the end comes sooner than in other lines. For being a reporter is eminently a young man's job. He is always on assignments. Home ties are scant and friends few. He must ever be alert and at the command of the relentless " desk." One assignment rules until it is supplanted by another. He has no hours, but must be ready on call. The dailies grant each man his day off, but it is often intruded upon and the sense of responsibility is always with him. He must learn to write accurately without revision and to think ahead of his pen. his personality is ordinarily hidden, though most news-papers now make known the men who do unusual things.
What are the rewards? Well, they are worth while. Pay in the large offices will run from $3000 to $6000 and even occasion-ally to $10,000 a year for men who can discover news and write it effectively. That greatest of American reporters, James Creelman, rarely received less than the latter sum. The making of valuable acquaintances is an important factor. It has led to the graduating of many reporters into other lines of success.
There is always a chance for promotion outside of the profession, if the inside fails to open up. Bankers, railroads and great corporations have recruited much brain force from the ranks of the reporters.
In our earlier journalism of opinion and. partisanship the reporter had but a small place. His efforts to relate anything outside of a court proceeding or a political convention were resented bitterly and offensively. He was regarded as a sneak, as an impertinent intruder, where he endeavored to get the facts of personal or social matters. Crime was his only legitimate concern.
" You fellows thrive on calamity," once said old Commodore Fillebrown, Command-ant of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, to me when I was trying to get at the facts of the Greely Arctic disaster. He really thought the cannibalism and tragic story of the luck-less expedition was none of a newspaper's business. Indeed, all was suppressed until Tracy Greaves, a New York Times reporter, picked a chance word from a sailor's lips and let in the light. This was as late as 1884!
But in earlier days few doors opened to the reporter. New York was particularly repelling. James Gordon Bennett, the elder, wrote all of the Herald's contents at its-start in 1835. He devoted his news-getting mainly to Wall Street. The social news was mostly mockery of events to which he was not invited. But people bought the Herald for these satirical glimpses of what was going on. In due time reporters were added, and added, until there was a " staff," the first to be had by any newspaper in America. Then the staff " began to demand admission at social' and semi-social affairs—to such purpose that at last a Herald reporter was actually admitted to Henry I. Brevoort's fancy dress ball, the social event of the period. Let Philip Hone, in his celebrated diary, reveal the horror of it all! Writing under date of February 25, 1840, of "the great affair," of which he makes a very tolerable report himself, and where he appeared as Cardinal Wolsey "as grand robe of new scarlet merino," he gays :
" Some surprise was expressed at seeing in the crowd a man in the habit of a knight in armour, a Mr. Attree, reporter and one ,of the editors of an infamous paper called the Herald. Bennett, the principal editor, called upon Mr. Brevoort to obtain permission for this person to be present to report in his paper an account of the ball. He consented, as I believe I should have done under the same circumstances, as by doing it a sort of obligation was imposed upon him to refrain from abusing the house, the people of the house, and their guests which would have been done in case of a denial. But this is a hard alternative ; to submit to this kind of surveillance is getting to be intolerable and nothing but the force of public opinion will correct the insolence, which, it is to be feared, will never be applied gentlemen make as long as Mr. Charles A. Davis and other this Mr. Attree ` hail fellow, well met,' as they did on this occasion. . Whether the notice they took of him, and that which they extend to Bennett when he shows his ugly face in Wall Street, may be considered approbatory of the daily slanders and unblushing impudence of the paper they conduct, or is intended to purchase their forbearance toward themselves, the effect is equally mischievous. It affords them countenance and encouragement and they find that the more personalities they have in their papers, the more they sell !
Sad enough! Yet the day after the ball Mr. Bone wrote himself down as had as the rest of the curious-minded public whom Mr. Bennett sought to capture when he pencilled this note in his diary:
" The Herald of this morning contains a description of Mr. Brevoort's house; but, as it was an implied condition of the reporter's admission that it should be decent, it was tame, flat and tasteless ! "
A far cry from this to 1894, when Ward McAllister, arbiter of the " 400 at Mrs.
Astor's famous ball, became a writer on social topics for the New York World'
It took many years for this umbrage at the reporting of social events to wear off and make the reporter welcome. Indeed, there is one place yet on the map where it is not even now permitted to record a social event, though the editors and owners of the papers may be among those present. That is Charleston, S. C., which possesses in the News and Courier the oldest newspaper in continuous publication in America.
Yet the reporter can be truly credited with performing a great public service in these United States. He has destroyed aristocracy. His eager search for the interesting, his desire to reveal the notable, whether it be in an extravagant social function, the bride's costume, or the habits of the rich, has resulted in a universal levelling. This is a truly democratic country to-day, and it is so because the reporter has banished mystery and made all men and all things appear as they really are!
Nor is there longer " impertinence " or " intrusion." Sensible people know the value of publicity. Honest folk welcome it. The society reporter instead of being repelled is overworked.
" But how can I become a reporter?" one question often asked of a newspaper manager. About the best way is' to hang around until the City Editor is able to see " you, or until you are convinced that he can't, " Bring in an item," is the best introduction. A newspaper office is a place of chance. Being on the spot is the surest way to secure consideration.
Many great reporters and great men were to be found on the staff of the New York Sun in the Dana days. One of these, who afterwards became a first citizen of the city, got on the staff in this fashion : Tiring of college at Cornell, he came to New York with the help of $10, borrowed from William O. Wyckoff, then an Ithacan stenographer, later to become the head of the great Remington typewriter firm of Wyckoff, Seamans and Benedict, with letters to the managing editor and the chief of the Sun's staff. He first attacked the man-aging editor. Nothing to be had, perhaps the chief had something, would like to oblige the introducer, but just couldn't. An interview with the chief produced the same .result, with a kindly reference back to the managing editor.
Now if he had been an ordinary young man he would have gone away. He was not. The next day at office hours he dropped into the Sun factory and took a vacant desk and began scribbling. There are always vacant desks in the City room. Pretty soon the managing editor came in and gave him a friendly nod; later the great editor, who noted with pleasure that the boy had " found something." Presently all the reporters were sent out on one errand or another. The managing editor stuck his head out of his cage and looked about. Seeing no one but the adventurer he asked if he was free. He was. " Well, take this." He " took " it, got it—and was on the staff as long as he cared to stay!
John N. Bogart, eminent as the city editor of the Sun, got his start by applying in writing to Amos J. Cummings and enclosing a photo.
It had been hand-colored and, showed him wearing a red necktie and a green vest. Mr. Cummings thought a man daring enough to be so garbed, and proud of it, would do. He did!
Mr. Cummings, who was himself a master reporter, made his start on the Tribune. He had been one of Walker's filibusters in the last luckless expedition to Nicaragua and then went into the Northern Army, serving through the war. When mustered out he applied to Horace Greeley in person for a job. Mr. Greeley was in a temper and " d—d sick," as he expressed it, of the place-seeking soldiers. He said he couldn't hire the whole blamed army, which seemed to be pestering him for places. Amos persisted, saying he needed work badly. " Show me some good reason! " squeaked the great editor. Amos stepped back, turned about and gracefully parting the tails of his army coat revealed ample evidence for need of employment. He was set, to work and soon had a whole pair of trousers! The greatest assignment ever given a reporter was that curt word of James Gordon Bennett the younger, to Henry M. Stanley: " Go and find Living-stone ! " He went, found him and opened Africa to the world! Stanley's name stands at the head of the legion of newspaper writers. In after years he became very often the pursued instead of the pursuer.
Some short time following his marriage to Miss Dorothy Tennant, an evil rumor reached the Paris Herald that there was some infelicity. It was not true. Stanley and his bride were located at a quiet resort in the Tyrol. Aubrey Stanhope, the best man on the staff, was forthwith hurried away to interrogate the explorer. He knew the temper of the man and was quite aware of the bad taste of his mission. But he obeyed orders and in due season came into the prés ence of Bula Matari. The " Breaker of the Path" was very glad to see him. It was lonely at the hotel, Mrs. Stanley was ill and in retirement. The great man had no one to talk to. For two days he poured out his feelings. Then he said, " I've been very selfish, Stanhope, done all the talking and haven't given you a chance. Come, now, tell me what you are after. Is it Africa?"
Poor Aubrey summoned all his resolution. " No, Mr. Stanley," he said desperately. "It isn't Africa. Do you beat your wife? " Under his breath he added: " Now kill me." He saw Stanley's fingers tighten into the palms of his hands, and prepared for the worst. The fingers relaxed as the explorer gasped: God! I used to do that myself ! "
Resourcefulness is a very necessary reportorial attribute. I know of no better example than one afforded by Henry L. Terry, a very able member of the craft. When night city editor of the New York Recorder, I sent him to Bloomingdale asylum to verify a tip that a patient had been scalded to death an overheated bath. It was nine at night when he reached the asylum, so he was denied admission. Going to another entrance he gave such an effective imitation of an escaped lunatic who wanted to get back that he was admitted, taken to the superintendent and-got the story!
The political reporter has perhaps the most satisfactory assignment and is most likely to earn promotion to the rank of correspondent at the State or the National Capital. His occupation brings him into close contact with men of affairs and is free from the irksomeness of routine.
" Shakspeer," sagely observed Mr. Artemus Ward in his celebrated essay on " Forts " "rote good plase, but he wouldn't have succeeded as a Washington correspondent dent of a New York daily paper. He lack't the rekesit fancy and imagginashun." This is a pretty high tribute, but, jesting aside, the place calls for great talent and usually secures it from the ranks of the working reporters. To know men, politics, government, ambassadors and the complications of parties is to know much and to enjoy the knowledge more !