A Nose For News
( Originally Published 1913 )
INELEGANT though the expression, a " nose for news," may be, it is certainly comprehensive and self-explanatory, and has become a classic of journalistic slang. Some men have it, and some do not. It is usually born in or on a man, and it can be acquired to some extent ; but many may not hope to become proficient in news-gathering, even though they struggle at it conscientiously and for a lifetime.
The very air is filled with news. It is on every corner waiting for the news-gatherer. It is closeted in every residence, and every business block is filled with it. News does not have to be created ; it is there. It has to be gathered.
Allow me to relate an experience : Many years ago, when I was conducting a daily newspaper, my head news-gatherer attempted to break in a "cub " reporter. He seat the young fellow out onto the street and told him to pick up what he could find. The "cub" reporter returned, discouraged and disconsolate, and without a single item, good, bad, or otherwise. He had hung around corners and visited stores, he had waylaid policemen and had attempted to interview professional men. He was conscientious and earnest, and had done his utmost to accomplish some result.
The head reporter questioned him.
" How did you start in, my boy? " he asked.
" Oh," replied the G° cub " reporter, " I went up to a man and asked him if there was any news today."
" And he said 'No! interj ected the head reporter.
" How did you know it? " inquired the " cub."
" Why," answered the head reporter, " everybody says he hasn't any news, whether he has any or not."
" Oh ! " ejaculated the "cub."
" Come with me," said the head reporter ; and they went out arm in arm.
"We will tackle that fellow over there," said the head reporter.
He addressed him with a hearty " Good-morning."
"Did you leave Greenfield this morning? " inquired the head reporter politely.
"Yep,"' replied the farmer.
"What kind of a corn crop are you going to have?
"Looks as so it was gole ter beat the record," answered the farmer heartily.
" All of you fellers up there are planting corn, ain't yer?" inquired the head reporter.
"Purty much all," answered the farmer. "About how many acres of corn have you?" " Something like a dozen," answered the farmer proudly.
" Well," said the head reporter, "with your ten or twelve acres how many acres in Greenfield are planted with corn? "
" I reckon 'bout seventy-five or so," replied the farmer.
" Everybody been well t p around your place this spring?
" Purty much so," answered the farmer thoughtfully, "'cept Uncle Bill, the chairman of our selectmen, is jest gittin' over pleurisy, and Jim Jones got six bosses down with the epizudy."
Bidding the farmer a cordial good-morning, the head reporter drew the " cub " away.
"Now, my dear boy," he said, "that fellow would have answered 'No' if you had asked him if he had any news, yet he has given us four first-class items. Let's tackle somebody else."
The reporter hailed the postmaster with a hearty " Good-morning, Mr. Smith. How's business? "
" Same as usual," answered the postmaster.
"Of course, I know you fellows don't have a clearance sale," said the head reporter, " but hasn't that new mail-order concern increased your receipts? "
" Oh, yes," replied the postmaster, " last month we received from them, and delivered to them, over seven thousand letters."
The head reporter nudged the " cub " reporter.
"Let's drop into the drug store and get a glass of soda," suggested the head reporter.
While the soap-suds and syrup were being drunk, the head reporter entered into a conversation with the soda-water dispenser, and before he had drained his glass, he had eight items about folks who were sick, three of whom were prominent men, two of them well-known women, and three children belonging to the first families; and yet the drug clerk did not know that he had news upon his person.
" Ah, good-morning, Doctor ! " exclaimed the head reporter, as a prominent physician approached him. " How are things going at the new House of Mercy? "
" Oh," exclaimed the doctor, with emphasis, "we have just received a bequest from the Widow ' Jones of twenty-four thousand dollars, which is going to be used for the new tuberculosis wing."
" Let's call on Lawyer Brief," suggested the head reporter. The Hon. Mr. Brief was a politician and had held several offices. In the course of conversation he gave the reporter more than a dozen first-class items of news concerning local candidates and politicians, including many probabilities or possibilities.
The head reporter approached several others, and in less than half an hour he had obtained over thirty items of news, twenty of which were of some importance, and all of them were worth printing.
I had in my employ, several years ago, a man who obtained double the number of good news items that were brought in by any two, or even three, average reporters, simply because he was a collector of news and knew how to approach peopie.
Of course, when the reporter is assigned to attend a convention or other function, he cannot easily avoid obtaining the necessary news, but unless he has what is known as a " nose for news " he would fail to collect ninety per cent of what is floating in the air about him.
News does not come, as a rule, but it has to be obtained,— sought for, dug for, and worked for.
Ninety per cent of the men and women who ostentatiously claim to have no respect for local items, and who may take pride in openly despising the newspaper, take that stand wholly for effect; when, as a matter of fact, they are habitual readers of even unimportant items, and purchase several copies of every paper mentioning their name or what they have done.
I recall another instance when I was a " cub " 'reporter for a city newspaper. I was librarian of a suburban Sunday-School. The church building was destroyed by fire, but the insurance was sufficient for rebuilding. The building committee had for its chairman a full-blooded, strong, and sturdy business man, who appeared to be devoid of sentiment, and who seemed only to enjoy playing the game of business. I was an ambitious young librarian, and took much pride in my work. I desired to have the shelves enclosed with glass doors. I approached the chair-man.
" Ther hain't goin' ter be no frills he replied,. " IL am goin' ter have a tough job rebuildin' the church with insurance money, and nothin's goin' inter it thet we don't need."
I was discouraged, and naturally unbosomed myself to my city editor, who was a kind-hearted fellow, and who took a fancy to me.
"I'll tell you what to do," he said. "Write up old Meggs. I know him, and although he's always kicking against the newspapers, a complimentary item will please him."
I wrote him up, and said, among other things, that no one but William R. Meggs, Esq. could re-build the church with the limited insurance money. I informed the readers that he was the strongest man on the committee, and that the congregation owed him a great deal of gratitude for the work he was doing.
Among my other duties was that of ushering, and it was necessary for me to arrive early at the building which was used as a temporary church. Old Meggs was there before me. Shaking his fist in my face, he exclaimed,
" Did yer write that item in the 'Tribune'? "
I replied meekly, " Yes."
Again shaking his fist in my face he burst out with, "If I catch you doin' it 'gin, I'll cowhide yer ! "
Silent and trembling I withdrew, and the next day related the instance to my city editor, and incidentally remarked that all hope for getting glass doors had disappeared.
"Well, my boy," said the editor, "if you'll do as I say, I'll get you those glass doors." "It can't be done," I replied soberly.
"Believe me," he said, "and do as I say." " What shall I do? " I inquired feebly. " Write up Old Meggs again."
"Write him up ! " I exclaimed. "He guaranteed to lick me if I ever said anything about him again in the 'Tribune."'
" Rats ! " exclaimed the city editor.
He thought for a moment, and then resumed, " Guess I'll have to write the item myself, because you don't seem to know how to lay it on thick enough."
He composed an item, and handed me the copy of it. The complimentary remarks I had made about Old Meggs paled before his flowery language and superlative expressions.
" Now, so that you can say you wrote it," he said, "you just rewrite it in your own way, but don't eliminate any of the adjectives."
After a while he persuaded me to do so.
With fear and trembling I entered the church on the following Sunday. Old Meggs was there, as usual. He held a copy of the " Tribune " in his hand.
"Did you write that stuff ! " he ejaculated.
Following, instructions, I said, " Yes," and got ready to dodge. Instead of hitting me, a smile played on his face. Reaching out his hand he gave mine a hearty shake.
Well," he replied, "I suppose you fellers have got ter do it, an' we chaps have got ter stan' it. I've been thinkin' 'bout them glass winders, and I've seen the builder, and he said he guessed he could get 'em in some way."
Another incident: A friend of mine, who, at the time, was the editor and proprietor of a high-class local newspaper, refused to carry the amount of local news, or what he considered unimportant news items, against the advice of his subordinates.
Over the coffee-cups we discussed the matter, and I sided with his editors, assuring him that I thought he was pursuing the wrong policy.
After much deep thought, he replied, "I'm beginning to think you're right, and I'll tell you why. My wife and I spent last Sunday at the home of a relative located in a country town. Somebody told us that the village paper had an item about us in it. My wife and I spent thirty minutes hunting for it, and, honestly, my dear fellow, we were disappointed at not; finding it."
It has been said, and with some degree of truth, that the person does not live who does not like to see himself in print, if what is said about him is complimentary, notwithstanding that many people show apparent disgust at unimportant items.
Of course, the great city newspaper cannot refer to many things which would be of interest to the readers of smaller papers, but during the last few years many of the great city dailies have introduced departments, under headings like, " Table Talk," " The Observer,"' " Men and Things," etc., which contain items which are not far removed in character from the local news appearing in the country newspaper.
Therefore, I say to you, if you are considering a journalistic career, and do not have a "nose for news," and cannot grow one after persistent effort, that it will be well for you to reconsider your decision to enter the newspaper business, and take up some other calling.
While the editor himself may not have to practice L° nosing for news," the chances are that his present proficiency and ability to write upon the current events of the day are due, in large measure, to the experience he obtained by gathering news as a reporter.
I would most emphatically advise the would-be journalist, whose ambition it is eventually to occupy the editorial chair, to obtain experience in the reportorial ranks, and to remain several years as a reporter, before attempting to occupy an-other journalistic position.
The editor or reporter, who depends upon what comes to him, is going to be out of material and out of a job.
The efficient journalist goes after things, not necessarily as a reporter, but he is on the alert. He is not merely a storehouse, with many en-trances and few exits ; he collects that he may distribute, and he knows how to get at things as well as to use what he obtains.
While the average literary writer would not make a good journalist, and would hardly succeed as a reporter, the first-class newspaper man, with reportorial experience, may graduate into literature. Many of our best literary writers have served apprenticeship as reporters, and have occupied editorial chairs.
It may be said, subject to exceptions, that the man who does not possess the faculty of obtaining news will not be prolific in gathering material for any literary plot or action, which would be likely to interest the readers of story.
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A Nose For News
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