Thursday, July 16, 2009

My First Job - Part 2

My first day at the Beaumont, Texas, Enterprise was something of a surprise. I discovered small-town journalism and small-town Texas. Okay, Beaumont wasn’t so small – 120,000 at the time. But it seemed small, and it acted small. The biggest news to hit the city in years was the opening of the new enclosed shopping complex, Parkdale Mall. Every time a new store was announced, a story appeared on the front page of the Enterprise, typically a barely rewritten news release.

I walked in the door and took the elevator to the second floor. The doors opened, and there I was, face to face with the receptionist with the 18-inch high hair, go-go boots and mini-skirt. She glared at me. I explained I was the new copy editor, and she pointed toward the copy desk.

I approached the desk, and the slot man told me to sit at the vacant place. Introductions to the other editors could come later; there was a newspaper to get out. He passed down some typed sheets, told me to edit and write the headlines, specifying the type size. I looked at the copy handed to me by the editor next to me, and realized they were stories for publication in the next day’s East Texas edition. Deadline was 8 p.m. for the East Texas edition, 9 p.m. for the Louisiana edition and 10 p.m. for the home edition. The stories for East Texas and Louisiana were sent in by “stringers,” a group of both professional and amateur reporters.

I got the copy from the amateurs. I think this was my official training for the job. I had to rewrite everything and then track down the stringers to verify the spelling of names and facts and fill holes in the stories. The stringers loved getting calls like that from someone two days out of college.

There wasn’t much conversation at the copy desk, except for the snickers as more stories were passed to me. The slot man sat on one side of a square-shaped configuration. He didn’t talk so much as grunt. Every so often he would erupt into a story about the days when he worked at a real newspaper. There was also an editor for the news from the Austin (state capital) bureau; one who handled obituaries and memorials; one for the second front page; and three general copy editors. A copy girl or boy (local journalism students) would run edited copy and headlines from the copy desk to the back shop, where stories were typed on a rather large computer and then printed for paste-up.

The copy desk staff was, well, colorful. One editor always wore a black velvet cape, even while sitting at the desk. I wondered how he could stand it in the Texas heat, but I don’t think I ever saw him without it. Another usually showed up late, with bloodshot eyes and an unsteady gait. Well, actually two or three might show up that way. Bud’s Bar was right across the street from the newspaper, just down the block from the gay bar that had drag shows on Saturday nights. I discovered that my first Saturday night in town. I came out of the newspaper’s front door about 10:30 to go home, and the street in front of me was filled with what looked like people celebrating Mardi Gras.

Facing the slot man on the other side of the copy desk was the assistant slot man. My spot was next to him. His name was Richard, probably 10 years older than I was. He took me under his wing. It didn’t take long for me to see who really ran the copy desk. The clue was the people from the back shop. They were smart people. Whenever they had a question or needed a decision, they went to Richard.

He was a restless type. He was known for almost annual job changes between the paper in Beaumont and the Port Arthur News, about 30 miles south. One year it was the Enterprise; the next it was the News. And then back again. I caught him for his final two months in the area, though, because he left for Dallas two months after I arrived. But I was grateful for those two months; if there was anyone who trained me, it was Richard. And he did more than that – he took me with him to dinner or we’d sit together in what passed for the newspaper cafeteria. He told me stories about the paper and the staff. He checked my work and showed me how to improve it. And then he left.

Because of the high turnover rate on the copy desk, two months after I’d arrived, I'd taken Richard’s place. The back shop people were coming to me. If a story was too long to fit a page, they'd come to me to trim it. If a headline didn't fit, they brought it to me to rewrite it. I was the kid, but no one seemed to mind. From my first week at the paper until the time I left nine months later, I worked every weekend except the one I got married. There was supposed to be another editor working with me, but it rarely worked out that way that summer. So I had to edit, package and manage three editions of the newspaper on Saturdays and Sundays, with someone to help write obituaries when they were called in.

To recognize my additional responsibilities, I got a $15 a week raise. It was still near-poverty level.

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