Friday, July 17, 2009

My First Job - Part 3

From the summer of 1973 through the winter of 1974 was a heady time to be in journalism, even small-town journalism. Consider what was happening: the Watergate hearings (“They really tape all the President’s conversations?”), the Yom Kippur War, the first oil embargo against the U.S. (long lines at the gas pump and skyrocketing oil prices), inflation starting to run amok, the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew, the Soviets arresting and then exiling Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn for the publication of The Gulag Archipelago. It was a wild time for the world but a great time to be in journalism (“You, too, can be like Woodward and Bernstein and topple the government”).

I was married in August, and my wife, also a journalist, was hired by the Beaumont Enterprise as a copy editor. That’s right – we worked together, in the same place at the same time doing the same thing – for the next six months. We were now both the kids on the copy desk. And it was extremely convenient for scheduling purposes to have us work on weekends – convenient for everyone else. So the two of us essentially put out the paper, all three editions, for Sunday and Monday. There were two other husband-and-wife teams at the paper – a copy editor and a sport editor, and two reporters – but we were the only one doing the same work side by side.

In spite of me, or really because of her, our marriage survived the experience. She was, and still is, a better editor than I was; I was the writer. But the back shop people still came to me for decisions and fixing things, primarily because I was likely the fastest person they had ever seen on the copy desk – the fastest and the one who made decisions like now. I learned that from Richard, the assistant slot man now decamped for a newspaper in Dallas.

My wife and I adored the back shop people – quiet, capable, competent, good people, with volumes of experience in dealing with lame brained journalists. A balding man name Atch ran the back shop; I can remember many, many times finding Atch quietly standing at my side while I was seated at the copy desk, holding a too-long headline or too-long story, or a page where a copy editor had placed an airplane accident story right above the ad for Delta Air Lines (classic no-no for an editor). If Atch knew the slot man had made the mistake, he’d look at me and give a little nod in the slot man’s direction. That was my clue to follow Atch to the back shop and work the problem out there.

Two other back shop people stand out in my mind. Penny was a thin woman who seemed to move at the speed of light, and spoke at the speed of light. She could also paste up pages at the speed of light. She was wonderful. And then there was Shirley, the methodical and painstaking counterpart to Penny and her speed. Shirley was a man, and Shirley was his first name. His parents should have been arrested for that. He was like that stern, disapproving teacher you had back in third grade, the one who struck fear in everyone, including the good kids.

Everyone on the copy desk feared Shirley. Except my wife. Shirley loved my wife, and he tolerated me because I'd had the good sense to marry her. I don’t know if it was simply personal affinity or she might have been the daughter he never had, but whatever the reason, he’d do anything for her.

It was at the Enterprise that I first encountered the problem that I’ve faced my entire working career: decisions, especially decisions about people, get made too often for the wrong reasons. Decisions about people often have little to do with competence, creativity, performance or potential; too often, they have everything to do with how much someone likes you. I saw it in spades at the newspaper. I was also learning that newspapers were (are) first and foremost a business – which is what they don’t teach you in journalism school. And businesses do things that can shock idealistic young journalists, until they know better.

So when the call came from Shell Oil, thanks to the person I had talked to right before I graduated, I accepted the invitation to interview and later accepted the job. Then and now, some people in journalism consider a move to PR “crossing over to the dark side.” I didn’t. The dark side exists everywhere.

In late February of 1974, at the height of the long, long lines at gas stations, I moved to Houston, followed a couple of weeks later by my wife. But Houston is another story.

I don’t regret a minute of the nine months I spent at the Beaumont Enterprise.


L.L. Barkat said...

"The dark side exists everywhere." Doesn't it though.

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