Thursday, February 26, 2009

Lessons from My Reporting Days - Times Are Tough But Now We Have Cell Phones

(Thanks for Erik for jarring loose a little piece of my memory with his post about Shirley Chisholm.)

I got to meet a lot of famous people when I was a kid reporter thanks to the lecture series at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, LA. That's the town where they filmed Steel Magnolias, and it was about an hour-and-a-half from Alexandria, where the newspaper where I worked was based.

Sometimes I forget how fortunate I was as a kid reporter. Job paid bubkus, but I got exposed to great people, David McCullough, Robert Ballard and Wendy Wasserstein to name a few.

I also got to interview Shirley Chisholm. It was kind of exciting when I drew the assignment because we'd studied her in school as the first black woman elected to Congress. This was a long time ago, not long after she'd wrapped up her her Congressional service. In her lecture she spoke of that election and of her efforts to get a meaningful committee assignment when she took office.

In the mini-press conference afterwards, I asked if she had thoughts about something or other the Reagan administration was doing at the time, an almost naive query since I was wet behind the ears. She gave me a knowing smile, an "Have-I-got-any-thoughts-about-that!" smile, and discussed the policies of the day for a while.

Filing a story on the road was a little bit of an adventure in those days. Only the government had the internet. We had some Radio Shack computers with acoustic couplers that I may have mentioned here at time or two. In a hurry, it was easier to write long hand and file from a pay phone.

After the press conference, the photographer and I pulled into a McDonald's on the portion of Louisiana's Highway 1 that briefly becomes the main drag in Natchitoches or did in those days. We didn't have Interstate Highway 49 then either.

Through whatever voodoo of publishing we could manage back then, somehow it was possible to write the story, file it by phone to get it edited and the layout started and then drive like a Meatloaf album back to the paper to process the film. We didn't have digital cameras either.

While Lee, the photographer, drummed his fingers on the steering wheel, I scribbled on a yellow legal pad, referring to my reporter's note pad, relying on my memory and generally struggling to put together about 11 column inches in slightly more than 11 minutes. How easy we have it writing now. Word, keyboards. Child's play.

While I worked, some guys pulled up in a pickup truck. I kept scribbling. Lee, finding what they were up to more interesting that watching me produce brilliant event coverage, started staring out the window.

"Oh wow, they've got a rattlesnake out there," he said.

I didn't look up, couldn't, but he gave me a play-by-play of these kids who had a rattlesnake the size of the Buick in the bed of an old Ford pickup. The snake was dead, but that didn't stop everyone from gawking at it.

Eventually I finished my story and went to the pay telephone. Cell phones? I mentioned this was the '80s, right? Cell phones were science fiction.

The phone was outside the McDonald's.

So I called up the paper, and they put someone on the phone to type what I read. In some circles they call that catching. We never had a term for it other than getting stuck on the bleepin' phone with some jackass in the field.

I started reading, on a pay phone, outside a McDonald's on what was then one of the major North-South highways in the state, while a parking lot of teen agers took turns scaring each other with a dead rattlesnake.

"Former Congressman Shirley Chisholm discussed...."


"Watch out they can still bite after they're dead."

"She expressed deep dismay with..."


"It moved. Did you see it move?"

Whonk, whonk.


"In other remarks, the Congresswoman..."

"Get it away, get it away!"

Man I hate to see newspapers die.


Charles Gramlich said...

Man, it's like you were alive in the STone age or something.

Lol, this was pretty hilarious, and a real lesson in how things change.

Sidney said...

Thanks, Charles. Yeah, a while ago, but in "memory yet green."

Erik Donald France said...

Absolutely wonderful post.

Seems like yesterday to me, those times and methods.

Leon said...

Thanks for some old memories. I first met Shirley Chisholm when she arrived in Albany as a new member of the New York State Assembly. I was a young professor at SUNY Albany's Graduate School of Public Affairs. Whenever I would read about her as her career spiraled upward, I would see her once again in a bullpen like office high up the the Capitol building which she shared with all the newly elected legislators. It's a very good memory. :~D

Lana Gramlich said...

Funny how some things really do change while (at the same time,) other things really do NOT.

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