The key to a successful newspaper

Published 7:30 am Saturday, June 25, 2022

“Uh Sir,” a trembling young man addressed a newspaper editor.

“Well, what do you want? Make it short, I’m busy,” the grizzled old man with a cigar hanging from his mouth answered.

“Uh, yes Sir. I’d like some advice on how to run a newspaper.”

The editor leaned back in his chair and adjusted his tie. “You’ve come to the wrong person, son. Ask my subscribers.”

The editor-publisher wore a bowtie, smoked a cigar in his cluttered office, couldn’t hear very well and was adept at making ball park estimates on the number of people who attended various community events. I had never been in a newspaper office until a couple of days before I started work there. The editor took my husband and I on a tour of the plant after everyone had gone home. He explained that they used hot metal and at first sight what I thought of as a black monster. It was a linotype machine where skilled operator’s fingers fairly flew over it to produce its work. Accuracy was so important, because when errors occurred, the operator had to get up and make corrections. Sometimes we heard the operator muttering words you do not hear in Sunday school. I realized the two operators had a frustrating job. I found out why they sometimes got pretty grumpy. The editor often turned in copy for the editorial page at the zero hour. That meant the operator had all that copy to set after 6 p.m. on press day.

Along with several others, I typed copy on a special typewriter. It punched little holes in rolls of tape. Then the tape was removed to another typewriter that printed it on paper. Every day or two several of us gathered at a table to proofread our work. It was then corrected and edited for publication.

It wasn’t long before Mr. Editor tapped me for the job of Dictaphone operator. I hated that machine. I think it was older than me. Because of his hearing problem, Mr. Editor shouted out his stories into the instrument, puffed and coughed. There were times when he forgot to turn it off when he spoke to somebody else or on the telephone, all of which went in my ears. I spent most of my time in front of that Dictaphone machine, backing it up, adjusting the volume, or straining my ears trying to interpret words muffled by the cigar. After a couple of days, with that machine, I told my husband we would have starved if we had to depend on me to make a living. I was so happy when that job was passed to someone else.

I had always wanted to write, but it was only after a new editor took over did I muster enough courage to ask if he would consider my writing. He read a short essay I handed him. He loaded me down with a heavy camera, spent about five minutes telling me how to operate it and assigned me a story. I threw my heart into it and have been writing a weekly column since the late 1970s.

After working for newspapers so long, I have learned the answer the editor gave the trembling young prospective reporter is so true: “Ask the subscribers,” he said.