The short answer is: I wanted to be, but I screwed it up, so I couldn’t be.
Discovering journalism in college saved me. At the time (1976) I was on a track that would have led to an assistant manager’s job at an Applebees. Seriously: I was a business management major at SUNY Buffalo, living at my mother’s house to save money, working nights and weekends at a banquet hall as a busboy, and without any passions other than playing pick-up basketball in four different gyms four nights a week, despite the fact that I wasn’t even good enough to make my high school team. I had no ambition because I didn’t know how to have an ambition. I wasn’t excited about learning and didn’t know what I was good at.
But then I walked into the college newspaper with a good story, and the editor who happened to be there, Brett Kline, said, “why don’t you write about it?” So I did. My piece was published, I got bitten by the journalism bug, and within six months I was special features editor of The Spectrum, then managing editor. In the spring of 1978 I was elected editor-in-chief for the following academic year. I was also a columnist. I rarely went to class. I was learning too much to stop and do that.
It was in the spring of 1977 that I decided that I wanted to become a professional journalist– a political reporter. Basically I wanted to be Johnny Apple, the legendary correspondent for the New York Times, who seemed to be on the front page every other morning. In those days the way you got to be a correspondent for the New York Times or the Washington Post was by 1.) rising in the hierarchy at your college newspaper, or going to a decent J-school; 2.) grabbing an internship at the biggest metro daily you could talk your way onto; 3.) doing well enough in the assignments you were given to get hired at that newspaper or a comparable one in your region; 4.) generating the “clips” (copies of your by-lined articles) that would allow you to jump in a year or two from Buffalo, Columbus, Birmingham or Norfolk to, say, Philadelphia, Boston, Atlanta or Baltimore; 5.) repeating step 4.) until you had the clips to get hired by the Post or the Times, which could take many years; and 6.) starting on the metro desk in New York or Washington until you got the call to report on the statehouse or the national scene.
That’s where Woodward and Bernstein were when they stumbled onto Watergate: the metro desk. Howard Kurtz had been editor of The Spectrum a few years before me, and he made it to a national beat at the Washington Post. Ron Brownstein was editor of The Pipe Dream at SUNY Binghamton the same year I was editor at SUNY BUffalo. He became one of the top political reporters in Washington. It would not be easy, but my plan was at least plausible. And plausible was better than Applebees.
Having succeeded at step 1.) in the summer of 1978 I went on to step 2.) That is, I persuaded the Buffalo Courier-Express, the morning daily in town, to hire me as a summer “replacement reporter.” This title referred to a provision of the union contract. It meant you filled in on any desk that was short handed because of summer vacations. Perfect for a young reporter because you got experience with a range of stories. I covered town board meetings, phoning in four paragraphs from the field that ran the next day. I did time on the business desk, reporting on local companies. I covered the auto show at Eastern Hills Mall, a 4th of July parade on Hertel Avenue, the fears of homeowners in the Love Canal section of Niagara Falls, who were living on land that had been a toxic waste dump.
When an old hospital closed and a new one opened, a special unit of the Army that specialized in medical evacuations came in to move the sickest patients. They sent me to cover that. I returned during winter break to fill in for reporters taking time off, and I covered the scene at a homeless shelter on Christmas Eve and kids stuck in the hospital on Christmas Day. I also worked the night police beat, which meant phoning around to all the local police departments: “Courier Express calling; anything happening?” Ninety-nine percent of the time, the reply would be, “Nah, it’s quiet,” or “Nah, pretty quiet.” Always the same words, always the same tone.
One night the officer on duty in Hamburg, NY startled me when he said, “Well, we got this kidnapping thing….” Breaking news! I sprung into action, not knowing that 99 percent of the time a “kidnapping thing” is really a marital dispute that involves custody of a child. That was the case in Hamburg, but it was still news and the night editor wanted an item in the paper next day. We had about 20 minutes to deadline, so as I completed each sentence he took it out of my typewriter for editing, then sent it along to the composing room. I hung around making some calls for a follow-up story the next day and when I left the office at around midnight, I saw the papers rolling off the big presses with my little kidnapping thing on the front page.
That was magical.
Which is to say that I did catch some of the romance of newspaper journalism. The newsroom of the Courier Express was not that far removed from the classic imagery found in the great newspaper movies of the 1930s and 1940s, like The Front Page (1931) or His Girl Friday (1940). We banged away on dirty typewriters, writing in triplicate on carbon paper. People smoked and swore in the newsroom. The grime from the ink on the presses got over everything in the building. There was a crusty old city editor named Jim Cleary from central casting. He didn’t like fancy writing. And we were always in a war with the Buffalo Evening News, the richer, more staid and more establishment paper.
Douglas Turner and me
The editor of the Courier-Express was Douglas Turner, a volatile man with a booming voice who took an initial liking to me because I could write what was called a “feature lede.” My stories brightened up the prose of the paper. I did well as a replacement reporter, with more than ten front page stories. So well that Turner wanted me to stay on, quit school, and keep working for the Courier-Express after my summer turn was over. He was offering me a full-time job. But I couldn’t accept it, first because I had been elected editor of The Spectrum and that promised to be a blast; second because I couldn’t imagine explaining to my (Jewish) mother that I was quitting college to run away with the journalism circus. So I said no. I’m sorry. I can’t.
I was surprised and relieved when Turner accepted that decision with a minimum of fuss and offered me the same job, but to start in May 1979, after I graduated. Now I could finish my degree, have fun running the college newspaper and keep writing my column. Plus I had a guaranteed job that would put me me on step 3.) along my path to becoming Johnny Apple. Turner understood the plan. He said he didn’t expect me to be in Buffalo long, maybe two or three years, but that it was a good place to get basic training.
Around January 1979 I started to wonder if I had made the right choice. I had taken the first job offered me. Was that wise? How did I know that Buffalo was the biggest market where I could hope to land a reporting position? I hadn’t even looked around. So I decided to at least look. The way you did that back then was to scan the ads that ran in Editor and Publisher, the leading trade journal for the newspaper industry. I didn’t see much that I was qualified for, but there was one position I thought was a possible match: “Northeast Daily: General Assignment Reporter.” One to two years experience… good clips… strong writing skills. With a little stretching (I had only four months experience) I could claim to be a sound candidate. So I applied. But I wasn’t disappointed when I heard nothing back. I could tell myself I had looked for a job. The Courier Express it would be! Which beat would they give me?
“You’ll have to sue me to find out.”
In April I was supposed to contact Doug Turner about a starting date. I did so by calling his office. He wasn’t in and didn’t return my call. I called him again. No call back. I called him a third time. Nothing. Thinking he was too busy to answer his phone, I wrote him a note. He didn’t reply to my note. I wrote him a second note. Again, no reply. Now it’s mid-May and I have graduated from college. Turner ignored my third note, too. But why? In my desperation and confusion I went down to the newspaper and headed straight to his office.
“Do you remember me? You wanted me to quit school and come to work for you. You promised me a job after graduation. Now you won’t even talk to me… What is going on here?”
Turner wouldn’t look directly at me. He said, “There’s an explanation, but you’ll have to sue me to find out.” Then he picked up the phone and had the security guard escort me from the building. As the guard marched me downstairs and showed me to the door I formed a distinct impression that I would never work for the Courier Express. And I never did.
Lurid fantasies flooded my mind. Did I have enemies in town? Had there been a whispering campaign? Was there a background check that found something… distasteful? I had no clue, but I did know that my journalism career was in peril. The major argument for why I deserved a job was my experience at the Courier Express, but the editor who had been responsible for giving me that shot now saw me as some sort of undesirable, for reasons I could not detect.
Birth of a media critic
That wasn’t the only strange thing that happened to me in Buffalo. As an editor at The Spectrum, I reported on a lawsuit the Courier-Express had filed against the Buffalo Evening News, charging anti-competitive practices. (A desperate move.) Some of the people who talked to me were anonymous sources at the two newspapers. One day there was knock on my apartment door and I was served with a subpoena. To my astonishment it was from attorneys for the Evening News. They intended to find out who my sources were, because they thought it could help their case.
In 1978, Myron Farber, a reporter for The New York Times, served jail time for refusing to identify a source. That case was in the news when my subpoena arrived. Here was a newspaper threatening a student journalist with contempt of court if he didn’t reveal his sources. Extraordinary! I consulted with some law professors at SUNY Buffalo, and they assured me they would take the case pro bono if the Evening News actually tried to force me to reveal my sources. But I had to go to the deposition alone. I was 21.
The attorney for the News asked me multiple questions trying to get me to name names, but I refused. He said I could face jail time and a fine. I told him I had gone to the library and found editorials the Buffalo Evening News had written about the Myron Farber case; they came out very strongly for the rights of reporters to protect their sources. Why the change of heart? I said. The attorney for the Courier-Express smiled. Despite the threats, I never heard a thing after I refused to cooperate. But as a result of that incident there was no way I could beg the Buffalo Evening News for a job after my fiasco with the Courier-Express.
I left town with the Doug Turner mystery unsolved and resumed my restaurant career in Washington, DC. My plan was to freelance some pieces and perhaps get back in the game that way. It didn’t go very well. But in January of 1980, I read an article in The Nation magazine by Neil Postman, a media critic and professor at NYU. It was called “The Metaphor in the Machine.” Postman argued that when we look at communications technologies we should realize that they are not just “neutral conveyances but active participants in how we see and what we think.” I was taken with this idea and with the author’s bio. “Neil Postman teaches in the Media Ecology Program at New York University.”
I had never heard the term–media ecology–but I understood instantly what it meant. Postman seemed to know something I now wanted to know: how to study media for a living. This became my new ambition. The next day I took the train to New York to meet him. I enrolled in his graduate program in the fall of 1980 and eventually got a PhD, returning to journalism as a scholar and press critic. (And I later wrote for The Nation.) So it all worked out in the end. I never sued Douglas Turner. I never worked again as a journalist.
The mystery is resolved
A few years later, through a friend who had a friend who worked at the Courier-Express, the mystery was solved. My case was a newsroom legend. It turns out that the job I had applied for, “Northeast Daily: General Assignment Reporter…” was for an opening at the Courier-Express. Yes. But I didn’t know this because in the standard format for those ads the newspaper was never named. You applied to a box number. The employer was described vaguely. What you were supposed to do is write on the envelope, “Do not forward to the Dayton Daily News” if you worked at the Dayton Daily News and didn’t want your boss to know you were on the prowl for something better. But I didn’t know any of that.
Not only had I stupidly applied to the newspaper that had already offered me a job, but it was my job they were advertising in Editor and Publisher! Yes. Turner had to post the opening to fulfill legal requirements; in reality he had reserved that slot for me. When he got my application he obviously considered it an act of disloyalty, and that’s why he ceased all communication. So I lost my job by applying for my job. And that was the (slightly) kafkaesque turn that ended my newsroom career.
Almost thirty years later, after something I had written got noticed by Jim Romenesko (the blogger and ex-newspaper man whose site at Poynter.org is watched by almost everyone in daily journalism) I got an email from Doug Turner. He didn’t seem to remember our history together. The Courier Express was sold in August 1979 and it folded in 1982; like most cities Buffalo turned into a one-newspaper town. Turner became the Washington bureau chief for the Buffalo News (now owned by Warren Buffet) and he just wanted to trade some ideas with me.
Since I had his email address, I sent him a draft copy of this post to see if I could jog his memory and get some answers. My questions were three: did he remember any of this? Was there anything that needed correction or additional context? And finally… why? (Meaning: Why had he reacted that way?) Yesterday he replied. This is what he said, in its entirety.
It was nice of you to send this to me.
Maybe in a few days my memory will be jogged more than it is now. Your excerpt raises some very unpleasant memories of the spring of 1979 and so I am going to ruminate a bit.
We’re both aware fortunately that the events you describe happened more than 30 years ago. I wish that my recollection of my conversations with interns such as yourself was as firm as those with whom I worked closely for a year or two. Yet “sue me for it” does sound like me in those days.
By 1979 almost every hiring decision in the newsroom was handled by Assistant Managing Editor Donald Barry. I delegated to him almost all hiring, labor relations, budgeting and other administrative issues after he had suffered a severe heart attack when was doing an able job as chief city editor. Even though it was widely known the paper was losing money, Barry was able to bring in a squad of disaffected folks from the Gannett system, experienced able journalists from journalism schools. One of his hires was Carol Stevens, now one of the top editors at USAToday.
I did the hiring in the early 70s and recruited folks like Michael Hiltzik, Jo-Anne Armao and Tom Toles. And I do recall offering Howard Kurtz a job.
By the spring of 1979, the newsroom was in great turmoil with rumors circulating that the paper had been sold to Cowles Media (I think it was then called Minneapolis Star-Tribune Co.) and members of our owner Conners family denying it. I first heard about the rumor in March, 1979. After Cowles bought it, they imposed a hiring freeze for a time.
I am of course in no position to refute any of your recollection of events, but in any case I would have done then what Don Barry advised me to do. I do recall that he and I believed that it would be irresponsible to bring any career applicant into such an environment of flux, maybe even hazard, nor did we dare speak of the reasons for fear that our discussing a possible sale — when our then present owners were furiously denying it — would soon cost us our own jobs.
Don Barry would have been responsible for placing the ad — probably in E&P — and he would have been the person screening the applications. I am sorry that you were escorted from the building, but I don’t recall it. I don’t remember calling security on that or any other occasion; perhaps Don did, or my secretary did.
You as a student of our business (former business?) are familiar with stories of the tensions surrounding the closing, sale or down sizing of newspapers and can understand the emotions that erupt in those circumstances.
Yours is an interesting anecdote. But you made out well, as I did after being suddenly “shot” and sent to Washington in 1981. Good luck with this exercise, and you are, as I said above, good to share it with me prior to publication. It being your blog, it is up to you whether to include any of my comments in it. Good hearing from you again.
So there you have it: why I am not journalist, even though I wanted to be.
Look: I was young, I was ignorant, and I didn’t have anyone to consult who could warn me away from the mistake I made. You could say I had bad luck, but I have never seen it that way. I got out of Buffalo and made it to Manhattan. I now have a great job. I contribute to journalism in my own way. And the Church of the Savvy probably would have expelled me in due course.
Correction: A reader alerted me that I had the title of Neil Postman’s 1980 article wrong. So I corrected that section and added a proper quote from the article.
If you haven’t seen it yet, you might be interested in The Journalists Formerly Known as the Media: My Advice to the Next Generation.