Side Trail Story
Ben Thomas, the newspaper Editor, came by the old folks home to see me the today. But I was laid up in bed with the rhemuatiz. All that wrestling of broncs and hay, wear out a man’s joints somethin’ fierce. In my time, I owned the Hayseed hotel for horses and out of work cowboys. Horses and mules being my payin’ customers.
Ben really came to see his old boss and friend, Isaiah Franklin, as he had a kid reporter in tow. Ike, as they call him, wheeled himself into my room. “You old Lay-about, Achy-joints don’t slow up yer memories none. Ben here, wants me to reminisce about the Good Old Days. Yuh can help me and fill in some.”
“Hey Joe, ken yuh bring us old boys some coffee? Tellin’ windy’s is thirsty work,” Ike yells as he rolls to the door. “bring yer selfs a cup and sit in, if’n yuh got the time.”
“Joe may be an orderly here in the old folks home but he is looked up to in his community. He may claim to know nothin’ about chess when we invite him to play. But it’s rumored he is a champion player at home,” Ike grins.
“It’s important to have contacts in every corner of the city, Doug, if yuh want a full perspective of a story. You have already met Mr. Chang and Mr. Ortega. A reporter kain’t afford many prejudices,” Ben cautions his young protégé.
Ben starts in, “Alright you old frauds, let me introduce my young friend, Douglas Cannon. Doug’s a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and his uncle sent him out to me. I invited him to work on the newspaper as he has a curiosity bump on his noggin. Part of his fraternal initiation is fer me to drag him around town for introductions to important people, show him the sights, and inflict you old-timers on him.”
“Cussin’ Curtis, here, stretched out in his bed, was the Livery stable owner, back in the day. He knew the coming’s and going’s of folks in the community and fed me news tips as I was selling papers around town. He got his moniker from sweet talkin’ his mules.”
Joe interrupts with the coffee, pours and passes out cups. Then finds a chair by the head of my bed.
“Ike Franklin, was the printer and newspaper editor that gave me my first job in the print shop. Ike don’t have blood; only ink runs in his veins. Ike has seen the changes in the business from his days of pulling the handle on his old Washington Press, turning out a thousand impressions a day. Now-a-days, the new rotary cylinder presses turn out 4,000 impressions a day; Ike has seen the change from handset type cases to the linotype, tripling the amount of type set in a day.”
“These old-boys have seen the changes from kerosene to electric lights, Locomotives have doubled in size, Automobiles are appearing on the roads scaring the buggies and wagons, There’s talk of aero-planes for the future. Printing presses are run by electric motors eliminating all the heavy pulling or foot pumping on a press. They have had to adjust their thinkin’ several times in their lifetimes.”
“Yet, the underlying wisdom of the newspaperin’ business has not changed. Probably never will; people being what they are.”
I warm up to the reminisin’ by starting in on the good mayor and his latest pronouncement. Ike drags President Taft into the conversation. Finally, he gets around to recallin’ his printing days.
“Being a job printer in a small town is an Okay business; turning out the forms, flyers, posters, calling cards and letterhead needed by business, local government, and upper society. It is just a matter of knowing yer type faces and the ability of yer press. Throw in a talent fer good spellin’ and a little artistic talent for making up advertising and yuh got a tidy little business. It’s fairly easy to collect a payment upon delivery of the job.”
“But puttin’ out a weekly newspaper changes everything. Businesses get forgetful about payments fer their advertising. Subscribers makin’ excuses for payment. Or paying in-kind with live chickens, vegetables, sometimes a ham. Talk about eatin’ yer profits,” Ike laughed. “Yuh almost never see a fat frontier newspaper man. ‘Put me in your will,’ was my plea for back payments. Still, it takes considerable cash to run a business and buy the paper and ink needed.”
“Everybody wants a paper but don’t want to pay fer it. Information and news, in most people’s minds, should be free. Seeing as how the printer got it fer free in the first place. And they didn’t ask for your opinion in the second place.”
“Newspaperin’ don’t make you many real friends. The kind of Friends that know you well and don’t care what yer opinion is. They like yer conversation, ‘n how yuh think, and yer cynical outlook on life,” Ike grinned.
“That’s right,” I added. “Ike is a reader. Always reading somthin’. Ben was just a curious little feller. Always askin’ questions, making you think about what you thought you already knew. Me, I’m just a stationary cow-boy. Lucked into a partnership with the old Livery owner. We be three unlikely friends. But our minds enjoy the intellectual challenge from the others.”
Ben laughed, “don’t let ole Curtis buffalo you. He is the thinking-est, broke down cowboy in the city. He jest pretends that ‘Awe shucks, boot shufflin’ in the dust’ act of his. He’s studied human nature up close and can tell ya some things.”
“Back to the readership,” Ike re-directs. “There are the friendly people who love to tell yuh the gossip, or carry tales, or love to see their name in print. These fair-weather friends disappear quickly when-ever there’s a controversy.”
“The rest of the population ken call yuh by yer first name, yer last name, or ‘that Sumbitch’. All depending on what you said in the last issue about them, or if your opinion don’t match their opinion. It is an ever-changing fickle bunch.”
“Aul-ways remember, young Douglas,” I break in. “That those telling you something, have a personal interest in the telling. That interest might be revenge, jealousy, to be moralizing, just to seem important, just to make their position seem important, maybe to increase sales. Rarely, does anybody tell you something because they want to share information, or tell a good story. A good reporter learns to sniff out that motive and to sift out the slant that goes with it. That’s why multiple sources for a story balances out those interests. A single source is more akin to gossip than news.”
“Fer all its glamour,” Ike continues. “A newspaper is still a business; meaning it has Cash Flow, Profits and Losses, Payroll and Expenses. But it’s surprising how much news can be found in the advertising of new products. The salesmen of advertising, pickup lots of news tips as they call on businesses; who’s struggling in business; who’s raking it in, and the why of both. It pays to have friends in the business office.”
“Most of us old printers started out as a one-man shop: having to be the businessman, the salesman, and the production department. It’s gospel ya can’t be good at all three. If’n ya’re lucky, ya married a gal that with good business sense. But as soon as yer profits warrant, ya hire someone to carry the load of the third that ya don’t excel in. However, you keep a close eye on that person.”
“The Press Room is the technical and mechanical side of the business. It don’t hurt none to understand what it takes the printers to put out an issue. It really helps to find out the time and trouble it takes a printer to make a change in your story. Don’t get a reputation fer demanding changes. They got a hard deadline fer putting out an issue. Only the Editor or Publisher ken change that. Slip into their waterin’ hole once in a while and buy a round. Lubricates their good opinion of yuh.”
“The public has an exalted opinion of the newspaper man – wise and full of knowledge on all subjects and conditions. You’ll be breaking that expectation every day of every week. There’s always somebody that knows more than you. They’ll call ya ignorant and worse. Your curiosity is your only defense as you write. Humbleness is your only defense after you are printed. As Mark Twain put it, ‘Know your facts first and then you can distort them as you please.’ Crow when yuh can. Be quick to apologize when you need.”
“Readers expect a nice turn of Phrase. Put some poetry, or romance into the most mundane of topics. The price of hay, for example, may be up or down from last month. But does it smell of springtime? Or musty? Will the mules adore it or abhor it? Will it fatten the critters up or bloat ‘em up? Make it the livery man’s opinion if ya have to, but pretty up yer facts some. The sour, old, crusty editor can always tone it down fer yuh, if he ain’t feelin’ poetical that day.”
“Readers also expect a newspaper to be a Moral Crusader, at least for their pet problems. But hate a Moral Crusader against their pet sins. They expect a newspaperman to be the Conscious of the Community. But not a Community Scold for minor sins and pleasures. And especially not a Community Gossip of social faux pas.
“As such they expect the paper to Uphold Economic Progress if comes with fair wages, fair price, honest quality, honest weight, and fair dealing.
“And Uphold Community Improvement projects but to be against the mis-use of the public treasury, corruption, nepotism, and kickbacks.
They expect Support for Education fer the moral and practical advancement of both the male and female, that they might be productive adults and parents.
Always Support Churches for their preaching of practical righteousness, self-discipline, and practical charity for the poor and misfortunate. Don’t get involved in their theological debates, there are no winners.”
“Readers expect, as Mr. Dooley claimed: “Noospapers exist… to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”
“But be modest in yer proposals. As a young editor, I proposed paving the two streets of town – most of a half-mile. Great idea to eliminate the muddy streets. Great for protecting boots and skirts. Only two problems, the city could not afford it in five years. And they could not afford the street sweepers needed to clear the mud carried on hoofs and wagon wheels after every rain or snow. I had to pull in my horns and confess to my mistake – in print.”
“Reporters are told to ask Who, What, When, Where, and How? Well after that story fiasco, I added to the list, How Much? And What’s the cost?” Ike grinned.
“You ever have to carry a gun as a frontier printer, Mr. Thomas?” Doug asked.
“Twice, I kept a rifle handy to the press and type cases. The first was an Indian scare that never materialized. The second was a rumored bank robbery. They made the attempt, but by the time I got to the street with my rifle, it was all over. Two bodies in the street and two riders headed fer New Mexico.
Third time, I wore a side iron and kept a Greener shotgun under the counter. Sheriff arrested a Mexican vaquero on suspicion of murder of a popular rancher. Lynching was being proposed between drinks in the bars. I printed my opinion of restraint and a fair trial as I knew the evidence was weak. Wrecking my ignorant newspaper was being also being proposed in the bars. Several of us businessmen backed the Sheriff with our guns. The leader of the mob passed out early from too much liquid courage. Towards midnight, others begin drifting to their beds. Things smoldered for a week while the Sheriff worked out the real murderer. Needless to say the vaquero found new territory as quickly as he could, given the community’s unfair feelings. The real murderer was hung after a fair trial. Haven’t felt threatened since then. Not that some men skewered for corruption haven’t threatened me with a duel.
“You ever run short of paper or ink?”
“Yeah, once the weather kept the weekly supply wagon from reaching our mountain community. The train tracks were washed out and then snow blocked the wagon road. I was beginning to eye-ball the stock of pretty wallpaper at the General Store as emergency newsprint. The bars and saloons got up a rescue party to bring in their delayed hooch and with it, my paper supply.
“Joe, you look like you have a thought?” Ben asks.
“Yes Suh, Mr. Ike has covered most everything. I understand, Mr. Ben, you have filler material called Evergreen, those cute quotes or odd facts, for the odd space that occurs now and then. My thought is to add to the Evergreen, Thank You’s to the different City crews, to the Fraternal and to the charity organizations that have care for our city. Fer instance, the City parks crew, water and sewer departments, the garbage men and Sanitation Department that pick up the dead animals off the streets. Or the Odd Fellows Lodge for their support of the old folk’s home here. Or the Sisters of Charity that help the poor widowed mothers. Probably several dozens of folks that could use Thank You recognition. There’s good news all the time that the Paper can recognize with a small story.
“Now there is a brilliant idea for the City Desk,” Ben declares. “Thanks Joe, I think we will do just as you suggest. Write me a memorandum to that effect, Doug, include Joe’s full name. I see what your meaning is, Joe. Instead of a water main broke article, we include a Thank You to the crew that fixed it. Brilliant idea,” Ben nods to Joe. Joe nods in return.
“Well Doug, the dinner bell is ringing for these folk, so we better go find our own dinner,” Ben advises. “It been good to see you old birds. Yuh still got sharp minds and sharper tongues. Keep a look out fer Doug’s byline in the paper. Yuh can add him to yer list of important people to cuss and discuss. I know my ears burn ever-time I leave here.” He laughs going down the hall.