|My Newspaper Career by Dave Barry '69
I got into newspapering because I was an English major. This meant I had experience writing long, authoritative-sounding essays without any knowledge of my topic, which is of course the essence of journalism.
I wrote my first real newspaper stories for the Haverford News, although perhaps “real” is not the correct adjective for these stories. The way I wrote them was, first, I would get an assignment from the editor, Dennis Stern. For example, in 1968, Dennis assigned me to do a feature on the opening of the Ardmore office of Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign. I accepted this assignment, fully intending to go to Ardmore, in person, and interview real humans. But what with one thing and another, I never made it to Ardmore, which, I should point out in my defense, is located several hundred yards from the Haverford campus, and even farther in cold weather.
So when the deadline arrived, I would sit in my dorm room and pound out a story based loosely on my concept of what I might have found if I had done actual research. I would turn this in to Dennis, who would sigh and print it as a humor column. Dennis later got a job with the New York Times, although I am not saying I should get ALL the credit.
I myself did not wind up at the New York Times. I wound up at a competing newspaper, the Daily Local News of West Chester, Pa. As its name suggests, the Daily Local News covered local news and came out daily, unless you counted Sunday as a day.
The Daily Local News was stricter than the Haverford News about making you physically do your assignments. Thus I spent many hours sitting through municipal meetings wherein local officials would discuss issues such as sewage, zoning, street signs, sewage, budgets, storm drains, and of course sewage—the issues that, although not glamorous, are the “meat and potatoes” of local journalizzzzzzzzzz
Sorry. I nodded off there, as I often did in the meetings I covered. But this did not prevent me from writing massive, fact-filled stories that ran in the Daily Local News, usually under real “grabber” headlines like: BOARD AIRS SEWAGE PLAN. Eventually it began to dawn on me that nobody was reading these stories. For all anyone cared, I could have inserted sex scenes (“Municipal Wastewater Treatment Facility Supervisor Brett Barton moaned as the voluptuous yet buxom female County Commissioner Renee LaSpume gently traced her fingers over his huge, massive, throbbing, LiftMaster 3000 pump, with the fully integrated non-return valve”).
This experience taught me the First Realistic Rule of Journalism, which is:
1. THE FACT THAT JOURNALISTS CONSIDER A STORY IMPORTANT DOES NOT MEAN THE READERS WILL.
A good example is the ongoing crisis in the Middle East, which everyone in journalism agrees is very important, and thus is often the subject of front-page stories, which the vast majority of readers skip over on their way to sports, the crossword, the part where they tell you who Jennifer Lopez is currently married to, etc. A newspaper could identify Jerusalem as the capital of Illinois, and few, if any, readers would notice. But if, God forbid, the same newspaper were to accidentally omit the horoscope, the phones would erupt in a fury of calls from outraged Capricorns, Libras, Neptunes, etc.
Speaking of mistakes: Another thing I’ve learned from my years in the newspaper business is that virtually all stories contain errors. This is because of the Second Realistic Rule of Journalism, which is:
2. REPORTERS NEVER REALLY HEAR WHAT A SOURCE IS SAYING, BECAUSE THEY’RE FRANTICALLY TRYING TO WRITE DOWN WHAT THE SOURCE JUST SAID.
The simple fact is, most people talk much faster than most journalists can write; also, most journalists have terrible penmanship. So we have a lot of trouble getting quotations right. Historians now believe that the newspapermen at Gettysburg seriously misrepresented President Lincoln’s address, which – according to Lincoln’s own recently discovered diary—was about the importance of dental hygiene.
In theory, when reporters make mistakes, they are corrected by editors. But in real life, this often does not happen, because of the Third Realistic Rule of Journalism, which is:
3. EDITORS AND REPORTERS ARE BITTER ENEMIES WHO DO NOT WORK WELL TOGETHER.
Editors hate reporters because reporters sometimes get to leave the newspaper building; whereas editors have to sit front of computers all day and eat cafeteria food often containing hairs that did not originate on the editors. The editors get even with the reporters by ordering them to perform impossible feats of journalism. Like, an editor will notice that it’s Hitler’s birthday, and order a reporter to get a quote from Hitler’s mother. And the reporter, after making a few phone calls, will inform the editor that Hitler’s mother is dead. And the editor will heave a weary sigh, indicating that this is, in the editor’s opinion, a very weak excuse, and then order the reporter to find some experts (editors believe in experts) to find out what Hitler’s mother might have said, if she were still alive. And the reporter, bitter and resentful, will get some college professor, somewhere, to say something (professors will talk about anything) regarding Hitler’s mother, and of course whatever it is will be quoted incorrectly in the paper.
Don’t misunderstand me: I love the newspaper business. It has enabled me to go for decades without a real job. For the last 20 years I’ve been at the Miami Herald, which covers one of the weirdest regions in the galaxy. The Herald is actually a fine paper, although it really doesn’t matter if we report the news of South Florida accurately or not, because nobody will believe it anyway.
Of course, I don’t have to worry about accuracy, because years ago I stopped pretending to be a real journalist. Now I openly make everything up, as I learned to do many years ago, at Haverford. So don’t try to tell ME that a liberal-arts degree has no value.