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The Problem With Journalism

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Hello, Sweetheart, Get Me Rewrite…

"What do you mean, 'How do you spell mangled?'"

A continuing series in which we examine Newspaper Journalism, Old School and notice that the inmates were in charge of the asylum.

I was a few years out of the Army and working at the county hospital when a friend asked if I wanted to become a reporter. Sure, I thought. Why not? Just like that.  So, in 1974, I became a weekend cop reporter for the San Antonio News.

I walked into a the third floor newsroom at the Express-News building for my orientation. It was a sprawling place, littered with desks and people sitting at them, busily pounding typewriters and/or talking on the phone. (Historical note: No computers. No cell phones. No internet. No blogs. And, gasp, no cell phones.)  The job was explained succinctly by the city editor Jay Rogers, an exceedingly tall and impatient man. Check the police incident reports ‘for good stuff.’  Then drive around, monitor the police band and go to newsworthy fires, barroom shootings, and other assorted events of mayhem.

My first night, I rode shotgun with the out-going cop reporter, Sherman, a taciturn, pudgy man who chewed tobacco. He showed me the police press room, a narrow closet with ratty desks and two phones.  It smelled what I later learned was the scent of despair. He showed me where to pick up police reports from a bored sergeant.

‘Most of this shit’s worthless,” he said. We then went to the parking lot. We climbed into a battered boat of a Ford with saggy shocks and indeterminate color that smelled of sweat, fried food and cigarette smoke. It was outfitted with a dizzying  array of squawking radios with blinking lights that monitored police, sheriff, fire calls. A two-way radio linked the car with the City Desk. Voices emerged from the speakers like Donald Duck on meth. The noise was migraine-mean.

My guide Sherman turned toward me. “Don’t touch the fucking radios,” he said. I nodded. We drove off into the night.

That night, we picked up a call for a shooting at a West Side bar. Sherman gunned the Ford toward some darker part of South Zarzamora Street, then pulled up beside a police cruiser outside a tumbling frame  building festooned with Bud and Miller neon signs.  Inside, we found a patrolman, who nodded at Sherman and glared a me holding my genuine Reporter’s Notebook and a pen.

“New guy,” Sherman said. “What do we got?”

We learned that an off-duty sheriff’s deputy had made ill-advised rude comments about another patron’s wife. Said patron then blew the deputy’s life away with a .38.

I furiously scribbled notes. Sherman, however, walked over to the jukebox, inserted a quarter. Shortly, Clapton’s version of  ‘I Shot the Sheriff’ blasted out across the now-empty bar.

Sherman started taking notes. “Now,” he said. “We have a lede.”

Thus was my introduction to Journalism, San Antonio-style.

To be continued:

In future episodes: I move to the newsroom.

‘Drunks in the newsroom? I’m shocked, shocked.’

‘OK, who knew the copy girl was living here?’

‘Give me 10 inches on the Serra Club.’ and many more.

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