“You mean you’re a city editor—just like Lou Grant on TV? A lady city editor?”
My visitor’s eyes were disbelieving and challenging.
I couldn’t deny it. Just like Lou Grant. Thankfully, without a “Rossi” or an “Animal” to plague my days.
It is unusually, I’ll admit, for a fair-sized daily newspaper in a community of 140,000 to have a woman city editor. I’m the first in my newspaper’s 75-year history. Hopefully, I won’t be the last.
As a city editor—“like Lou Grant”—I’m disturbed about the public’s image of newspaper reporters and editors. People can’t forget Hildy Johnson or lose their notion of newspaper work as a glamorous occupation dotted with flamboyant reporters who wear press cards in their hats, have a flask in the hip pocket, and dash in with a shout, “STOP THE PRESSES!”
When movie star Jack Webb announced a few years ago that he was going to produce a movie, “-30-“ that would portray the modern newspaper reporter the way he is in real life, I was delighted. Then I saw the movie, which began with a scene in which the copy boy was playing bongo drums in the society department.
Reporters on my newspaper are sober, industrious, churchgoing taxpayers, with mostly sensible working hours just like normal people. They work with computers and typewriters. Most of the time they spend their leisure time watching television, just like everyone else. (Sometimes they even watch Lou Grant on TV.)
While their working lives occasionally are glamorous and exciting, most of the time they write about Eagle Scouts, the weather, the Legislature or the gasoline shortage. The exciting times admittedly, make up for the routine ones.
Of course, being a veteran of 21 years in the newsroom of The Topeka State Journal, I must confess we have had a few personnel at time who are a bit flashy and not exactly your run-of-the-mill average citizen.
We had one city editor-a big, burly colonel in the National Guard reserves—who was happiest when the news was crowding in on him and at those times would burst out with a loud chorus of “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam.”
Then there was the city editor who loved it when things went well and the paper got out on time. A former GI bugler, he’d pull out a small toy bugle from his bottom desk drawer and blow “taps” after deadline.
A husky former sports editor always went out to lunch wearing a green velvet beret. Tough as most of us were, we didn’t have the raw courage to ask, “Why are you wearing that green velvet beret?”
I can’t deny some of the women in our newsroom got their kicks in unusual ways. One, a military affairs reporter, loved to cover the National Spelling Bee in Washington every year. That gave her the chance to put the kid on a sightseeing bus and then could go to the Pentagon, where she put the fear of God into a gaggle of generals. This same woman, one dull night in the newsroom, thought it might be fun to get a telephone interview with Khrushchev, and actually got as far as the Kremlin before she got stopped. That was the month the publisher went into shock when he got his telephone bill.
An 80-year-old woman reporter wrote that Eleanor Roosevelt held open the door of a pay rest room at an airport, saving her a dime. This reporter included in her column a once-a-year list of her pet peeves, among them “ruffled nylon toilet seat covers, which make me think I’ve mistakenly sat down on the lap of a ballerina.”
We once had a reporter who dreamed up a scheme of having news stories delivered to the newsroom from a remote military encampment bt carrier pigeon. Unfortunately he placed the message band too tightly around the pigeon’s foot, and the poor bird—unable to fly—had to walk home.
This same reporter used to balance a camera half on and half off a desk, giving heart failure to all who saw it; had one door of his car wired permanently shut because the latch was broken; called the city editor once to report he couldn’t cover a meeting because he had backed into a freshly made lawn and got stick; wired for some more expense money from a foreign country, although he never did file a story from there.
The executive editor suggested gently to this young man there was some other occupation at which he could excel.
Then there was the outdoors editor who rescued an injured hawk from a tall tower by climbing outside a window onto a ledge. He called the Fish and Game office and was told to take the hawk back into the newsroom, where it would be picked up.
He came strolling into the newsroom, the truculent hawk safely in a burlap bag with air holes, and deposited it in a wastebasket in the sports department.
Soon afterward a woman walked up to the city desk, amid raucous screams from the hawk.
Timidly the woman asked the city editor, “What’s that?”
“Oh,” he said, waving his arm airily towards the sports department, “that’s just the hawk—the hawk in the wastebasket,” just as though every newsroom is equipped with one.
One city editor, when the newspaper moved to a new building, became bugged when reporters would lift the hinged wooden lids over the wire machine and then absentmindedly let them crash back down when they finished reading a story.
Patiently the city editor reminded them several times, “Don’t bang those lids.” But the noise continued throughout the first week. Then his criticism became harsher, delivered with a bleak look.
At last came the day of reckoning.
The city editor, his back to the machines, stiffened. Wrathfully he slammed his fist on the desk.
There -–with a guilty look on his face and still touching the wooden lid—stood the publisher.
The city editor gulped, then meekly swung his chair around and went back to work.
Another city editor had his moments, too, with the publisher. For 12 years the city editor had collected photographs of beautiful women in swimming suits and keeping them at the bottom of the copy basket. He’d rotate the pictures, so he could see a different beauty each day, whenever he’d get the copy basket emptied of stories.
(Once a reporter sneaked in a picture of Whistler's Mother down in the stack. The reporter waited with a secret grin for Ma Whistler to show up and for the city editor to hit the roof. She did—and he did!)
The elderly publisher, always businesslike, didn’t know about the photo collection, and the staff wasn’t sure how he would react to it.
One morning the city editor, working on a piece of copy, suddenly became aware the publisher was standing beside his desk. The copy basket was temporarily empty, and the photo collection was in full sight. The city editor froze—and others in the newsroom felt the contagious stillness.
The publisher, without a word, began to leaf through the girly collection. After what seemed to be an interminable period, he handed the city editor a picture of a girl in a bikini and said, deadpan, “This one has a pretty face!” Then he calmly trotted back to his office.
I can’t deny there have been some memorable copy boys and girls in our newsroom. Two later became assistant city editors.
Old timers remember the time the publisher was denied a copy of his own newspaper by a copy girl delivering a limited number of first editions just off the press. It was her first day, and no one had ever pointed out the publisher to her.
Although he normally got his paper in his office, he happened to be in the newsroom and walked up to the girl and asked for one.
“No,” she said firmly, “only people on the list get one.” Then she strode away.
He stood there a moment, a bemused look on his face. The newsroom awaited an explosion. But it didn’t come. Instead he headed back to his office, where a few minutes later she delivered a copy of the paper.
Apparently his reasoning was that if she didn’t give him—a stranger—a paper, she wouldn’t give one to any unauthorized person. She was doing her job, and he approved of that.
Another copy girl, however, didn’t make it in the newspaper world. Whenever she got tired of delivering copy to the composing room upstairs, she’d just open the door to the elevator shaft and dump it. Took awhile to find out why stories were disappearing.
The ancient, creaky elevator in the newspaper’s former building was the source of a plot by the Living Department woman editor. She was blessed with more than her share of angry and demanding women, and used to say, darkly, after a hectic session, “Oh, well, she goes into the elevator.”
This went on for several weeks until one mystified reporter finally asked, “What’s this with the elevator?” Then the newsroom editor learned the editor was making up a list of unreasonable women, all of whom she planned to make sure were on the elevator the day it fell.
Unfortunately for her plans, the building was torn down before that day came.
Then there was the city hall reporter who sneaked off his beat one day to fly his personal plane along the fallen Kansas Avenue Bridge to see if he could spot a car that supposedly had gone down with the bridge. He wasn’t watching closely and narrowly missed flying into some power lines, forcing a landing in a corn field. This brought him to the attention of the city editor (who was listening to a police radio account of the accident), thought the name of the pilot seemed strangely familiar.
The public, when it talks about unusual reporters and editors, should also consider that some its members are a bit strange. To name only a few, there was the woman who came into the newsroom carrying a small piece of flannel, declaring it exactly matched the pajamas President Eisenhower was wearing in a photograph in that morning’s newspaper; the caller who wanted a street map of Havana, Cuba; and the man who called in the midst of a multi-county tornado warning, with seven funnels aloft and residents cowering in their basements, to ask the city editor to send a photographer to his house to take a picture of his Night Blooming Cereus.
Law enforcement officers, too, as news sources, have their strange ways, when it’s a dull day and they’re in a good mood.
Once a woman called me to report she had seen a convoy of cars carrying Indians, driving through the city. “What’s that all about?” she asked.
I didn’t know of any special Indian activities, so I told her I’d check.
First I called the police department.
“Indians, Ma’am?” the dispatcher asked. “What kind of Indians?”
I didn’t know whether they were Sioux or Cherokees or what, I told him.
“You mean real Indians?” he asked, in mock fear. “With feathers and tomahawks and war paint? Maybe we’ll all get scalped in our beds tonight.”
Then, with a spark of genius he remembered the current feud with the sheriff’s officers, so he suggested, “Ma’am, why don’t you try the sheriff’s office? They know all about Indians over there.”
by Stannie Anderson, 1978
Life at our Newspaper