Monday, December 6, 2010
The Book Bob Never Wrote
From May 1974 until December 1979—precisely the violent years that David Cox focuses on in his book—I had the privilege of learning my craft as a writer and journalist from Bob Cox. In fact, in my early days as a newsman, back when it still embarrassed me that I had never managed to find the time or money to complete a college education, when somebody asked where I had gone to “J-school”, I would say, “Cox-Herald.” And when they said, “Huh, never heard of it,” I would just shrug and raise my eyebrows knowingly, as if to say, “Your loss!”
I recall that when I had worked for the paper for a little over a year and began to feel I was becoming a real newsman, we received a high-flying intern who was placed with me on the night desk editing international news. I immediately felt threatened since the guy had a degree (from the Columbia School of Journalism, if memory serves) and his father was a ranking editor at a major U.S. paper, as well as being a personal friend of Bob’s. To make matters worse, we were kind of left to our own devices, to sort out who was going to run the show on the international desk.
In the end, that part of it seemed to work out brilliantly. Since Bob refused to discuss the matter with either of us, (“It doesn’t really matter, does it? Just get to work and turn the bloody paper out!”) we reached a truce and simply shared the desk. I benefited from his superior education (significantly improving my technical knowledge of news-handling), and he benefited from my greater knowledge of the local scene, the local language and the workings of the printshop. Moreover, left to work things out on our own, we began to get quite bold and creative with layout and headlines, like two rival soda jerks, seeing who could out-do the other making the most elaborate of ice-cream sundaes. Granted, at times, we carried this to extremes: The ever conservative, ever droll Basil Thomson—the Herald’s brilliant humorist and then-chairman of the board—once quipped when we arrogantly asked what he thought of the changes we were making in the front-page layout: “Sometimes it’s difficult to finish breakfast after seeing it.”
Anyway, one night this fellow and I were having one of our frequent arguments over idiotic issues. This time it was about which knowledge was more useful to a newsman, classroom hours or hours wearing out shoe-leather on the street. I had some good defensive arguments and was sort of getting the upper hand when Bob walked into our cubicle, absorbed, as usual, in making final penciled corrections to his editorial as he walked. So this guy decides to engage Bob in our discussion and shut me up.
“I’ll bet Bob has a journalism degree, don’t you, Bob?” he says. “Uh, Bob…don’t you?”
Bob was holding a page against the wall with his left hand while he wrote in a correction with his right, and now he looked away from his work at us as if we had just awakened him from a sound sleep and said, “What?”
“J-school,” says the intern.
“What about it?”
“You went, right?”
Bob looked at him, then at me, then back at him and, handing me his editorial to put into the out-basket for the shop, said: “Most places I’ve worked, if you had a journalism degree, you didn’t talk about it.”
The discussion ended there and neither of us ever brought it up again. And from then on, we were almost chummy.
I’ve talked here before about how Bob and I met, about how I almost literally besieged him for months on end until he finally hired me to work for the Herald. What I neglected to say was that about ten years ago, when he and I spent an evening reminiscing at his home in
, after not seeing each other for two decades, I reminded him of this and asked if he remembered how obnoxious I had been. To my surprise, he told me that he had sometimes used me and my hounding him as an example of the dogged persistence a journalist needed to have. I felt honored, since before that, I had frequently thought back to that time with a certain chagrin, always feeling that I had simply worn him down when he had no real interest in hiring me. Charleston, South Carolina
A lot of what I learned from Bob Cox came as much from what he didn’t tell me to do as from what he did. From the outset he explained that I would often find myself on my own when I felt like there should be someone to hold my hand and walk me through the procedures. If I wanted to be a reporter, it was up to me to get out and do it. But that wouldn’t keep me from having to do what I might feel was more than my share of the hard daily grind of getting the news into print and onto the street. Writing and reporting would be done on my own time, since from 6pm until midnight, or until we were done, I would be expected to be at my desk helping do whatever it took to create a daily edition. During those hours, I would have to make decisions that I probably didn’t have the experience or expertise to make and I would have to be responsible for their outcome. No excuses. So it would behoove me to make those decisions logically and ethically. All of this was simply the nature of working for a small, under-funded, community newspaper and if I could live with that and pass my thirty-day trial, I had a job.
In other words, from the beginning, I was treated like a professional, like somebody who should know what he was doing, even though I clearly didn’t. But that kind of responsibility tended to make you learn fast. And not having the boss breathing down your neck all the time meant that when he did tell you something, it was memorable and it changed and molded you.