Monday, November 27, 2017

EXCERPT 12 – VOICES IN THE STORM: THE NIGHT DESK


This is the latest excerpt from my as yet unpublished memoir about my early days in journalism in Buenos Aires, with the Buenos Aires Herald.
It was just when things were heating up in Argentina, with the imminent return of General Perón, after over seventeen years in Spanish exile, that James Neilson decided to leave his post as night desk editor at the Herald and to take what I can only imagine was a better-paying job as media chief for the American Chamber of Commerce in Argentina, the job he was doing when I first joined the paper. Years later, when I had gotten to know Jim a lot better, I would find that career move completely out of character for him, since Neilson was proudly—almost arrogantly—British and tended to show open disdain for almost anything American. Furthermore, he must surely have considered the post at AmCham Argentina, a lackey’s job (as I would a decade later when I held that same post and was more intellectually miserable there than in just about any other job I ever had). But I reasoned, in the end, that it was all about making a better living. After years of appearing to be a confirmed bachelor, Jim had married and taken on the immediate responsibilities of a family since his wife had children by a previous marriage. Providing well for them was a clear priority, I’m sure, and, like most journalists at the Herald, he not only did a full-time day job but also moonlighted (or “sun-lighted”, as it were, since the Herald was a night job) as a free-lance correspondent for numerous international publications.
James Neilson
Whatever the case might have been, however, his nine-to-five gig at the Chamber coupled with the notoriously low rates the Herald paid to contributors meant that he could only provide op-eds to Cox on an occasional basis. These high-quality pieces Cox happily published in the center-page op-ed editorial section under a special slug called As I See It  and under Jim’s pseudonym, Clive Peterson—the pen name to protect Jim’s identity in his new AmCham post, and the slug, evidently, so that Cox could keep Neilson’s opinions separate from the general editorial line of the paper.
My boss on the Night Desk, then, was Nicolás Meyer, who had worked for some time as Neilson’s assistant in that department, and seemed delighted to share with me numerous anecdotes about what it was like to work with such a difficult personality as he seemed to consider Jim. In fact, he kept a typed list in the filing cabinet behind him of Jim Neilson quotes. Things such as, “My baldness is a clear testimony to my superior masculinity,” by way of example.
In his own intentionally jaundiced and disdainful style, it seemed clear to me that Nicolás admired Neilson as a journalist, but having been on the receiving end of Jim’s own well-developed cynicism and disdain while working for him, preferred to compliment him only in a sort of backhanded fashion, by immortalizing his most outrageously egotistical quotes. But having been a target of such contempt didn’t keep him from treating others the same way. He seemed to delight, for instance, in presenting me to other people as “Dan Newland, a musician who wants someday to be a journalist.”
Cox working at home
Despite all of his hardcore newsman talk, however, unlike Neilson, Cox and his brother-in-law, Andrew Graham-Yooll, Nicolás was not a hard-news hound at all. Atypical of those who occupied the news desk anchor post before and after him, Meyer tended to be less of a newsman and more of what was known in the trade as a “stone man”, an editor who is more interested in how the news is organized than in the news itself. In this sense, he turned out to be an excellent teacher for me, since before I sat on that desk with him, I couldn’t have cared less what news “looked like”. I was only interested in the story as such.
What I learned from him straight off was that you could have the best stories in the world but if they were presented in a way that was more mixed up than a dog’s breakfast, no one was going to read them. The whole idea of a newspaper or magazine was not only to select, prioritize and present news in such a way that it was eye-catching and attractive, but also to choose the news in a way that would appeal to a particular readership. You couldn’t report all of the news, unless you were a news agency churning out arid copy by the yard through a teletype machine twenty-four/seven. Newspapers—and news magazines to an ever greater extent—had to be highly selective and had to put the publication together in accordance with a “news schedule” on which there was a consensus among the publication’s editors.
Nicolás was very clear about this when he was teaching me the ropes. It was the old idea of The New York Times’ nineteenth-century owner, Adolph Ochs that was to become a Times motto: “All the news that’s fit to print.” For his part, Graham-Yooll, who headed up the local news desk, had modified this phrase to more closely fit his idea of what a city editor did every working night of his life. He referred to it as “all the shit that fits.”
Nicolás taught me all about column widths (measured in units called “picas”), active headlining, page-diagramming, text-cutting, re-writing to fit space, the basic symbols of copy-editing, and some hard and fast rules about what you could and couldn’t do: no tombstoning (placing one head next to another), no widows (single words left all by themselves at the top of a column), no labels (heads that give news a generic name rather than actively telling a story), no points after Mr, Mrs, Ms, etc., or between letters in initials or acronyms (USA, for instance, instead of U.S.A.), since otherwise, the news page ended up looking like it had taken a load of buckshot, and no key data in the last few paragraphs of an article, which might be lopped off in eleventh-hour attempts to make everything fit with the shop breathing down your neck to just get the damned thing to press. In fact, he explained, news should be written in ever widening concentric circles. Meaning, you wanted to pretty much tell the entire story in the lead and second paragraphs. From that core, you widened your circular net, adding more and more details designed to flesh the story out and provide all available information to the reader. But if a story needed shortening, it should be written so that it could pretty much be cut from the bottom up...and still be a story. 
What was of apparently capital importance at six p.m. might be of miniscule importance at eleven or twelve, he indicated. So a carefully crafted fifty-line news story handed in at seven or eight o’clock, might well be chopped down to one or two succinct paragraphs at eleven or twelve and inserted into the Around the World briefs section on the back page of the paper. This was the other thing I learned from Nicolás: Don’t fall in love with your own copy, because, at the end of the day (literally), it’s all expendable.
The other thing I learned from him was, and I quote: “You can never have enough specific instructions on a diagram sheet. Draw as many eyes and arrows and exclamation points as necessary to bring attention to things when you need to demonstrate what to watch out for. And if there’s something that could possibly be interpreted as a mistake when it isn’t, then you need to write next it, ‘¡Ojo! ¡Esto va así!’ (meaning, Attention! This goes like this!) so that some good Samaritan who knows a bit of English doesn’t change it and screw it up.”
And one major point he made repeatedly in the time that I worked with him was this: “In creating your diagrams and giving instructions to the print shop, always assume that you’re working with imbeciles—because more often than not, that’s precisely the case.”
If Meyer sought to diminish my incipient reputation by portraying me as a wannabe newsman musician, the truth of the matter was that he was a wannabe cinema critic news editor. While the rest of us escaped our night-time desk jobs by reporting during the day on politics, social issues and human interest stories, Nicolás’s by-line went almost exclusively in the Herald on pieces about the “Seventh Art”, of which he had developed vast knowledge. He left most of the mainstream cinema stories to the “owner” of the stage and screen section, Fred Marey (whose real name was Fritz Mayer).
Herald editorial department in the mid-1970s, Fred Marey
left foreground at his typewriter.
Fred always had abundant material he wanted to get in on new Hollywood movies, concerts and opera performances at the city’s world famous Colón Theater, and other stories about musicians he knew personally or about new releases in classical, jazz and popular records. He directed a show on Radio Nacional (Argentina’s public radio) called Pot Pourrí Musical and his pages in the paper, which also carried the cinema schedule and other regular items of interest, was more of the same, an eclectic entertainment section in which just about anyone visiting it could find something of their taste and interest.
As such, Fred experienced every attempt of contributors to gain access to his section as an invasion. But as night desk editor, Nicolás outranked him and was, ultimately, the one who diagrammed the section, so there was little Fred could do to sidestep Nicolás Meyer reviews. The tension between them was, however, palpable. Fred—a German Jew, who, along with his also musician brother had managed to escape the Nazis and settle in Argentina, while much of the rest of their family had perished in the death camps—would protest under his breath, handing the copy to me for his section before retiring for the night, “Diss Nicholas zinks he’s die cat’s viskas,” whenever he was asked to hold space for something Meyer had written.
Nicolás, for his part, kept a folder in his filing cabinet behind the night desk, right next to the one that bristled with James Neilson quotes, in which he also recorded “The Best of Fred”. Things like sayings that Fred turned inside out: “You’re getting die horse before der apfel cart.” Or hilarious lines from his critiques: “In this film Paul Newman will be not only starring but will also double as producer-director. It has been some time since Newman last hyphenated himself.”
“And a word to the wise regarding Fred,” Nicolás warned me early on. “It’s unlikely he’ll ever offer you a biscuit from that stash he has in his second desk drawer, because he’s tight as a wedge. But if he ever does, a polite ‘thanks but no thanks’ is a good idea, because I think he brought them over with him in thirty-eight when he emigrated from Germany.”
So while Nicolás was a pioneering fanatic of the works of directors like Federico Fellini, Woody Allen and Ingmar Bergman, and while he introduced many less than erudite Herald readers to classic gems from the cinematography of Germany, France, Russia, Japan and Britain, his interest in hard news was more about how to fit it in the paper and how to get it all done in five or six hours than about the content.
This was reflected in the very clear division that was jealously maintained between local and international news coverage when I first came into the paper. The front page news schedule depended mainly on the Reuter’s and UPI international wire schedules from which Nicolás culled the paper’s headline news. He brother-in-law, meanwhile, handled local coverage, almost exclusively on the middle page of the paper facing the editorial section. And it was only when Bob Cox insisted that some local item of spectacular characteristics needed to at least have “a teaser” on the cover that Nicolás would reluctantly acquiesce, and even then would try to talk Graham-Yooll into just giving him a five or ten-line summary with a “continued in the local news section” line at the bottom.
After working with Nicolás for a time, I finally figured out that all of this was coldly calculated to coincide with the schedule of the Mitre train line out of Retiro Station. Nicolás’s last train to his home in the northern suburb of Acassuso pulled out shortly after eleven p.m. So, the international and features sections of the paper had to be put to bed by eleven on the dot so that he could race to the station down the road, catch that last train and not have to ride for twice as long on a bus to get there. If he had to wait for Cox or his brother-in-law to write an entire front-page story, he’d never make his train, and there wasn’t enough ink in his veins to make him think it was important to do so. 
I grew weary, then, of hearing foreign correspondents up at the SAFICO building on Avenida Corrientes where many had offices and just about all of them hung out, talk about “how clever Bob Cox was” for “hiding all of the meaty local news” that he was investigating in the middle of the paper and keeping the front page international “so that the cover would be innocuous” to the regime.
“You’re wrong,” I would protest. “Don’t try to read any sinister motives into it. The front page news schedule only has to do with a single criterion—whether or not Nicolás Meyer can make the eleven-twenty train out of Retiro.”




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