Saturday, May 06, 2006

I’m a Freelance Writer

And a Journalist to Boot!

[This is another story for the journalistically deprived.]

by Richard E. Noble

Who would have believed it, at sixty-three it’s me Walter Cronkite, Peter Jennings and all the rest of them. I’ve been reading the memoirs of Walter, Dan, Peter and all of my slightly better known peers, but I’m finding that my first experiences in journalism are more in line with the early careers of Mark Twain, William Sydney Porter and Ben Franklin. Although I think of myself as a very serious and intense individual, my life experiences always seem to turn out to be along the line of the Three Stooges or the Marx brothers.
Tom Loffler is the owner/publisher of the newspaper that I’m working for. He started the paper about fifteen years ago. It started out as a little, local, biweekly, twelve to fourteen page nothing-very-important kind of a paper. Today it has grown to a local, biweekly, never more than ten pages, nothing-very-important kind of a paper.
I’m really not a good judge of newspapers, because I don’t read newspapers. I’ve always prided myself on never reading a newspaper. I’ve always considered the phrase “Gossip Columnist” for the Such & Such Herald to be a redundant statement. My wife always reads the newspaper which is another good reason why I don’t have to bother - she tells me everything she reads. I suppose if I could stay awake long enough to listen, I could learn something.
Well at sixty-three I decided to pursue my avocation in life.
Like millions of others, I have been writing all of my life. I began my career as a writer by filling an entire spiral binder with my name. I wrote Richard E. Noble several thousand times and filled the entire notebook with my name written over and over. I don’t know what significance you might see in this, but I have always interpreted this as the first budding of a famous and successful writer. What could be more important to a famous, successful writer than possessing a huge ego? I felt that this propensity to write my name over and over was a primary sign.
I know that there are some young, precocious children who start out writing novels and entire volumes of poetry before the age of nine etc., but, I ask you ... if they have no giant ego to back it up, how long can they keep it up? Yes, these young geniuses may write a great novel one day, but if you have been to Barnes & Noble lately you must have noticed that the shelves are full of books written by persistent nobodies who have produced masses of barely readable garbage, while the great novelist section is over in a dusty corner next to the philosophy section. And the same guys are always there - Charles Dickens, Tolstoy, Victor Hugo, Dostoevsky, and one or two more modern guys who were tortured and beaten for years in some foreign country.
And who really cares? Have you read War and Peace yet? How about the Pickwick Papers? I even see Anna Karenina is back on the shelf, thanks to the Oprah Book Club - who’s she trying to kid? She can read all the fancy books she wants, she still ain’t going to get invited to John Foster Dulles Jr.’s birthday party. I know that she thinks that she is pretty famous and quite important at the moment but so did Phil Donahue. Yeah right - Phil who?
In any case, I started my retirement avocation career as a writer by self-publishing my life story. Now you might ask yourself
- Who wants to read the life story of Richard E. Noble? That is a good question. If only I had asked myself that question before I spent all my money publishing that book. But ... nevertheless, I brought a copy of my book down to Tom Loffler to see if I could get him to include it in his local “Bookshelf’ section of his not-very-important paper. He was very impressed - not by the book - he didn’t read it - but by the fact that I had the ego required to do such a thing. He asked me who edited my book, and I told him that I had edited it myself.
“Wow,” he said in total admiration. “Are you looking for a job? I need somebody to edit my newspaper.”
So there you go! I’m in the newspaper business. I’m getting paid - not to write ... but, at least, to read. That’s good, I figure. The last job that I had offered to me in the writing/journalism field was a home delivery route for the Tallahassee Democrat. I thought about it for a little bit, but then I figured that was not really that close to “freelance” writing. Anything could be a start, but I figured I had to get a littler closer than that. Besides I had a paper route from age eleven to sixteen. So, you know - been there; done that.
I was really excited about my editor’s job. Every week I brought down my huge three volume set of Webster’s New International Dictionary, my Hodges’ Harbrace College Handbook of proper usage, and my Roget’s International Thesaurus. This was great. I was finally getting paid for doing something that was directly related to the possibility of my one day being able to get paid to write something - possibly.
The entire staff at the Chronicle consisted of me, Tom, Nancy, and Danny
Tom is a classic. He is a retired history professor from the local university. He taught photo-journalism and is a motion picture and radio buff. He loves history - ancient history. He’s an antiquarian book collector. He wants to sell antiquarian books someday to other antiquaries.
His newspaper comes out every two weeks, but the news in it may be older. I’ve heard some journalistic, pundits proclaim that journalism is tomorrow’s history - today. I suppose then, in a way, that makes today’s newspaper just another type of history.
To a history professor, I suppose, history is history. Old history, new history, today’s history, tomorrow’s history - it’s all just history. So if all news is history, what difference does it make if today’s news is yesterday’s history or tomorrow’s history? News is history and history is history.
In any case, a story does not have to be current to get into this week’s Chronicle. As a reporter though it does make it rather difficult to get a scoop.
On yeah, I forgot to tell you I am now a reporter besides being the copy editor. His number one reporter (himself) has not been feeling all that well of late. So I cover the local County Commission meetings - which accounts for about fifty percent of what appears in each issue of the paper. I got my wife a job doing the Court Report - which is a rather long boring outline of everyone who was brought before the local judge last month. Between the Court Report and the County Commission my wife and I nearly take up the total by-lines for every other issue.
The Court Report is very popular. Everyone in town likes to find out which of their relatives is either getting out or going into jail. At least sixty percent of the entire community is related to one another. They are not all brothers and sisters; some are as distant as cousins.
The rest of the paper is pretty much plagiarized from rephrasing articles from other local newspapers or junk news that Tom finds while surfing the Internet.
Tom’s Internet selections are unique. Last week he printed the entire Economic Recovery Act from the FDR administration. We got a lot of calls from people who wanted to know if they had a chance of getting onto the Forestry Department, or when were they planning to start construction on that Hoover Dam. Tom had no idea what these people were talking about.
Last month we had the Stamp Act - and let me tell you people were really P.O.ed to find out about all of that. We got letters from little old ladies who said that they would never go to the Post Office again.
I would say that this paper is the worst newspaper that I have ever read, but as I told you earlier, I have never read any newspapers.
Tom trained me to cover the County Commission. The meetings always start at nine in the morning. I get there at eight-thirty and Tom is always sitting there in the first row waiting. He has this huge mug, like with a gallon of coffee in it - and he is rolling. Before the meeting starts he is buzzing everywhere. He has questions for the County Planner, the Clerk of Courts, the County Attorney, passers-by, pedestrians, the Mosquito Control Man, the Road Department man, the Airport guy, the boss from the County Dump - anybody and everybody.
Then the meeting starts. We stand up; the preacher/County Commissioner says the prayer; and then we all pledge our allegiance to the flag. We sit down and Tom immediately falls asleep. Out like a light. He’s gone.
Last week he was wearing red suspenders, a pair of light blue Bermuda shorts, a puke-green, collared shirt, a pair of tan ribbed argyle socks that go up to his knees, sandals and one of those K-Mart Alpine hats with a little sparrow feather in the brim. He looked like the Ricola man. I suppose that if he wasn’t a well known local millionaire the Commission police attendant would arrest him as a vagrant - but everyone in town knows him. No one talks to him, but everyone knows who he is.
Tom is a Republican. He thinks Republican means frugal. He “shops” for gasoline. He thinks Jack Benny was a Republican and exemplified Republican values. The other day he had me put in three dollars worth of gas at a “price gouging” gas station so that we had enough gas to get us to a cheaper more “American” gas station up the road. I put in the three dollars worth. He said you couldn’t have, the gauge didn’t move. I said, yeah . . . right.
He edits everything I write to make sure that I don’t say anything bad about Richard Nixon, or Ronald Reagan. He can spot the word Reagan or Nixon in a sixteen page document. Just to keep him sharp and on his toes, I toss in the word Nixon in the middle of a random paragraph here and there. He crosses it out and then gives me a lecture on how Nixon was misunderstood. I tell him so was Willie Sutton, the Bird Man of Alcatraz and Charles Manson.
He is always trying to quote Ronald Reagan, but just like Reagan, himself, he can never remember exactly what Reagan actually said.
He also told me that Herbert Hoover “redeemed” himself for what he had done as president of the United States during the Depression. I said what did he do, commit suicide? He said no, he helped feed all the starving people in Europe after World War II. That’s great, I said, too bad he couldn’t figure out how to feed all the starving people in the U.S. when he was the president. I guess feeding people was more difficult when he didn’t have American pockets to pick - that’s why he was a Republican, I suspect.
Even though Mr. Loffler sells very few of his newspapers every week, he feels that everybody in town reads it. I guess he figures that the few people, who do buy a copy, pass their copy around to everybody else.
I’m trying to make a name for myself by writing for the local newspaper - just like all the advisors on how to become a professional writer tell you to do. There are only ten thousand people in this County. I have been working for the paper for almost two years now. I ask people that I know if they saw my story in last week’s paper. They say; what paper? I say; The Chronicle. They say; who publishes that? I say; Tom Loffler. They say: Heffner? I say; No, Loffler. They say; never heard of him.
I told Tom that nobody in this town knows who the hell he is. He said; I know but they are going to learn.
See what I mean ... ego. Talent can only get you to the fifty yard line, but ego gets you into the end zone. And with a big enough ego, it is still a touchdown, even if the game is over.
Tom has a tape recorder and tapes the entire County Commission meeting. But I’ve noticed when he is back at the office listening to the tape and trying to transcribe a story - he is usually sleeping. He can’t stay awake even for the tape. He told me the other day that he has trouble sleeping at night. I told him that he should attend fewer County Commission meetings.
He didn’t get it.
A jet fighter plane from the nearby air force base crashed about a block from his fancy home out in the gated community on our barrier island. I heard it on the local radio station on my way to work. When I came into the building on the Compound, (he’s an ex-military guy and he call his property “a compound”) I said enthusiastically; “Hey Tom, did that jet plane hit your house?”
“What plane?” he asked unconcerned.
“That jet fighter plane that a pilot ejected out of while over the Gulf of Mexico. It crashed into the Island out in your neighborhood and buried itself one hundred and forty feet into the swamp out there.”
“Oh God,” Tom moaned. “Not more damn news. I’ve got this week’s issue all full.”
“Well, take out the Suffragette story and put in the jet plane crash story.”
“I can’t do that - Suffragettes were important. The damn jet plane will just have to wait until the next issue.”
“Well, like I’ve always said - there’s no news like the Old News. Hey Tom, why don’t you re-name your paper “The Old News”.”
“Huh? Why the hell would I want to do that?”
What do you think? Is this the way Edward R. Morrow started out?

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