Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Newspaper Man

In Memory of Thomas Hoffer

I’m a Freelance Writer

[This is a story I found in my archive satirizing my early career with Tom Hoffer and the Franklin Chronicle. I thought that if Tom were alive today he might get a kick out of it. It has been a year now since Tom passed. All of us here at the Chronicle miss him. We think of him often and we are all rooting for our new publisher, Russell Roberts. We hope that he is able to fulfill Tom’s journalistic and entrepreneurial dream. This newspaper was a big dream for Tom and it is no doubt an even bigger challenge for Mr. Roberts.]

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 Hoffer 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. Well at sixty-three I decided to pursue my avocation in life.
I began my career as a writer by filling an entire spiral binder with my name when I was ten years old. 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 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 Hoffer to see if I could get him to include it in his local “Bookshelf” section of his 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 entire staff at the Chronicle consisted of me, Tom Hoffer, Diane Dyal who does just about everything and her husband, Andy Dyal who does all that’s left.
Tom is a classic. He is a retired college professor. 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 am now a reporter besides being the copy editor. Tom Hoffer’s number one reporter (himself) has not been feeling all that well of late. So I cover the local County Commission meetings.
Tom’s selections are often very 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 WPA, or when were they planning to start construction on that TVA project. 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 unhappy 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 newspaper is not all that great, 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. He’s out like a light. He’s gone.
One week, as he slumped there in the first row snoozing, Senator Allen Boyd stepped up to the podium. The cameras began flashing. Tom, the instinctive journalist that he is, woke up instantly. He grabbed his camera. His camera is strapped together with that grey hundred mile an hour tape. It must have been one of Tom’s favorite things. Tom saved all of his “favorite” things.
Just as he was about to snap the Senator’s picture, the flash apparatus tumbled forward and dangled there in front of the lens.
Tom then sat down and tried to tape his camera back together.
I said, “They just don’t make that hundred mile an hour tape like they used to.”
“It ain’t the tape,” Tom said. “This camera was not engineered properly. I am going to send it back to the company with a full analysis.”
“You can write in Chinese?” I asked.
Last week he was wearing red suspenders, a pair of light blue Bermuda shorts, a faded green, white collared shirt, a pair of tan ribbed argyle socks that went 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 newspaper owner the Commission police attendant would have arrested him as a vagrant.
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, 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 Hoover 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 America when he was the president of the United States.
Even though Mr. Hoffer sells very few of his newspapers every week, he feels that everybody in town reads it – even if they won’t admit 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 Hoffer. They say: Heffner? I say; no, Hoffer. They say; never heard of him.
I told Tom that nobody in this town knows who the heck 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 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 calls 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 darn 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 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 heck would I want to do that?” he said.
[What do you think? Is this the way Edward R. Morrow started out?]