My Reporting Career
Talk delivered by JJG before a James Madison University journalism class (14 women, one man) Monday, November 14, 2005.
This is quite a pleasure for me, talking about reporting with a group of young aspirant newspersons. The proportion of sexes is a little surprising. Don’t young men want to be newsmen any more?
Well, I was a newsman for 16 years, first on a newspaper and then with the Associated Press. I’ll try to interest you with some of my experiences and some of the lessons I learned.
First of all, I must to tell you, this is my half year birthday. I am 91 ½ years old today. So if I refer frequently to my notes, you will understand.
Secondly, I left reporting in 1958. That’s when your parents were little children. So today’s use by reporters of computers, cell phones, and recorders, and all the rest is all foreign to me.
I believe, though, that good reporting doesn’t change, no matter what aids you use. It involves accuracy, truth, and recognizing the difference between news and fluff. Years ago, I was told, that a professor of journalism at Washington and Lee would often end his lectures by saying: accuracy, dammit, accuracy.
I think I wanted to be a journalist even in my teens. When I was in high school I had to pull every string I could to take typing, because typing was reserved for commercial students planning to be stenographers or bookkeepers. But I got it.
I began my reporting career in November 1938. I think that was several months before Walter Cronkite began his. He went a bit farther in the news business than I did..
I went to work for the Roanoke World-News, the afternoon paper of the Times-World Corporation. The salary was $15 a week plus a bus pass. I was given a great beat for a cub reporter. It was a year in a little bureau the paper maintained in Salem, the county seat of Roanoke County. That was the reason for the bus pass. It was a small single office across the street from the Roanoke County Court House. That was convenient. I spent a lot of time in that court house.
First, though, I spent a couple of months in the Roanoke office learning the ropes. On my first assignment, the city editor sent me to cover a talk on the evils of alcohol. I had never taken a journalism class. But I had read that a good lead was comprised of the five Ws, who, what, when, where, and why. My lead to that story was something to behold. I still have the clipping. I’ll read it to you. – - – There are 62 words in that sentence. Unaccountably, the city editor ran it just as I wrote it, and he gave me a byline. I guess he wanted to encourage me. But there was another grave error in that paragraph. It has the paper saying the speaker was distinguished. That was a no-no for our managing editor. One time I used honorable before someone’s name. He almost had a fit.
Well, early in 1939 I was sent to Salem, and the reporter I was relieving spent a week breaking me in. Then I was on my own. I covered everything: three courts,, the country board of supervisors, the school board, the five county constitutional officers — the Commonwealth’s attorney, the clerk of court, the commissioner of revenue, the treasurer, the sheriff. Also the town council, the mayor, the residency and district highway department offices,, the chamber of commerce, Roanoke college, the Red Cross, Kiwanis Club speakers, anything and everything.
I had one great source. There was a controversy between the county school board and the board of supervisors. The chairman of the school board, Moss Plunkett, dominated the school board. He later ran for governor against the senior Senator Harry F. Byrd. Plunkett wanted to build a proposed highschool on an ideal location north of Salem. The town and the board of supervisors wanted to build it in town..
The Roanoke newspapers supported Plunkett editorially, so I could always get a story from him. He was a walking encyclopedia on school statistics. But, of course in the end,, the board of supervisors, which controlled the purse strings, got its way. – - – While in Salem, I think I helped my standing with the paper by writing some features for the Sunday Times. Although I worked for the afternoon paper, I was obligated to rewrite stories for the morning paper and to write something special for the Sunday Times. My mother, who had been a reporter and free-lance writer, encouraged me to make a special effort to write well-researched and interesting features. She thought it important that I demonstrate I was willing to do more than required.
I wrote a number of features and they were well played, with illustrations. My salary soon went up from $15 a week to $22 a week.
All in all, my year in Salem was a wonderful introduction to reporting, a splendid training ground for gaining a wide experience.
And then, soon after I was transferred back into the newsroom in Roanoke, I was given another break. The paper went from a salaried six-day 44-hour week to a five-day 40-hour week for reporters. Since we published six days, that meant that some reporter was off each day of the week. I was made the swing man, with a different beat each day, so that I once again covered almost everything. I think by the end of my second year, I was a very good reporter with an all-around experience. Of course you always keep learning.
Incidentally, while I was in Salem I learned a valuable but costly lesson. In re-writing for the morning paper a court story in which a woman had appealed a conviction for reckless driving, I wrote she was convicted on drunk driving. I knew better than that; I had written the original stories on the case. It was just carelessness. For the paper it was expensive carelessness. I never knew how much they paid to settle her suit for damages. I wasn’t fired, but I think it was a narrow escape. I’m sure Mr. Fitzgerald has emphasized that you should check, and double check.
I had been on the paper more than three and one-half years, when I received a commission in the Navy in the summer of 1942. After almost four years in the Navy I came back to the paper. By then I had a wife and two children, and I became very dissatisfied with the salary the paper was paying me, only four dollars a week more than when I went away..
I took a job in public relations with the Veterans Administration in Richmond. It turned out to be a great career move, but not with the VA. After I had been in the job less than a year, Congress slashed the money for VA public relations and I found myself facing the prospect of being laid off. But I wanted out of the VA, anyway.
So I went to a friend of mine from the Roanoke Times who was Governor Tuck’s press secretary to ask if he knew of any newspaper job openings. It just happened that he was resigning from the governor’s office, and the man taking his place was leaving the Associated Press Richmond Bureau. I applied for the AP position and got it.
I had only been on the job a few days when my new boss, Frank Fullerm sent me here to Harrisonburg to report on a terrible tragedy, an explosion that collapsed a building housing a beauty parlor. It was where aa bank is now, right across from Asbury Methodist church.. Eleven women were killed. That night I had a story under my byline that went to papers all over the country.
Actually, because I was new to how the AP worked, I messed up. Wire services then, as I suppose now, were very competitive and speed was important. I tried to cover the story as I would for a paper, going to the funeral home to get the names of the victims, checking out the site, checking with the police, and so forth. I should have stayed mainly at the Daily News-Record office and put together my story from the information being gathered by several local reporters. So I was late with my story. I always felt my boss should have given me better instructions. Well, you live and learn.
I soon became aware that most of the work in the Richmond Bureau of the AP was unexciting rewrites and editing of stories sent in by member newspapers and various stringers throughout the state. Our job was to tighten and improve the writing, if necessary, and send the stories on to the member newspapers and radio stations throughout Virginia.. If the stories were deemed important or newsworthy enough, we would forward them on the national or the regional wires.
The stress in the AP office was greater than that at a newspaper, because at a newspaper once the deadline is passed you can relax.We had no time to relax. You no sooner wrapped up the work for the a.m. cycle than you had to turn around and do it for the p.m. cycle. And we usually had more work than we could do.
For several years at the AP I worked all of those routine jobs, writing for the radio wire, taking news and sports stories over the telephone from stringers, working as day editor, and as night editor. Later, I was given a chance to write some features, and that was more interesting. And then in 1952 I was assigned to write profiles of the two candidates for governor, the Democrat Thomas Stanley, the choice of the Byrd Machine, and the Republican Ted Dalton, a charismatic State senator from Radford. Reporters were charmed by Dalton, and they had a dim view of Stanley.
I drove to Stanleytown, near Martinsville, and spent the day with Stanley and his gracious wife. The next day I spent with Dalton in Radford. I wrote separate stories for each, and the Virginia Press Association awarded me first prize for wire service stories. With the power of the Byrd machine behind him, Stanley won the governorship.
When the General Assembly was in session, four of us, including the bureau chief, would cover it. I was assigned the Senate, At the next session after my two profiles, I mentioned to Senator Dalton that I had won the award. After the assembly finished its work, he gave a steak dinner for members of the Capitol press corps and their wives in my honor.
The AP bureau had one real reporting job. We depended on the Richmond newspapers for local news, but our boss thought we should have a reporter on Capitol Hill. That meant covering the governor, the various state agencies, the State Supreme Court, and the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals. It’s was a choice assignment, and I was given it about that time. Covering the governor’s office was the best part, along with politics, which went with the territory.
When the State Supreme Court had opinion day, I, along with the Times-Dispatch political reporter, would try to figure out what the sometimes lengthy opinions really said. There was no one to help you, no résumé. And of course you couldn’t spend all day.
When important segregation cases came to the Federal Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, the court was part of my beat. I used to see Thurgood Marshall, the prominent African-American lawyer who eventually became a member of the U.S. Supreme Court. But there was another African-American lawyer involved who, I thought, was the most brilliant lawyer in town, white or black.. He was a Richmond lawyer named Spotswood Robinson III. Eventually, he was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
When in 1957, the National Governor’s Conference was held in Williamsburg. I was sent to cover it, along with Harry Nash, who was the one-man Norfolk bureau, and Jack Bell whose beat was the U.S. Senate. Jack Bell was our boss.
When President Eisenhower came to address the governors at a banquet in the Williamsburg cafeteria, Marvin Arrowsmith, the AP reporter who traveled with the president, joined our group. During Eisenhower’s speech, I was given a less than glamorous job. I had to hold on to one of the two telephones in the building for Arrowsmith in case Ike departed from his written text.
Bell took a liking to me and let me write the main national story the last night while he went to have dinner at the Williamsburg Inn with a daughter of Chief Justice Warren and a couple of other people. I joined them later. On a trip to Washington, I made an appointment with Jack and he took me down on the Senate floor before the session began while he interviewed Lyndon Johnson, then the majority leader in the Senate.
By 1958 I was getting restless. I was 44 years old and I felt I had gone as far as I was going to go with the AP. The boss had refused to okay my transfer to Washington, the Mecca for newspersons. And then opportunity struck.
The General Assembly had created the Virginia Civil War Commission, charged with a state observance of the five-year Civil War Centennial, beginning in 1961. That allowed for more than two years preparation. I was assigned to cover the organization meeting of the commission. I duly reported their actions and went on my way.
That afternoon, returning to my office, I bumped into State Senator Curry Carter from Staunton, who was a member of the commission. I stopped to chat with him and I observed that the commission had decided to hire an executive director. Off the top of my head, I said: “I don’t guess I’d be qualified for that job,” and he replied: “Well I don’t see why not.” Nothing more was said. I went on vacation for two weeks in Roanoke and forgot about it.
On returning to Richmond, I was hailed by a lawyer in the State government, who said the selection committee of the commission been looking for me. It turned out I was one of 12 applicants for the position of executive director. I got the job, and thus ended my newspaper career.
During my years with the AP I was associated with other newsmen covering the hill. Three who made it big time were Paul Duke, Roger Mudd, and James Kilpatrick. You may not be familiar with those names. Paul Duke was in the AP office with me. He went on to several national reporting jobs, and finally was moderator on the public radio program, Washington Week in Review for twenty years. Jack Kilpatrick went from political reporter for the Richmond News-Leader to editor of the paper, and then became a very conservative syndicated columnist. Roger Mudd at one time was supposed to share the NBC Nightly News anchor job with Tom Brokaw, but Tom beat him out. I think Roger still has an occasional feature on public television.