Once upon a time—and I know this because I saw it with my own eyes—New York City had seven daily newspapers: the Times, the Post, the Herald Tribune, the Daily News, the Mirror, the World-Telegram and the Journal-American.
This was in the late 1950s, the tail end of an era in which the print media dominated the news. It was also when I went to Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, hoping to join the journalistic fraternity, which I greatly admired.
In those days, the J-school had but 80 students and at least a dozen professors, many of them part-timers on loan from the New York Times, people whose bylines were familiar to us all. We J-school students worked the same hours the Timesmen did—nine-to-five every day, Saturdays and Sundays off.
Every morning, one of the Times’ reporters brought in that day’s New York Times assignment sheets. These assignments were doled out among us. Our job: to go out into the city—the UN, the Mayor’s office, police headquarters, the docks, wherever the story might lead.
We were to join the group of reporters from the city’s seven newspapers, gather the news exactly as they did, report back to the “City Room” at Columbia, sit down at one of the typewriters and start pounding away. We were to meet the same deadlines as the real New York Times reporters, and our stories would be judged against theirs, and by the same editors.
On the first day of school, I found myself assigned to Brooklyn Police Headquarters, not on a specific story, but to join the reporters who regularly hung out there and sniff around for the best story of the day—a fatal car accident, perhaps, or a bank robbery, or if I were really lucky, a gangland murder.
When I arrived, I walked into a scene I’d never expected: seven beat reporters, one from each newspaper, crammed into a single high-ceilinged room across the street from Brooklyn Police Headquarters, playing poker, reading, telling old war stories.
Then a phone call came from Police Headquarters. “My turn,” said one of the reporters, getting up. He stuck a hat on his head and left the room. An hour later, he was back. He shared what he learned with his colleagues, after which each one wrote up the story for his own newspaper.
The pattern repeated itself all day, each reporter taking his turn—except when his city desk called him with a scoop or an exclusive. Then he’d do the reporting on his own and call it in, no sharing with others.
That day, after all seven reporters had had their turns, the police phone rang again. “Well, Columbia,” said one of the reporters, “I think this time the bell tolls for thee.”
I swallowed hard and picked up the phone. “We’ve found an adult male in Prospect Park, “ the police dispatcher said. “Dead of gunshot wounds to the head. Detectives going out now.”
“I’ll be there in a second,” I said. I looked around at the other reporters in the room. “Do us a favor, kid,” one of them said. “Get the goddamned name right.”
I did, I’m proud and more than a little relieved to say. And after I delivered the information to my colleagues, I hopped on the subway and headed up to 116th and Broadway, to Columbia. In a half hour, I walked into the huge J-school city room, with its 80 formidable manual typewriters, each squatting on an old wooden desk. A few student reporters, having returned from their assignments, already occupied the desks, having and were reviewing their notes.
I sat down at an empty desk in the middle of the room and rolled a piece of yellow newsprint—the cheapest paper you can buy—into the old Smith-Corona. It was a simple enough news story, I thought. Man found murdered in a Brooklyn park, assailant unknown. Police talking to witnesses, no leads yet. I thought about how I should write the lead.
Somewhere a few rows behind me, a typewriter began clacking away. Someone had gotten a head start on his story. Then it was another typewriter, two desks over from mine. And a third, near the front of the room. After that, a bunch of them, surrounding me. The student reporters were filling up the room pretty quickly now, and most of them had started typing the moment they sat down. Not me.
I fiddled with the paper in my Smith-Corona and tried to concentrate, but I felt like I was swimming in a sea of clacking typewriters. How was I to write in a cacophony like this?
Then I felt someone standing behind me, looking down at me. It was my school advisor, John Hohenberg, a tall, imposing grey-haired man who, in addition to his teaching, presided over the awarding of Pulitzer Prizes. He arched an eyebrow and regarded me. “Got a problem, son?”
“The noise,” I said. “It’s too much—I can’t even think.”
Hohenberg pursed his lips and looked at me. He shook his head, puzzled. “Noise? What noise? I don’t hear anything.”
“But all the typewriters, the clacking noise. It’s a mad-house.”
Hohenberg tilted his head and listened. “Don’t hear any noise,” he said.
“Quiet as a churchyard,” he said with a wave of his hand.
Our eyes met and held. I could see he wasn’t kidding. He kept looking at me, not saying anything, then he pointed to my typewriter and wiggled a finger at it. “Better get to it,” he said. “Deadline’s in about a half hour.”
I took a deep breath. “Yeah,” I said, and turned back to my typewriter, not inclined to argue and I felt him move on. I got to it.
I spent the better part of a year surrounded by those 80 clacking typewriters, writing. And I finally got it: if you really want to write, you’d better learn how to compose serviceable prose no matter what’s happening around you.
Noise? What noise?