Thursday, March 31, 2011

Big City Byline

            It was with great pride, and even greater trepidation, that I walked into the newsroom of the New York Post a few minutes before 10 o’clock on the morning of Monday, January 8, 1968, as an employee. I was assigned to the rewrite bank, the youngest of about eight people who would take street reporters’ phoned-in notes and turn them into stories for the country’s largest circulation afternoon newspaper.
It was Big City journalism as I always had imagined – loud, profane, chaotic, challenging. And it was incredible fun.
            But just 39 days earlier, I had come within five minutes of none of this happening. My last day of work at the one-room office of the Associated Press, located in the newsroom of the Portland Press Herald/Evening Express newspaper in Maine, was on Friday, December 22, 1967.
My shift normally ended at 2 p.m., but I decided to hang around the office for a while, to talk with people I probably never would see again. I had no idea what I would do the following week; I had heard nothing from the New York Post, where I had interviewed a month earlier, and where I very much wanted to work.
            Shortly before 3 p.m., as I was leaving, a Press Herald editor stopped me to say goodbye, and, in those few minutes, Bill Langzetelle, the head of the AP bureau, called out, “Sandy. Phone call from New York.”
            It was John Bott, the Post city editor. “When can you start?” he asked. We agreed on – actually, he suggested – the first Monday after New Year’s Day.
            Twenty-two days later, I received my first Post byline. Looking back now, I realize it wasn't particularly good. But at the time I thought it was great, a story written on deadline, two paragraphs at a time, with a copy boy running my words to editors as fast as I could type. In those days, the Post had seven editions, with deadlines at various times from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and for each deadline the copy had to be edited, set in type, and put on the press. 
Vince Austin, the Post’s police reporter in the Borough of Queens, had read me his notes – rough facts, a few quotes, bare details, no time for anything else. But it was a story with tabloid written all over it, about how a woman’s body was found that morning near her home, and how none of her neighbors had responded to her screams for help, and I milked it for all it was worth. Under the headline “Woman Slain As Her Cries Go Unheeded,” the story began:
       Petite, red-haired May Lang screamed for help last night, but no one came.
   This morning, her battered, partly nude body was found in an alley, at 35-30 34th St., in the Astoria section of Queens.
   Another three doorways and May Lang would have been home.
            Back then, someone still in the 90-day probationary period wouldn’t receive a byline, but Fred McMurrow, then in charge of the copy desk, kept shouting “I’m loving this” as he pushed through my copy, and, when I completed the story, John Bott, the city editor, asked how I wanted my name spelled. I was so nervous that I wrote it out for him on a piece of copy paper, and even included the “By.”
             And thus began my six years with the Post, working with some of the legends of New York journalism (introductions in a subsequent Blog posting), first on rewrite’s back row, then with the first string, then reporting various beats – community services, labor, City Hall – but always returning to rewrite, the heart of an afternoon newspaper, the only job where the pace is so fast that you don’t have time to second guess.
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Here is my first byline story, as it appeared, including a typo, at the top left of Page 2 in the New York Post on January 30, 1968:

Woman Slain

As Her Cries

Go Unheeded


     Petite, red-haired May Lang screamed for help last night, but no one came.
      This morning, her  battered,  partly  nude body was  found  in an  alley, at 35-30 
34th  St., in the Astoria section of Queens.
     Another three doorways and May Lang would have been home.

      Neighbors told police they had heard screams, but thought it was just cats fighting.
   Other neighbors said they heard garbage cans rattling but assumed the noise was caused by dogs.
   Miss Lang, a telephone operator at Manhattan’s Beverly Hotel at 51st St. and Lexington Av., was 59. She lived alone in a 2 1/2-room apartment at 35-16 34th St. Police believe she may have been raped.
     “Between 12:30 and 1 o’clock this morning I heard three screams, one right after the other,” said a woman neighbor of Miss Lang’s. “I was waiting for the fourth.”
     “It was definitely a woman’s scream,” she said. “I had no impulse to call the police because we hear that quite often in their neighborhood now, and it’s usually a family fight, and nobody wants to get involved in a family fight.”
      The woman said that she feels “badly now that I didn’t call the police.”
    Other neighbors had told her they had heard screams early this morning she said, but no one called the police.
    “This neighborhood is changing, and now we’re getting more afraid every day,” she said.
     May Lang apparently wasn’t afraid of the neighborhood.
    She worked from 4 p.m. until midnight, and always walked the 3 1/2 blocks from the elevated train at 31st St. and 36th Av. to her apartment.
   Miss Lang’s best friend, Florence Limitone, who lives in the same apartment building, criticized those who heard her cries for help but failed to respond.
    “It must be terrible for people to hear her scream and not do anything about it. They could have done something. After all, they wer in the security of their own homes.”
    Miss Lang’s body was discovered at about 7:30 a.m. Her undergarments were found in a backyard nearby, her dress was pulled over her head.
     A fur coat, red shoes, red handbag and a shopping bag containing beer and soap were found nearby.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Empty Throne


            I wonder whether Dan Rather is going to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his ascension to the anchor chair of the CBS Evening News. Well, not exactly the actual chair on that first broadcast, March 9, 1981, since Rather, with less than two minutes to airtime, refused to sit in the seat that Walter Cronkite had occupied the previous 19 years.
            Only Rather can explain his petty pique, but it was a near-catastrophe that will not be soon forgotten, all these years later, by those who had worked so hard to make sure that his debut broadcast would be perfect.
            During weekend rehearsals following Cronkite’s last sign-off, Rather had indicated that he wanted to do something different to distinguish his reign, to set him apart from a person everyone knew could never be replaced. He said that he wanted to deliver the news, perhaps, standing up, or sitting on a bar stool, or walking on to the newsroom set. Nothing was resolved that weekend, and it was hoped by those working on the broadcast that by Monday he would forget the craziness.
            Rather had inherited me, as he did most of the rest of the Evening News staff, from Cronkite; I was one of three news writers, with responsibility for international and U.S. foreign policy news, and I sat directly to his right at the desk that during the day was the working “slot,” an old newspaper term for copy desk, and at 6:30 p.m. was the anchor desk. Behind the anchor chair was a slide-out shelf with a typewriter on it.
            As the stage manager, Jimmy Wall, hollered out in his magnificent baritone voice, “Two minutes. Two minutes to air,” Rather stood up from the chair and declared, “I want to sit here,” and moved the typewriter and perched himself on the shelf.
            Sandy Socolow, the executive producer, was in a videotape room working on a last-minute report when he heard over the intercom the crazed voice of the broadcast director, Richard Mutschler. While a verbatim text of what Mutschler said does not exist, it is certain that more than a few expletives were included in his surprised shouts.
            On the newsroom floor, it was a bit calmer, but panic nevertheless was present. With fewer than 100 seconds until Dan Rather was to say, “Good evening,” his decision had sent Mickey Fox and other stagehands scrambling to readjust lights, and cameramen racing to refocus cameras, a process that under the best of circumstances should take many minutes.
            But true professionals as they were, the changes were made; the ceiling klieg lights went on as the other lights dimmed, and the newsroom fell silent. Thirty years later, I still can see Dan Rather perched on that typewriter table, looking a bit constipated, as if he were bracing for a hasty retreat.
            It would take exactly 24 years for that to happen, for Rather to announce on March 9, 2005, his departure as CBS Evening News anchor because of a contentious report the previous September that questioned President George W. Bush’s Texas Air National Guard record.
            So, in addition to wondering whether Rather might observe the anniversary of his first CBS Evening News broadcast, I wonder whether he will make any note of his last. If he had any class, he would ignore both.

            For the record, here is Walter Cronkite’s March 6, 1981, sign-off:
“This is my last broadcast as the anchorman of the CBS Evening News. For me, it is a moment for which I long had planned, but which nevertheless comes with some sadness. For almost two decades, after all, we have been meeting like this in the evenings, and I’ll miss that.
“But those who have made anything of this departure, I’m afraid, have made too much. This is but a transition, a passing of the baton. A great broadcaster and gentleman, Doug Edwards, preceded me in this job, and another, Dan Rather, will follow. And anyway, the person who sits here is but the most conspicuous member of a superb team of journalists – writers, reporters, editors, producers – and none of that will change.
“Furthermore, I’m not even going away. I’ll be back from time to time with special news reports and documentaries, and, beginning in June, every week, with our science program, Universe. Old anchorman, you see, don’t fade away, they just keep coming back for more.
“And that’s the way it is, Friday, March 6th, 1981. I’ll be away on assignment, and Dan Rather will be sitting in here for the next few years. Good night.”