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Writing Lessons: The Indianapolis News in the 1950s

thenewsAt fifteen, I took up summer employment as the switchboard operator and cub reporter on the “Great Hoosier Daily,” the Indianapolis News. My father was a friend of Orien Fifer, the managing editor, and they must have been willing to risk the communications network of this afternoon daily to a green-behind-the-ears girl with only her high school yearbook as a source of experience.

The fact that it was the Broad Ripple High School yearbook was a defining factor for me, though I don’t think the managing editors, Eugene S. Pulliam (the junior Pulliam) and Fifer knew or cared anything about that. They just expected adult-level performance from whoever sat at that front desk. My job was flipping little phone relay switches carrying reporters’ off-site stories to the re-write reporters who sat at the desk in that large newsroom in the Star and News building 307 N. Pennsylvania Street.

It could have been a scene from the famous 1931 movie The Front Page, by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Hot sweaty reporters truly did huddle at those beat-up desks in that un-air-conditioned room with large, old, typewriters clickety-clacking away. They could be writing stories or, just as often, covering the city’s news. These were the beat reporters, who jammed hats on their heads (sometimes) and rushed out to City Hall or the police station or the scene of some brawl or neighborhood where Korean war vets returning—and talked stories back to the rewrite guys. And I was the one to “act snappy” when Ed Ziegler Jim Newlin or Griff Niblack (oddly, my own uncle) called breathlessly to send their articles through before deadline.

Better not make a mistake, kiddo. They were not unkind, but they had a job to do to beat the Star and the Times in our town to the stories. My job at first included getting the weather forecast from the airport and writing a little box at the top of the front page. Writing! And then—the first week I was on the job, the summer headed for record-breaking high temperatures, 100 plus for five days in a row.  “Give me four short paragraphs,” City Editor Clay Trusty kind of growled at me. So I did, (Thanks Mrs. Griggs) and lo and behold, I had the lead, the headline on the front page! No by-line, of course.  It is still in my high school scrapbook. Nothing like that was due to happen for quite a while on that summer job.

What did happen was that I helped Albert, the copy boy, get the sweet roll and coffee order in that early morning time (report in 6:30), kept “nut cases,” as they were called, from getting past my desk to berate reporters who had written stories they didn’t like, steer legitimate visitors to the right desk (obituary for instance) and, soon, write small stories for the society page about groups who had planned meetings.

I absolutely adored it. This newspaper had a distinguished history dating back to just after the Civil War. The reporters had the reputation of being the finest in the state (not controlled nearly as much as those on Pulliam’s favorite The Star), they were excellent writers and the atmosphere was so high-powered, yet at other times marvelously funny and friendly, and always respectful of a young girl in their midst.

As the weeks and months progressed and turned into summer years, four of them, I was given increasingly large assignments and expected to write professionally. So I did. Soon I was fill-in for the vacationing reporters: for Bess Watson, obituaries, Georgia Gianakos, film and TV, and even the city desk guys. I found myself on conference calls with TV star Larry Storch and other celebrities and I was sent to cover and then review, at the Circle Theatre, the new Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy’s film Adam’s Rib. I hope but really doubt, that I could understand the subtleties and innuendos.

All kinds of assignments in Indianapolis eventually came my way and I admired, beyond measure, these excellent newsmen and women.

What did they teach me?

Deadlines are deadlines. Just accept this true saying and learn to pace yourself as a writer. You cannot bend it.

Writers are a fraternity and support each other when they can. They can be smart, caring and incredibly fun to be with.

It doesn’t matter who owns a newspaper and what the political persuasions of the people writing for it are; the news on the information pages (not the editorial ones) has to be honest. “Who, What, When and Where” was viewed as a sacred trust. Don’t think of putting a slant or opinion in on it.

Newspaper and periodical writers were, and I suppose still are, under tremendous pressure: they drank too much, smoked way too much in those days and had trouble maintaining relationships. Salaries were low; I made $25 a week at first, raised to $35 and some of the new college grad reporters made only $50 a week. It wasn’t much better up the line.

Grammar and syntax do count. There were editors of course, “copy desk” in our case back then, but you were expected to turn in “clean work” to them. No time to re-write your garbage; get it right and get it smooth the first time.

The main thing I learned at the time was that writing seemed to be in my bones. Yet, while I wanted to write more, I did not want to work under deadlines. Had enough of that, I told everyone. Not for me.

And so, ironically, I ended up teaching journalism including the every-week close for the school paper and also the student yearbook and eventually managing a publishing company for some thirty years, with hundreds of crucial book deadlines, all with financial implications in sometimes excruciating time constriction

So much for serenity in writing. There are other satisfactions

See Nancy Baxter’s books by clicking back to the website. Newest title: A Cabinet of Curiosities from the Civil War in Indiana: Important, Moving, and Sometimes Odd Stories from the Human Side of the Civil War.

Nancy Niblack Baxter, senior editor Hawthorne Publishing