“The immediate problem, I gathered, was that I was too short to be copyboy. Or too young, or too young-looking. Not only was I five foot three (and still growing), I was freckled from head to toe. One summer I’d smeared a whole bar of butter over my face because the man who pumped gas at the Tenleytown Amoco station told me — while I filled up my bicycle tires — that butter would make my freckles go away.”
At the ripe old age of 16, our young butter-smearer interviewed with what was then Washington, DC’s leading newspaper, the Evening Star. His dad helped him get the interview, but when it was disclosed that he hadn’t even graduated from high school, he was turned down.
“Boy, I thought your dad told Joe Young you were almost finished with high school?”
Butter-smearers do not take no for an answer.
“‘Sir, I’ll be in twelfth grade this coming year.’ Itold him I’d turned sixteen in February, but he still looked skeptical.”
“When you’re ready to graduate, come back and we’ll see if there isn’t a part-time job for you here.”
The snazzy suit that our applicant had just bought to make himself look older didn’t do the trick. He had calculated wrong. “I had also calculated the odds of my graduating from high school, which did not seem good. Even if I was on my best behavior, and assuming I took up studying, graduation was almost a year off. And that presumed I could pass chemistry.”
Just then, in what would turn out to be a lifetime of catching breaks, a wizened man entered the room.
“Meet Mr. Gould Lincoln, the senior editorial writer of the Star.”
Our butter-smearing, prospective high school drop-out piped up, informing the senior editorial writer that he, the applicant, was a year older than Gould had been at the start of his newspaper career. The applicant added that he’d taken a journalism class in the tenth grade and published stories.
“I did not mention that I’d been demoted on the paper’s masthead to circulation and exchange manager because of my meager production.”
The interviewer promised to read the tenth-grade clippings. The applicant telephoned every two or three days to remind him that he was available.
He was hired as a copyboy at $29 dollars a week.
A copyboy delivered incoming wire reports to editors and ran copy to anyone else who needed it —proofreaders, rewrite men, other editors. It was a foot in the door, but was the lowest job on the totem pole. Not, however, for our 16-year-old copyboy, who skipped out of school long hours each week to work at the Star without anyone at the Star ever questioning him about it.
Our copyboy ingratiated himself with one reporter after another. He convinced his boss to let him ride with the night reporter who covered murders and fires. Boy, did he cover fires. His entire trunk was filled with fire-fighting gear because when he reported a fire, he went in with the firemen. That’s the only way he could get the details — the human interest, the color, the pivotal fact — that would surpass the competition and sustain the Star’s circulation and premier position. His desk was covered with books on firefighting. He relished learning all there was to know about his job.
Our copyboy got the message, and he loved the message. He kept piling up notebooks about everything he saw and learned at the Star. (“Though I continued to go to school, I never really cracked a book after that summer, which wasn’t much of a stretch from my regular practice. But now, entering my senior year, I had an excuse not to study: I was a working newspaperman.”) Soon, our copyboy was hoping for, pressing for, a repertorial assignment.
He got it. He wrote the story. His editor sat with him patiently and shared each alternation he made. There were not many. “‘You’re really getting the hang of it,’ the editor said as he explained each change. I wondered what page my story was destined for.”
Then the editor wrote the words dry run above the story’s slugline, drew a big X through the whole thing, and said, “Next time, you’ll be ready to write for the paper.” Our copyboy was told to save a copy of what he’d written, X’d out — that someday he’d want to look back at it.
Our copyboy learned that not every story under a byline was written by the person named in the byline. It could have been written by the “rewrite man,” who received the critical news from the reporter in the field and then wrote the story himself. In the days before computers and email, this was how timely news made it into the daily newspaper — which went through several editions a day.
Thus it was that our copyboy came to be assigned — and was pleased to be assigned — to supply information from the field to an editor or rewrite man without writing the story himself. By the time of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, our copyboy was assigned to supply details from the long parade that would follow the inauguration.
This was not as easy as it sounded. An eight-inch snow had blanketed Washington the day before the inauguration on Jan. 20, 1961. Our copyboy would never get back to DC the next morning from his home; he had to be enterprising in finding a place to sleep and in acquiring the right clothes to keep him warm and to hold his dozens of notebooks and scores of nickels for the pay phone he would need to phone in his findings once every half hour.
Our copyboy has put all this down in a delightful memoir, Chasing History: A Kid in the Newsroom (Holt, 2022). I bought the book because a reviewer characterized it as the way journalism was practiced long ago, the time I started in journalism. It sounded like a wonderful trip down memory lane. The reviewer wrote that the book contained nothing of our copyboy’s later eminence, whose reporting brought down a president. Our copyboy, our memoirist, is named Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame.
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