A blast for the past: Newsrooms and toe gum


Just for the fun of it, our very first esnl post, from 22 October 2009. As of now, 9,605 other posts have followed:

I’ve joined the legion of downsized journalists. The Berkeley Daily Planet laid me off Monday, leaving me with time to work on this blog, a gift from a dear friend, inspiration, and future contributor.

American journalism is dead.

I wrote my first newspaper story in 1964, in the closing days of the era when the ink-stained wretch was king [and a few queens as well] and newsrooms were peopled with folks with sharp elbows, sharper tongues and a camaraderie that doesn’t thrive in today’s newsrooms, where many a reporter nurtures dark hopes that her neighbor, not her, will be the next victim of the accountant’s ax.

When I started in the business, anyone with a decent set of clips could walk into any medium-sized burg in the country and count on landing a job within days, at most weeks.

This is my first post, one of what will be an occasional series about te changes I’ve seen in newsrooms over the past forty-plus years. And I promise I’ll throw in some toe gum along the way.

Toe gum? Read on. . .

My first job at a daily paper was at the Las Vegas Review-Journal, where I covered civil rights, radical politics, the war on poverty, conventions and night cops–the last one being the traditional assignment of rookie reporters.

I had a great city editor, Tom Wilson, who taught me the basic skills of the craft, the foremost being “Ya gotta put some toe gum in your stories.”

Toe gum?

Yep. Toe gum.

“Brenneman,” he said after I’d turned in my first few stories, “y0u’ve got what it takes to be a good reporter. You know how to ask questions, and you can write a good sentence. But the problem is that you don’t put any toe gum in your stories.”

My eyebrows shot up. I knew a reporter was supposed to write a lead that, in 25 words or so, included the who, what, when, where and how, with the why coming in the second graf at the latest. But toe gum?

Tom smiled.

“You gotta think about who you’re writing for,” he drawled. “Now you work the swing shift, and that means your stories go out in the edition that hits the casinos and hotels when the midnight shift is getting off. Folks who want to buy a paper, take it home and give it a read.

“Now imagine you’re writing for a cabbie. He’s been haulin’ around a bunch of drunken tourists all evening long. He’s been yelled at, maybe cleaned some puke out of the back seat, and his ass is numb from sittin’ on dead springs for eight hours straight.

“Now when he gets home and opens the door, he’s gonna head straight for his easy chair. He’s gonna slip off his shoes and socks, then rub his feet and rub out all that gum that’s built up between his toes. Then he’s gonna lean back and open up his paper.

“He doesn’t want to read an academic dissertation. He wants to read something that tells him about his world in a way that means something to him. He’s who you’re writing for. So put some damn toe gum in your stories, Brenneman!”

After that, whenever the academic in me threatened to come out, Tom would throw the story back at me with the simple instruction, “Needs toe gum.”

I’ll be forever grateful.

We were later able to discover a picture of Tom Wilson as he appeared 35 years later with a new [to us] crop of chin whiskers. When we tried to return to it for a more accurate date and an update on Wilson’s career, but the site had vanished. . .

Tom Wilson, a writer's editor

Tom Wilson, a writer’s editor

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One response to “A blast for the past: Newsrooms and toe gum

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