Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Newsroom Confidential: Part One

It's easiest to start at the beginning.

It's my first day of high school, third period. The class I have signed up for is journalism. How and why I ended up in this class is beyond me. I walk into the classroom. A guy with a beard, around the same age as my parents, is sitting behind the desk. I sit in the back corner. He's soft-spoken, congenial and has a very quiet sense of humor about himself. His name is Mr. Ehrlich.

He goes desk-to-desk, asking everyone their name. He finally gets to me. He says something to me and I, now semi-comfortable playing the role of class clown, crack a joke. The class laughs. And so does Mr. Ehrlich. I immediately take a liking to him. I am very into the assignments given to us -- how to write a lead paragraph, how to write in the "inverted pyramid" style, how to brainstorm story ideas. Mr. Ehrlich also takes a liking to me. A few weeks into class, he introduces me to the senior editors of the paper. He tells them that one day I'm going to be editor-in-cheif.

It didn't quite happen that way. The top editor spots went to the best students in the journalism program. I certainly wan't that. But I was a loyal student of Ehrlich's for all four years of high school.

Everything I needed to learn about journalism, I learned in his class. It wasn't just writing, either. It was about how to take responsibility for what you produce. How to handle pissing off people who don't like what you write. How to completely immerse in yourself in a story and beat. What to do when you can't contact any of your sources. And, most importantly, how to deal with petty squabbles with shithead, know-it-all editors.

(The first time, but certainly not the last, I truly wanted an editor to die a fiery death came my sophomore year. Like many disaffected teens, I fell into the world of alternative music. One of my favorite bands of the era was The Lemonheads. They had released "Come On Feel The Lemonheads" which I reviewed glowingly for the paper. Our section's Entertainment editor -- an incredibly dorky immigrant from India who wore Mickey Mouse sweatpants. At the end of my review, she for some reason thought it was a good idea to write the following: "You should buy this album. It might just spit you in the eye!" She also added her by-line to my article for that one line submission. She later became one of 11 foreign-born girls from my class to achieve the status of valedictorian.)

I wrote a lot for the high school paper, most of it entertainment writing or bizarre first-person stuff. But I did learn how to write news (interviewing US Senator Frank Lautenberg when he came to our high school to trump The Brady Bill) and human interest pieces. But I, not-so-secretly, always coveted a spot on our high school TV news. I was never selected for a slot, due to my poor grades.

This decided my choice of major in college. I was a Communication major, specializing in TV/Radio/Film Production. I worked mostly at the TV station, editing sports pieces, and had a few radio shows at our decrepid radio station. Also, I was a lot more interested in drinking massive amounts of alcohol and smashing things that didn't belong to me. I didn't write much for the paper, just enough album reviews to qualify for the newspaper formal at the end of the year, one of the premier events on the La Salle social calender. Plus, I didn't really like the staff of our paper, filled largely with students from the honors program, most of whom artfully raised their hand to answer questions in class and had the fashion sense of TV's Blossom.

I learned the hard way (par for the course) that I hated Communication as a major. I had a particularly brutal TV Production class, where the final project was for our class to write and produce our own 30-minute TV show. I'll spare you the details, except we'll leave it to say I was referred to as "Little Hitler" by one of my classmates, a fraternity member I had nailed trying to plagarize old David Letterman bits for our project that he tried to pass as his own, and as a result more than a few of my classmates wanted to kick my ass.

I did have journalism classes in college. These were largely the biggest waste of time imaginable. Everything possibly taught in a journalism class I learned my freshman year in high school.

This steered me away from the thought of working in TV for a living. And then I graduated, armed with a 2.7 GPA, no marketable job skills and tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt.

I eventually moved back in with my parents, after a tenure working at a supermarket, followed by a job selling makeup at a woman's cosmetics store. My dad is incredibly sensible, to the point where it's annoying. The first thing he did every day when he arrived home from work was to ask me how many resumes I sent out that day. The answer was usually "none, but I drafted Vladimir Guerrero in the first round of my ninth fantasy baseball draft of the season." But eventually, I started getting them in the mail.

I noticed in the back of our local paper that a lot of local newspapers were hiring for reporters. I sent my resume to a few of them. And, somehow, I landed two job interviews.

(This shocked me at the time, as I had no writing clips. Or experience. Or much of anything except a pathetic resume. But later on, I figured out how I landed the interviews. This was 1999, when there were still some remnants of the dot.com economy left. I had a few friends who, right after graduating, ended up working at some computer network thing doing about 10 minutes of work a day for about $35,000. These jobs don't exist anymore, meaning there is a lot more competition for a slot at a small, weekly newspaper.)

My first interview was for the paper in Montclair, where I used to purchase both comic books and punk rock albums. I met the editor, Mark -- a middle-aged guy who came off incredibly intimidating and pretentious. He interviewed me and asked if I had any writing samples. I told him I didn't. He then gave me an assignemt to write for his review, about a new shop opening downtown, and a bunch of phone numbers to call. I did just that and in about two hours I handed him a 400-word article. He told me he would talk to me if he had any interest.

Two days later, I had another interview, this time in Ridgewood up in Bergen County. I met Ellen, a woman in her 50's who was the editor of the paper. She explained to me the duties, asked me the standard interview questions, and then gave me a paper filled with paragraphs randomly picked apart from a news story. She told me to re-arrange the paragraphs and then to also critique the story. I did just that. She looked it over for a few minutes. And then she came back outside.

"If you're interested, I'd like to offer you a position here at The Ridgewood News."

I accepted on the spot. I literally ran out of the office towards my car. I was now a reporter.

(Mark did call me the next day. He offered me a position on his staff, also. I turned him down, since I already accepted the Ridgewood job. In a few years, Mark would once again come to play a hand in the direction of my career.)


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