John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Breaking into newspapering

In the spring of 1968, when I was a junior in high school. Lowell Denton, publisher of the weekly Flemingsburg Gazette in Fleming County, Kentucky, offered me a job for the summer.

His wife, Jean, who was editor, reporter, and columnist, liked to take the summers off, and Lowell, having spotted a letter to the editor I had written to the Times-Democrat, the other county weekly, decided that I had enough literacy to handle the job.

So that summer, for my first paying job ($1.25 an hour), I sat down at a table with a Remington standard typewriter and a stack of copy paper. My first task was to English the county correspondence. The Gazette engaged a group of older ladies in communities around the county to send in weekly social notes from their locales, and my task was to regularize the spelling, punctuation, and grammar.

Though I began as an editor, I was also a reporter.

Sent to cover the fiscal court (the county council), I quickly learned not to begin taking notes when the Rev. Owsley Crain began speaking, but to hold off until he more nearly approached his point. At the Ewing Fair, I had to get the names of the winners of the Beautiful Baby contest. (One summer, Mr. Pierce Million, who provided the sound system, played a scratchy recording of "Born to Lose" as the mothers and babies approached the infield.) I interviewed the superintendent of schools at summer's end about plans for the new school year. I wrote profiles of local citizens, often having to ferret out information from the inarticulate

I learned early on to pay attention to the typesetters. It was Cecil Pugh, who operated the Linotype, who pointed out that internment for interment had gotten into an obituary. Later, Lowell acquired a typesetter that produced a punched tape allowing the typist to delete a line with a mistake and start over; when the tape was run through a dummy machine, it produced a galley of the corrected type. The typesetter was my cousin Marie Arrasmith, who was also the bookkeeper, and I paid close attention to her, because her store of local gossip was encyclopedic.

I wasn't all writing and editing. I collected the mail every morning, took classified ads and social notes over the phone, fetched colas and snacks from the gas station across the street, typed subscribers' addresses on stencils for the Addressograph, later in the offset era drove the pasted-up pages to the printer in the next county, drove the finished papers back, helped with the addressing and bundling, and swept the office on Friday afternoon.

Jean Denton wrote a column, "Jean's Jottin'," and in the summer it became "John's Jottin'," the main burden of which was to offer congratulations to local worthies. I was allowed a separate column of my own, "From the Wastebasket of John E. McIntyre," in which I wrote about things I had read and offered naive liberal political comments. (Lowell, remarking on my enthusiasm for Eugene McCarthy that summer, asked someone, "Is John Early still supporting that Communist?")

Jean was harder-shelled than Lowell, the kind of Republican once described as "rock-ribbed," a Nixon loyalist to the end, and beyond. We got along fine, because in spite of political differences we shared a taste for Ross Macdonald's murder mysteries and an admiration for Joan Didion's prose.

Lowell and Jean were ideal employers. They encouraged me to learnt the craft and indulged my youthful excesses. (The Gazette's circulation was around 3,000 a week. There is a good deal to be said for making your early mistakes in a place where not many people see them.)  The six summers in high school and college that I spent working for them were an invaluable education.

The Flemingsburg Gazette was, in fact, my journalism school. As an undergraduate at Michigan State, I was told I couldn't take a journalism course without first undergoing Introduction to Communication. I took it for one term. The text was a crudely photocopied set of vapid essays by the department chairman, and we had to watch video of two other department faculty members who evidently thought that their feeble badinage constituted dry donnish wit. At the end of the term I took all the course materials and dropped them down the incinerator shaft at East Akers Hall.

When in 1980, abandoning an uncompleted dissertation in English, I approached The Cincinnati Enquirer for an opening on the copy desk, I had enough grounding as an alumnus of The Flemingsburg Gazette to make headway there, and for all that has happened since I owe a profound debt of gratitude to Lowell and Jean Denton, who identified and encouraged promise.