The Minnesota pro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists salutes former journalists who have moved on to new adventures. In this ongoing series, we invite newsies to reflect on their time in the news business. Our latest entry is from retired St. Paul Pioneer Press reporter David Hawley.
I never took a journalism class, never worked for a school newspaper, and I wasn’t an avid follower of the news. But I happened to walk into the office of a small-town newspaper publisher on the morning he decided that the next guy through the door was going to get a job. So a lifetime career as a newsman was launched.
Some crusty ink-stained veteran once said there were only two things you needed if you wanted to become a newspaper reporter: You needed to know how to type and you needed a job at a newspaper.
During my career I successfully applied for jobs at two newspapers and at The Associated Press. Each job interview lasted about 10 minutes. During one interview, the newspaper’s managing editor, a florid-faced Irishman, asked me if I’d ever gotten drunk with one of my previous bosses. I said I had. “Did you do it more than once?” he asked, and I admitted I had. He paused for a moment, then asked, “Can you start work next week?”
Times have changed. Qualifications and interviews have become much more intense and newsrooms have gotten much drier. What once was called a trade is now considered a profession. Whether the quality has improved is a subject of debate. After all, the old ways were always better, except when they weren’t.
I’ve been “retired” from the newspaper business for a decade after walking out the door with a buyout instead of being pushed out in a round of downsizing. And I miss being part of what one of my friends called “a refuge for creative underachievers.”
I also miss being an anointed expert. For instance, after the first week on my first job, I was told I would be expected to write one editorial a week. My qualification: I worked on Saturdays and the Saturday reporter had to write an editorial for the following Monday. I also had to write a column called “About Education,” which dealt with leading educational topics. My qualification: The newest reporter always covered education. At The Associated Press, I was assigned to write a weekly state-wide column on agriculture. My qualification: I had previously worked for a small-town paper in farm country and therefore was the closest person they had to husbandry.
At my second and final newspaper job, I applied to become the paper’s classical music and theater critic, thinking my college degree in music and my short experience as a failed actor might be put to some use. But the editor who gave me the job said my education and experience didn’t matter. Instead, he figured I could file a coherent review under late-night deadline pressure because of my experience at the AP.
Some years later, after I’d gone back to being a mere reporter, an editor said he wanted me to write a column on legal gambling — giving advice to gamblers. Though I’d never gone to a casino, I was anointed an expert, with a weekly column titled “You Betcha.” After a year hanging out in casinos, I wrote a book on the subject.
All these experiences involved on-the-job training, though the person doing the training was me. And that, for me, was the allure of being a newsman — the chance to be curious, to talk to perfect strangers, to find out stuff and tell the world about it.
And to be paid to do it.
On the first day of my first job, one of the old hands in the newsroom watched me stare forlornly at my typewriter (back then we used those things) as I tried to figure out how to make a scintillating story out of my first interview with the new head of the local Chamber of Commerce. The old hand took me out for a cup of coffee and gave me a piece of advice. “If you can tell a story, you can do this job,” he said.
He was right. You’ve just read one.
David Hawley worked as a reporter for the Worthington Daily Globe, The Associated Press and the St. Paul Pioneer Press during a 35-year career.