Another Man Done Gone

     Charlie Hand would kill me for writing that headline.
     “A headline should be correct before it’s clever, and that one’s neither,” he’d say, with the cheerful equanimity he showed no matter how scurrilous the oaths he was hurling at me.
     Charlie was my first newspaper boss, 25 years ago. He died this month at 66. He taught me how to write clearly. And he taught me that sometimes at a newspaper it is necessary to tell your boss to go to hell, even if it costs you your job. Which it did, for both of us.
     I remember the first thing Charlie asked me to do, my first day on the job.
     He dropped a photo on my desk and said, “Write me a cutline in 10 point Bookman and give it a 14 point bold italic kicker.”
     And I said, “What the —- are you talking about?”
     Charlie hired me as a reporter for a chain of four weeklies. Within a few weeks, the publisher had fired all the reporters but me. Charlie and I – but not the publisher – worked until the sun came up Thursday mornings to get those four weeklies out. After 3 a.m. or so, we’d fortify ourselves with generic beer.
     Reporters on daily newspapers sneer at the weeklies, though most reporters started that way, and though reporters on the old newsweeklies worked harder, longer hours than daily reporters do. I know that because I’ve done both.
     The publisher of this little chain was married to a woman on the school board, who was trying to move up in politics. Every few days the publisher would come into the newsroom and tell Charlie we needed a story on this local politico or that one, and that it should make the guy look good or bad. And Charlie would say, “OK, Bill. Sure. Right.”
     Now, the only guy who could get these stories was me, because I was the only reporter. But Charlie never told me to do them.
     One day after the boss issued another ukase, and left the room, Charlie said: “If you stick with newspapers, and become an editor, your publisher will tell you to slant a story from time to time. Your job then is to ignore him and do the story straight.”
     “What happened to all those stories he told us to do?” I asked.
     “He forgot all about them,” Charlie said.
     “What happens if he insists on a story?”
     “Then I tell him you couldn’t get it.”
     The boss fired me one day when I didn’t have Charlie to run interference for me. Then he fired Charlie. We both got other jobs, for newspapers that were better, or worse, in their ways.
     Eventually, Charlie got a job working for me. I was a city editor and on his first night on the job he came in with a deadline story about a City Council meeting. I slammed through that baby in about 5 minutes and shipped it to press.
     Next afternoon Charlie came into the newsroom and dropped that day’s edition on my desk, opened to his story.
     “What this?” he said.
     “What’s what?
     “Read it,” Charlie said.
     I read it. “Yeah? So?”
     Charlie pointed to a sentence in the third paragraph. There, in my slam-bang night editing, I had managed to stick four nouns in a row. It almost made sense. But the longer you looked at it, the stranger it seemed.
     “That’s Dada editing,” I said. “That’s my style.”
     Charlie laughed. He was an old pro. He never brought it up again. It was just a newspaper story.

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