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Lessons from an old reporter

August 26, 2022

Surprises may await around every turn — or years of boredom.

Robert Kahn

By Robert Kahn

Deputy editor emeritus, Courthouse News

It’s been nearly 40 years since I got my first paycheck for writing — $150 for 750 words in The Baltimore Sun. That’s all it took to hook me. (They pay you for this?)

Even today, burdened with years and honors, I’ll take 20 cents a word for just about anything, if they let me write what I want and leave me alone. Except poetry. That’ll cost you 50 cents a word. OK, a quarter. OK … hell, take it. But spell my name right.

Twenty cents a word is not to be sneezed at, for litter-a-choor. Say I write a 3,000-word short story, about anything at all. Would I take $600 for it? Damn right I would, so long as the editors, if they is any (sic), don’t try to “improve” it.

Many people, in fact, none have asked me: “Bob: What, if anything, have you learned from fifty years of scrivening?”

A little bit about writing, and a lot about people. Many of the things I learned about people came as surprises. Here are three of them.

I was doing a feature story about a day lily nursery in San Diego County. While admiring their lilies, and scribbling furiously, one of the bosses mentioned a lady who made artisan kaleidoscopes. She sold them for hundreds of dollars apiece.

Say what?

Flower story written and filed (kaching!) I called the kaleidoscope lady and told her I’d like to see her kaleidoscopes and write a story about them. My target publication, a daily newspaper, had a circulation of 95,000, in a wealthy market. 

The kaleidoscope lady said, “Oh. No. Anyone can buy that, can’t they?”

“Umm … yes,” I said. Anyone can buy a daily newspaper.

“Oh, no,” she repeated. “I don’t think I’d like just anyone to read it.” And she hung up.

Ahh, Southern California.

Second story: I was working for that daily newspaper the day a crash on Interstate 15 killed a young woman driver and ejected her baby from the car, in a child seat. The child seat saved the baby’s life: It bounced down I-15 at speed and the baby survived without a scratch. I was assigned to call the woman’s husband — the widower, the father — and ask him how he was feeling.

I hate stories like that. What’s the guy gonna say? Them’s the breaks?

I felt like a (bad word) for calling the guy just hours after his young wife died, smashed on a freeway, leaving him a baby. I thought that phone call was the worst thing I would ever have to do in my life. I apologized profusely to start off, identified myself and said I was so sorry to bother him.

And what did the guy say?

“No, I’m glad you called.” 

He wanted to talk to someone. About how much he loved his wife. That he was so glad the baby survived. Thanks to the people who made the baby seat. He thanked me over and again for calling him.

I didn’t know what to make of that. Still don’t. But he sounds like a nice guy.

My last story today is about a Sunday night at that newspaper, which no longer exists. Daily papers, back when they existed, used to work a skeleton staff on Sundays: the sports desk, a wire and layout editor, a photographer, an assignment reporter, and a copy editor. Most local dailies operate like that today, most every day, if they operate at all.

So. On this Sunday night, the sun was sinking, or sunk, and the reporter and photog were heading home, when we got a call: A kid at the shopping mall had got his hand caught in a gumball machine. The mall had called the cops to try to extract the kid’s hand. 

Our reporter, whom I will call D. Wade Booth, because that was his name, told our photog that they had to roll on this. The photog wouldn’t buy it.

“Come on, man!” Wade said. “This is an A1 shot!” The photographer sighed and headed out the door.

Too bad for us, the cops got there first. They pulled the kid’s hand out of the gumball machine, gumball and all, and sent him home. So we missed the shot.

But you know what? A guy who will roll on a kid with his hand stuck in a gumball machine on a Sunday night will get you some good stories.

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