April 16, 2009

Reporter’s Notebook: First to the Scene

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“It’s for you!”
One of my fraternity brothers woke me in the early hours of April 19, 1969 when the phone in our “living room” was ringing off the hook. As The Sun’s police reporter (we called it the “Crime and Scandal” beat), I was accustomed to calls at all hours.
Richard Shulman ’71, one of the crack Sun photographers, breathlessly told me that his housemate Gary Kaye ’70, who ran WVBR, had just awakened him with the startling news that a group of black students had taken over the Straight. Having covered many stories about the increasingly difficult race relations on campus, replete with threats of violence, unexplained fires, cross burnings and a disciplinary hearing only the day before, I instantly knew this was the beginning of a big story.
It was damp and chilly, so I took my standard outdoor precautions: an extra pair of warm socks, a canteen of water, extra pens and pads and all the quarters I could find. I jumped into my car, sped to campus and parked across the street from the Straight.
I quickly interviewed the ejected parents and a few campus patrolmen, but details were sketchy. I went over the to the Safety Division at Barton Hall, where I gained the essential, but few, facts then available from my sources there. Across the street at the Statler, the lobby was jammed with the parents chased from the Straight who were scared, confused and angry.
The Statler’s bank of payphones was really important in those pre-cellphone days. I immediately called the Associated Press and The New York Daily News offering my services as a campus correspondent or “stringer.” Both the AP and The News immediately put me on the story, asking me to call in updates as soon as possible. Their editors told me later in the day that they were dispatching reporters to the campus, asking me to be their guides and to fill them in with background information. This was every student reporter’s dream come true, working with experienced reporters from important news media on a breaking story of national scope.
For the next few weeks, The Sun was the principal focus of my life. Every day brought a new crisis, a new problem, a new press conference, all of which made great copy. The Sun staff, always close-knit, acted like a unified, hard-working family on a non-stop work routine.
In addition to covering a wide variety of related stories for The Sun, I spent the better part of the next few weeks as the campus scout, assistant and legs for such reporters as Herb Pelkey and Bill Morrissey of the AP and Tony Burton of The News. The New York Times sent a series of reporters to cover Cornell, all of them well-known: Michael Kaufman, John Kifner and, most famously, Homer Bigart. Despite the fact that I was not The Times’ stringer, all of their reporters asked me to help them.
Working with these reporters and their editors was my graduate school of journalism. Watching them operate, running down side stories and dealing with “The Desk” was the best preparation for a career in journalism that a young aspiring reporter could want. It was no less instructive joining Bigart while he was in his cups at Johnny’s Big Red Grill than watching him sharply question the top University officials at press conferences and interviews. I learned such valuable lessons from honing my copy to the proper diction and etiquette when dictating to a rewrite man or to a typist in The News’ “Wire Room” or The Times’ automated recording devices.
It also taught me that at least half of newspaper reporting consists of waiting for something to happen or someone to say something, hence the professionals’ storytelling prowess to while away the many idle hours — fascinating stuff for a 20-year-old student. I quickly saw many of the less attractive parts of this “glamor” profession: cut-throat competition, long hours and distinctly unglamorous pay.