My first professional newspaper job was on The News-Gazette in my home town of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. I was 15. The pay was 75 cents a hour, eventually climbing even higher. I was not an intern. That was a salary. I was a sports writer, graduating to general assignment in the summer, and I pumped out reams of copy. I recall a special section commemorating the opening of a bowling alley, for which I wrote at least 15 stories, all with my proud byline; I even interviewed a pin-spotter and the owner of a shoe rental franchise.
I am inspired to recall those days because of the coverage of my recent film festival in Champaign-Urbana by Melissa Merli. The quality of her writing was splendid, her curiosity was boundless and her word volume was worthy of a bowling alley. Merli interviewed every star or director, wrote about all the movies, covered the panel discussions and the Q & A sessions, wrote about the 70mm projection and even profiled Chuck and Eileen Kuenneth, who met in my University of Chicago film class in 1983, were married in 1991, and were at their fifth or sixth Ebertfest.
Other writers also contributed to the paper's coverage, but it was Merli's story, and she covered it right down to the ground and put a tarp on it. I was awestruck. Outsiders might sympathize with poor overworked Melissa, but many newspaper veterans will understand that she had an ideal assignment: Write all you want about something you care about. The complaint of many journalists in these latter days of cost-cutting is that they have to boil stories into info-nuggets. As you approached Merli's third byline on the same page, you could feel her enthusiasm and her joy in her work. I'd hire her on any paper I edited.
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Someday there will be a memoir to write about my days as a teenage newshound, but here one story will suffice. The paper was put to bed every day at noon, and the city room cleared out for Vriner's, across the street, except for the lowest writer on the totem pole, and Bill Schmelzle, the city editor. We heard the city fire trucks roaring out of their garage. "Call them, see what it is, and give me a graf," Schmelzle told me.
I wrote the graf, which was "railroaded" into print. That means it was set in hot type without benefit of copy editing. I wrote:
"Champaign firemen responded to a still on fire at Morris Brown's junk yard at 12:15 p.m. Tuesday. The blaze was out on arrival."
Later that afternoon, Harold Holmes, the executive editor, called me into his office.
"Roger," he said, "there is someone I'd like for you to meet. This is Mr. Morris Brown."
I shook hands and told Mr. Brown (also a noted bail bondsman). I was sorry to hear about his fire.
"Oh, there's more to be sorry about than that," Holmes said. "Do you know what a still is?"
"It's a machine used for...distilling? Something?" I said.
"Yes, but at the fire department, you see, it's also short for 'stillborn.' That's a fire that's already out when they get there."
"Oh," I said.
Mr. Brown handed me his card, which read: "Can't make bail? You don't need the wings of an angel if you know Morris Brown."
The news staff, which had mysteriously materialized behind me during our meeting, collapsed into laughter.