Small market basic training

By John Toth / Editor and Publisher

In September 1980, I walked through the doors of the Victoria Advocate newspaper for the first time as I started my second reporting job after finishing college. It was a hot and humid summer day, and we had a cricket outbreak. There were crickets, some dead and most alive, everywhere.

I’d never seen anything like it. Had we opened the windows to the newsroom, the crickets would have taken over the place. They could have written stories about themselves and changed the paper’s name to the Cricket Courier, or something like that.

I hated moving, but if I was going to make a dent in this business, I felt like I had to move around and position myself for the big market job. Most of the young reporters in the Advocate newsroom were just passing through. Management knew that, and we knew it. And, we all made very little money.

But that was O.K., because high paychecks and journalism don’t mix - never have. People who spend four years learning the trade of journalism in college are not in it for the money. Most of us wanted to save a piece of the world. Some of us did, and some of us didn’t. But we tried.

The Advocate newsroom staff was an interesting mix. The younger reporters were itching to move on, and the older ones were settled in. They were entrenched in the community and gave the young staffers valuable information that wasn’t always appreciated. But it should have been.

There were rules in the newsroom that the young reporters didn’t particularly like, like writing advertising copy for accounts sold for the Business and Industry Page. The newcomers griped about it, but they did it because they had no choice.

The older reporters didn’t complain. They remembered when the paper paid them by the printed column inch. They wrote anything to add to that, including long meeting stories – very long. Old habits were hard to break, even after they were getting a weekly paycheck and story length didn’t matter anymore.

So, after we finished banging out the hated advertising copy, we proceeded to try to save a piece of the world.

“I have two positions open – one on the copy desk and one as an education beat reporter. You’ll also have to cover cops on Saturdays, and you get Sunday and Monday off,” offered Managing Editor Vince Reedy when I interviewed a few weeks earlier.

Being young and without obligations, I didn’t care what hours I worked or what days I had off. But why would I want to be a copy editor? I wanted to write, not edit other people’s writing.
“I’ll take the reporting job,” I told Vince, who had spent his entire journalism career at the paper. He was a very nice boss and knew how to balance young reporters’ energy with the old reporters’ experience.
He was more of a psychologist than an editor. He absorbed all the griping about the advertising copy assignments and worked with the higher-ups to try to change that.

He eventually succeeded, but by that time I was at another paper. I’d like to think that my own repeated complaining as a 24-year-old reporter helped in this regard.

Like at most other smaller market papers, the education reporter also covered other things, like chamber of commerce luncheons. Vince once even sent me to a dinner to represent the paper in one of the outlying cities because he didn’t want to go. I got dinner out of it and didn’t even have to file a story.

Vince gave the copy editor job to a young woman, a journalism graduate from Austin. The job required looking at a screen and editing stories every day – no travel, no interviews, no writing. I made the right choice, as it turned out. She also got Sundays and Mondays off. We worked the same shifts.

The education beat was interesting enough. I pushed the issues as much as I could. The Saturday police beat was mostly boring.

Not much went on in “big-little” Victoria. It was a small city trying to grow into a big one, but retained that small-town atmosphere.

I even volunteered to ride with the cops some nights, but nothing ever happened on the shifts I chose.
One night there was an arrest in front of a bar where the cops were called after a fight broke out. The guy was arrested on an outstanding traffic warrant. At least I tried. I was going to write some feature pieces filled with action, and instead had to rely on my literary skills a lot more than recalling any type of action.

It took me a while to appreciate how important of a step the Advocate was. It subsequently landed me at the Houston Chronicle and then as co-owner of this paper.

It takes a little maturation to realize why things are done a certain way, and that in any situation, one has to take the good with the bad.

I was there for a year and a half before moving on, and Vince hired another young reporter to take my spot. I continued my chase somewhere else, and didn’t really look back. I liked Victoria, and wouldn’t have minded staying there, but I was driven to other pastures in search of that big-market job.

The crickets also left, and never returned while I was there. I didn’t either, until 36 years later. Come back next week, and I’ll tell you all about it.