When Newspapers Were Newspapers And Men Were Men And … Oh, Cut The Crap

- August 14th, 2012

 

Listen, I hate to break it to ya, kids, but the glory days of newspapers are over.

That doesn’t mean newspapers today are bad (some are, some aren’t) or that newspapers of bygone eras were much better (some were sometimes, some weren’t most of the time).

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No, it’s just that the world has changed and the economic dynamics that used to make newspapers so damned lucrative have skewed off in directions that make the printed page less profitable than it used to be.

 

(Roy Thomson coined the expression “licence to print money” when he was granted the first commercial television franchise for Scotland in 1957, but he obviously thought the same sentiment applied to print journalism at the time — he kept buying chain after chain of newspapers long after he got into TV, including The Times of London in 1966.)

 

For 100 150 years, newspapers (generally speaking) made gobs of money and thus could afford to hire dozens — sometimes hundreds — of ill-tempered, indolent, ink-stained wretches (who would otherwise be hanging around saloons and racetracks) and sending them off to the far ends of the earth to interview maharajahs and abducted heiresses. Well, the lucky and dauntless ones, anyway, like Peter Worthington (I’m referring to Peter in his role as an ink-stained wretch, not as an abducted heiress). For most of the others it was school board meetings and dime store thefts (between layovers at the saloon and racetrack).

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“Legendary Toronto Sun newsman Peter Worthington, left, scores an exclusive lunch date with Elizabeth Taylor — and her husband-to-be Richard Burton — at Toronto’s King Edward Hotel in late January 1964. It was at the height of the intense media scrutiny that engulfed the scandalous couple, both of whom had left their famous spouses to be together.” 

 

Any half-assed Canadian or Australian journalist (and, believe me, there were many of those) could travel around the world, bouncing from a stint at one English-language newspaper in Manila to another in Mandalay. J-school grads can still do it, but it’s much harder today. And you may have to fly from Singapore to Dubai to get that next job now. Honolulu? Forget about it — my early 1980s job application is probably just making it to the top of the pile now.

 

Like I said: The glory days are over.

 

I’m not really dwelling in a miasma of golden-hued memories here. In a long-winded and completely arbitrary way, I’m just setting up the real point of this piece — the 1958 job-application letter that is about to follow. You kids might not want to use this as a model for your own job search but pay attention to the writer’s name at the end of the letter. I’ll tell you a bit more later.

 

 

TO JACK SCOTT, VANCOUVER SUN

 

October 1, 1958
57 Perry Street, New York City

 

Sir,

I got a hell of a kick reading the piece Time magazine did this week on The Sun. In addition to wishing you the best of luck, I’d also like to offer my services.

Since I haven’t seen a copy of the “new” Sun yet, I’ll have to make this a tentative offer. I stepped into a dung-hole the last time I took a job with a paper I didn’t know anything about (see enclosed clippings) and I’m not quite ready to go charging up another blind alley.

By the time you get this letter, I’ll have gotten hold of some of the recent issues of The Sun. Unless it looks totally worthless, I’ll let my offer stand. And don’t think that my arrogance is unintentional: it’s just that I’d rather offend you now than after I started working for you.

I didn’t make myself clear to the last man I worked for until after I took the job. It was as if the Marquis de Sade had suddenly found himself working for Billy Graham. The man despised me, of course, and I had nothing but contempt for him and everything he stood for. If you asked him, he’d tell you that I’m “not very likeable, (that I) hate people, (that I) just want to be left alone, and (that I) feel too superior to mingle with the average person.” (That’s a direct quote from a memo he sent to the publisher.)

Nothing beats having good references.

Of course if you asked some of the other people I’ve worked for, you’d get a different set of answers.

If you’re interested enough to answer this letter, I’ll be glad to furnish you with a list of references — including the lad I work for now.

The enclosed clippings should give you a rough idea of who I am. It’s a year old, however, and I’ve changed a bit since it was written. I’ve taken some writing courses from Columbia in my spare time, learned a hell of a lot about the newspaper business, and developed a healthy contempt for journalism as a profession.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s a damned shame that a field as potentially dynamic and vital as journalism should be overrun with dullards, bums, and hacks, hag-ridden with myopia, apathy, and complacence, and generally stuck in a bog of stagnant mediocrity. If this is what you’re trying to get The Sun away from, then I think I’d like to work for you.

Most of my experience has been in sports writing, but I can write everything from warmongering propaganda to learned book reviews.

I can work 25 hours a day if necessary, live on any reasonable salary, and don’t give a black damn for job security, office politics, or adverse public relations.

I would rather be on the dole than work for a paper I was ashamed of.

It’s a long way from here to British Columbia, but I think I’d enjoy the trip.

If you think you can use me, drop me a line.

If not, good luck anyway.

 

Sincerely,

Hunter S. Thompson

 

 

Yes, Hunter S. Thompson, god of gonzo journalism, instigator of Fear and Loathing (Almost Anywhere — pick your locale) and drug-abusing menace to society.

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Oh course, this letter was written long before Thompson was publicly acknowledged as any of those things (apart from “menace to society” — he had already served time in jail for being an accessory to robbery and been kicked out of the U.S. Air Force [honourable discharge] for bad attitude — “his rebel and superior attitude seems to rub off on other airmen” — before he turned 21, the age at which he wrote the above letter).

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Hell, this letter was written even before Thompson’s Rum Diary year in Puerto Rico. This letter was written so long ago that Hunter had a full head of hair when he wrote it “in a frenzy of drink,” as he later recalled in The Proud Highway: Saga of A Desperate Southern Gentleman 1955-1967 (from whence the letter is abduced, I might add).

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And what an arrogant letter it is, written by a 21-year-old scruffian whose entire journalism career consisted of being sports editor of his high school yearbook, writing press releases for the U.S. Air Force, and short stays as a reporter at small-town newspapers in Jersey Shore, Penn., and Middletown, N.Y. Oh yeah, and a few part-time creative writing classes paid for by the G.I. Bill  at Columbia University (despite the fact he never graduated from high school, since he was in jail on the accessory to robbery beef at the time) and another short stay as a copy runner at Time magazine (from which he was fired for — of course — insubordination).

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Airman (2nd class) Hunter S. Thompson before his (honourable) discharge from the USAF in 1958.

For the record, let’s take a look at the Time article that captured Thompson’s attention enough to inspire his letter of employment aspiration.

Time magazine Monday, Dec. 15, 1958

Sunshine in Vancouver

To tart-tongued Columnist Jack Scott, 43, of the Vancouver (B.C.) Sun, no target was ever more tempting than the Sun itself. He railed against the paper’s promotion contests (“cynical seduction of a gullible public”), declared western Canada’s biggest (circ. 211,012) and fattest daily was slow of foot and dull of eye. Critic Scott’s proposal to brighten the Sun: “More deep reporting and vivid writing, the sort of thing that will grab the reader by the lapels and command his attention.” Last September Scott got a chance to put up or shut up; Sun Publisher Don Cromie, 43, called him in and said: “Jack, I’m about to play the dirtiest trick on you that I’ve ever inflicted on anyone. I’ll give you $2,000 a month and the title of editorial director.”

When the news spread that Scott had deserted his columnist’s typewriter for the editor’s desk, staffers were flabbergasted. His witty, five-a-week “Our Town” was the Suns best-read column; his special reports from around the world (Hiroshima, Israel, South Africa) had made him one of Canada’s most honored newsmen. But for twelve years he had been away from the day-to-day run of the news, working at home or out of town. Cracked one staffer: “He’s often been a professional sophomore—now he needs to become a senior.” By last week Sun staffers and readers alike were convinced that Editorial Director Scott was indeed a senior.

No One Is Scott-Free. Grabbing his readers by their lapels. Editor Scott ran an expose of shyster used-car dealers that put the worst offender out of business, followed up with a story on a bogus real estate firm that led to three indictments for fraud. He front-paged an account of Vancouver’s skid-row bread line, side by side with a Canadian Press story saying that Kraft Foods Ltd. blamed the high cost of food on the consumer demand for fancy preparation. Even Publisher Crornie did not get off Scott-free. The Sun ran a three-part analysis of Vancouver’s faltering Community Chest, which Cromie headed last year.

Scott sent Managing Editor Himie Koshevoy to Washington to do a three-part series on John Foster Dulles that turned out more balanced than the Sun’s bitterly anti-Dulles editorials. Down to Uruguay bustled Newshen Simma Holt to find Stefan Sorokin, leader of the buff-stripping, dynamiting Sons of Freedom sect of the Doukhobors, filed stories of the wealth Sorokin had gleaned from his followers in British Columbia.

Heat & Light. Scott’s most startling idea was to send to Formosa monosyllabic Football Editor Annis (the “Loquacious Lithuanian”) Stukus, onetime coach of the Edmonton Eskimos and British Columbia Lions. Scott’s theory: “Stukus will give the average guy a sense of identification with where the hell Formosa is and what’s going on there.” Stukus filed some earnest Hemingway-like prose, scored a major beat by wrangling an exclusive interview with Chiang Kaishek. Though the session produced nothing new, Scott delightedly ran Footballer Stukus’ picture cheek by jowl with the Gimo on the front page.

Flooding the paper with his brand of Sunshine, Scott made fresh and imaginative use of pictures. He restored Pun-diteering Columnist Joe Alsop (TIME, Oct. 27) to the editorial page, added Columnists Red Smith and Jimmy Cannon to the sports section. Says Scott: “You have to do everything with a flair if you’re going to keep them reading the paper when I Love Lucy comes on. You’re in competition all the time against that big glass eye.”

With Columnist-turned-Editor Scott in control, the Sun is meeting the competition with more heat and more light.

 

(UPDATE: I know, I know — Thompson’s letter to Scott was dated 10 WEEKS before the Time magazine piece on Scott’s goosed-up Vancouver Sun appeared. I can’t explain it. The article in question DID run in the Dec. 15, 1958 edition of Time — I’ve seen it — so all I can assume is that Thompson got the date wrong on his letter — either at the point of origin because he was writing it “in a frenzy of drink” or 35 years later when he was pulling together a collection of his correspondence from the 1950s and ’60s for The Proud Highway book. Thompson was still living in New York City in December 1958, so either scenario is possible.)

 

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Above, Jack Scott striking a Tarzan-esque pose during his column-writing days as a young reporter and, below, Vancouver Sun Fashion Editor Marie Moreau sent by Jack Scott (in one of his last acts as editorial director) to interview Cuban rebel leader Fidel Castro in early 1959. She found him sweaty, stinky — and magnetic.

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Three months after the Time article, Scott was fired as editorial director and shipped off to open a (short-lived) London office for the newspaper.

 

That may explain why Hunter S. Thompson was never hired by the Vancouver Sun and, instead, wound up in Puerto Rico writing for sports magazine El Sportivo — which folded shortly after his arrival.

 

Or maybe Jack Scott just had enough on his plate at the time and decided he didn’t need the added headache of (another) smart-aleck, preening, headstrong young hell-raiser on his reporting staff. But I doubt it. I think Scott and Thompson were cut from much the same cloth. Maybe Thompson’s cloth was soaked in liquid LSD, but much the same cloth nonetheless.

 

That’s it: No big denouement, no moral to the story. Just an interesting letter written by a very young man near the beginning of an interesting — and seriously dangerous — life.

 

I’ll leave you now with a few quotes from Hunter S. Thompson as the saloon door swings and creaks behind me.

 

 

As things stand now, I am going to be a writer. I’m not sure that I’m going to be a good one or even a self-supporting one, but until the dark thumb of fate presses me to the dust and says “You are nothing,” I will be a writer.

 

I have no taste for either poverty or honest labour, so writing is the only recourse left for me.

 

If I’d written all the truth I knew for the past 10 years, about 600 people — including me — would be rotting in prison cells from Rio to Seattle today. Absolute truth is a very rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism.

 

Walk tall, kick ass, learn to speak Arabic, love music and never forget you come from a long line of truth seekers, lovers and warriors.

 

“Happy,” I muttered, trying to pin the word down. But it is one of those words, like Love, that I have never quite understood. Most people who deal in words don’t have much faith in them and I am no exception – especially the big ones like Happy and Love and Honest and Strong. They are too elusive and far too relative when you compare them to sharp, mean little words like Punk and Cheap and Phony. I feel at home with these, because they’re scrawny and easy to pin, but the big ones are tough and it takes either a priest or a fool to use them with any confidence.

 

You can’t hoard fun. It has no shelf life.

 

I’d hate to recommend sex, drugs or insanity to everyone, but they’ve always worked for me.

 

My life has been the polar opposite of safe, but I am proud of it and so is my son, and that is good enough for me. I would do it all over again without changing the beat, although I have never recommended it to others. That would be cruel and irresponsible and wrong, I think, and I am none of those things.

 

Freedom is something that dies unless it’s used.

 

On my tombstone they will carve, “IT NEVER GOT FAST ENOUGH FOR ME.”

 

Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”

 

People who claim to know jackrabbits will tell you they are primarily motivated by Fear, Stupidity, and Craziness. But I have spent enough time in jack rabbit country to know that most of them lead pretty dull lives; they are bored with their daily routines: eat, fuck, sleep, hop around a bush now and then … No wonder some of them drift over the line into cheap thrills once in a while; there has to be a powerful adrenalin rush in crouching by the side of a road, waiting for the next set of headlights to come along, then streaking out of the bushes with split-second timing and making it across to the other side just inches in front of the speeding front wheels.

 

So we shall let the reader answer this question for himself: Who is the happier man, he who has braved the storm of life and lived or he who has stayed securely on shore and merely existed?

 

Life has become immeasurably better since I have been forced to stop taking it seriously.

 

 

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1 comment

  1. Greg Gazin says:

    An enjoyable read!

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