The glory days of cub reporting

First Job: A Memoir of Growing Up at Work
By Rinker Buck
Public Affairs, New York, 396 pages.

Several years ago I was at a reunion of journalism alumni at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst when I heard the following: “Heeeey! How ya doing? I haven’t seen you since that double fatal in Winchendon!”

This is not a greeting you would hear at a Harvard Law School reunion. But what young reporters lack in prestige and paycheck, they get to make up for with lines like that one. (Who else except for John Grisham gets up in the morning, goes to work, and by noon is up to his ears in carnage?) And though they’ll likely have to change careers to have a life like everyone else, with a family and a mortgage, it will be the strange stories and newsroom camaraderie of that first job in journalism that they’ll recall most fondly.

Buck stumbled into a job that striving journalism majors would have killed for.
At its best, Rinker Buck’s memoir of his first job–at The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield in the early 1970s –captures the fun and energy of a first job in newspapering. Freshly graduated from Bowdoin College but basically aimless, Buck stumbled into a job that striving journalism majors would have killed for back in those Watergate days. Under the ownership of the Miller family, the Eagle was one of the best small papers in the country, a recent winner of the Pulitzer for editorial writing. And Pittsfield was a happening place: General Electric was still a force in the city, providing a sense of prosperity that has long since evaporated.

When it works, Buck’s memoir is an entertaining account of life at the paper and in the Berkshires of those days, when the region had its own social structure and a thriving resort scene, and you really could get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant. The Eagle also served as a feeder for bigger papers, and many of Boston’s journalistic elite have done stints there; Buck, for instance, eventually moved into a beat vacated by Nick King, who now edits The Boston Sunday Globe Magazine.

Newspapers may be staffed by more ambitious, smarter young things these days, but you’d be hard-pressed to duplicate the characters of the Eagle newsroom back then. There’s the eccentric and brilliant publisher Lawrence”Pete” Miller, a staunch environmentalist and such a Yankee that, while escorting Ted Kennedy around town, he stops to pick up a nickel from a restaurant floor. There’s the charming and funny Rory O’Connor, known for taking a nap–literally “sleeping on a story” –before cranking out his marvelous copy. And Pulitzer Prize-winning editorialist Roger Linscott becomes a lifelong friend, mentor, and mountain-climbing companion to Buck.

Though his salary is only $130 a week, Buck gets seduced by the Berkshires the way a lot of people do: He loves the outdoors, the mountains, the open spaces, the commute without a stoplight.

He also seems to do plenty of seducing himself, starting with a married Hadassah Woman of the Year he meets while writing a puff piece on her. Buck spares no details of his conquests, such as the night he makes love to three different women in three different far-flung Berkshire towns. Today, the drive alone would probably wear him out.

These revelations become gratuitous to the point of bragging, and an editor should have told him so. But sometimes the women and the work intersect in funny ways: He shares the attentions of one buxom girlfriend with aging journalist and Third Reich author William Shirer, who, it turns out, is as avid a skirt-chaser as Buck is. And he recruits another large-breasted ex-girlfriend to flirt with John Wayne during an interview. It works, of course, and Buck gets his scoop when the Duke launches into a hearty defense of then-President Richard Nixon.

There are funny observations of the odd, not-quite-Brahmin high society of the Berkshires, the tweedy set who lunch in the fancy dining room at the Red Lion Inn and raise money for Hancock Shaker Village, a favorite cause of Miller’s bouffant-haired wife, Amy Bess.

And there are lovingly told anecdotes about Miller, who later passes the paper on to his sons; and Linscott, with whom Buck shares many hours of hiking.

But I wanted more entertaining stories like the details of how different Pittsfield ethnic groups buried their dead. (The Italians went straight to Remo Dagnoli’s funeral home, and their obits had to list the province in Italy where they were born. The Irish didn’t care about their birthplaces, but they always sent their bodies to Devanny’s.) Or the night he covered the premiere of Deep Throat at the Lanesboro Drive-In, only to find Pittsfield’s upper crust in attendance. Or the story of the Great Berkshire Tornado that killed four people.

If Pittsfield is a shadow of its former self, so, too, are first jobs in journalism.

As a bit of Berkshire history, Buck’s book is incomplete. Back then, the departure of General Electric was probably in the air, and that event wrenched the city socially, economically, and environmentally. (Robert Reich was chided in last year’s gubernatorial primary campaign for not knowing where Pittsfield was; the sad fact is you no longer need to know where Pittsfield is to get elected.) There’s barely a mention of another larger-than-life character, Republican Congressman Silvio Conte, whose funeral in 1991 brought a sitting vice president to town–undoubtedly the last time that will ever happen.

If Pittsfield is a shadow of its former self, so, too, are first jobs in journalism. Most entry-level jobs at small newspapers now require an internship in addition to a degree, and, coincidentally, many entry-level jobs are filled by unpaid college interns. The Eagle, like most other family-owned papers, has since been bought up by a large chain, and publishers like Pete Miller live on only in the movies and our imaginations.

A bigger problem is that these jobs pay so little that today’s debt-burdened college grads–especially those from working-class backgrounds –can’t afford to take them. According to a University of Georgia study, the median starting salary for journalism grads is about $26,000, about $5,000 less than what an English lit major can expect to earn. One of my journalism students who graduated in 2002 returned recently to proudly show me the small daily he was working for; he had written three of the four front-page stories. His pay: $10 per hour.

Meet the Author
It may be a reflection on young people as much as the newspaper industry, but returning grads often complain about uninspiring and unhappy editors who don’t edit and who are reluctant to try new approaches to covering news. Their first-job experiences in the newspaper world make graduate school, public relations, and even teaching jobs look more attractive.

Buck was a lucky guy. He entered the business at a paper that cared about quality at a time often thought of as the “golden age” of journalism. Despite his often hapless early adventures in reporting, he stayed in the business and now writes for The Hartford Courant. But he’s now in his 50s. For young people entering the field today, it’s a different world, and their “first job” in journalism is often their last. That’s a loss for us all.