Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Begging Route to Working in Newspaper

I got into print by begging.

With me quaking in my figurative boots in front of his paper-stacked desk, Jack King looked up only momentarily from his desk, peering at me over thick glasses. Go to the courthouse, he said. He needed someone there. "I don't know if you'll like it," he said in a strong Texas drawl, then returned to banging the keys on his ancient computer, his sharply angled elbows flailing.

He didn't really seem to mind what I filed, as long as he had something to put in the paper. Some of the other writers coasted under a well-established rule of benign neglect -- but I was 27 and ambitious and had catching up to do. So I'd file one, two or even three stories a day, taking on enterprise pieces not particularly related to my courthouse post. Money laundering, a near-mythic tiny border town, Mexican abortions, I would write about anything.

Kind people like Bob Fatheree taught me some of the ropes as I went, but I was unformed by rules and unencumbered by overmuch formal journalism training. I didn't know what an inverted pyramid was. I used dashes like they were the glue holding the world together. I'd take a single piece of advice -- "Make your lead line interesting" -- and extract every bit of wisdom from it. My favorite lead of all time? About a lawsuit against a toystore chain that had inadvertently sold children's videos that had been recorded (incompletely, unfortunately) over porn.

One single, understated word lead line:


Jack King gave me unparalleled freedom. He seemed to have an amused curiosity about what in the world I would turn in next. Once I filed a story that was so long it pretty much had chapters -- it was full of sordid details about Dr. Broekel, a physician who had jumped bail after conviction but before being sentenced.

His crime? Depended on who you talked to, but the jury concluded he had molested a number of his foster and/or adopted children. I'm thinking that number was 18.

His ex-wife came to me looking for a story to light the fire under the powers that be. It seemed no one had remembered either to put out or to attended to a warrant for his arrest, and he had been doing medical mission work in Guatemala for a couple years, free as a bird, not even so much as handcuffs awaiting him at home.

I turned in a real clunker of a piece -- and Jack came storming out of his office, exasperated, cussing as I recall, throwing his blade-thin arms in the air. "This story is 125 inches long. I can't just cut this! Who's going to read all this?" I told him I couldn't cut it, either -- I wouldn't know where to start -- and he stormed back into his office and laid it on the page. And then it jumped. And it jumped. And it jumped. Again.

Since Broekel was from San Diego, I sold a version of the same piece to the San Diego paper for $200 or something. They pretty much had the same complaint about cutting it, but they didn't have the luxury of multiple jumps. There was a hitch, though -- there was a labor dispute at the paper, so I wouldn't get a byline, or maybe just a contributing byline. Send me the check, I said.

So the piece I wrote spawned a flurry of activity. Broekel's ex made the media rounds -- Sally Jessy Raphael gave my piece credit when her show did a segment about it -- and sooner or later, an embarrassed Uncle Sam went down to Guatemala to collect the miscreant doc. They brought him back to Hidalgo County for sentencing, and I managed to get into the jail for an interview.

It was Christmastime, if I remember right, which meant golfing weather in the Rio Grande Valley, and a sunny trip for federal agents looking for redemption. Dr. Broekel was a mild, Santa-looking fellow with twinkling blue eyes, but an orange inmates suit instead of the jolly red one -- and lumpy, fatty tumors on his lower arms above the handcuffs to spoil the Norman Rockwell picture. Other than appearing somewhat badly drawn, he looked harmless enough.

He had been doing just fine in Guatemala, he said, until some reporter wrote an article and got people all stirred up and looking for him. "Is that so?" I asked, eyes wide as possible.

After my mammoth work on Broekel hit the Sunday rack, a letter accusing me of being worthy of working at the National Enquirer soon followed. My sin, the writer flamed with considerable vitreol, was insulting Dr. Broekel's faith. He was, as I recall, a Seventh Day Adventist, and I had made reference to "his twisted faith." I hadn't meant to call the entire body twisted, I just meant HIS personal faith had to be at least a little out of whack since, after all, he'd jumped bail instead of facing the legal music and in view of what he was accused of. Please.

It was my first hate mail.

I've learned to cut monster stories down to size since that epic piece on the twisted doc. And I'm a little more careful about who or what I call "twisted."

And I never did get to work for the Enquirer. But that's how I took the begging route to newspaper.

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