Skip to main content

ASU writer reflects on early days in journalism

April 11, 2012

Editor's Note: This column by ASU writer Judith Smith was inspired by the 2012 book "Skirting Traditions"a collection of profiles on Arizona's women journalists.  

I can identify with many of the women profiled in “Skirting Traditions” – I, too, was a “soc broad” in the earliest days of my newspaper career.

In other words, I was hired to write weddings, engagements and society news in my first journalism job.

But I didn’t care. I had never aspired to be a journalist, or a writer, or anything else, for that matter. No woman in my family had worked or had a career, and it never occurred to me that I would.

I earned a degree in English – rhetoric, history of England, linguistics, Black literature, Milton and Beowulf. These were my courses, not copy editing or news writing. It’s a wonder that I ever ended up as a reporter and feature writer.

In my first “real” job, at the public relations/traffic safety office of the Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles, I was hired to write and publish the in-house newspaper, called “Behind the Wheel.”

During the interview before I was hired, the director of the office, a former journalist, asked me if I knew about the “pyramid.” Nope, have no idea, I replied. She informed me that it was the style of news writing where the most important facts were in the top of the story, with the least important at the end, so the story could be chopped from the bottom, if necessary.

OK. Now I knew about the pyramid. Could I “write” on a typewriter? No, I replied. “Well, you’ll have to learn how,” she said. OK.

In spite of my lack of journalism knowledge, I started putting out “Behind the Wheel,” and loving it. I even added a comment column that I named “Fan Belts.”

Due to personal circumstances, I found myself back home in California after a year at the DMV (where I had also learned to write radio spots on traffic safety – speed kills, take it easy, etc.).

Not knowing what to do next, I thought about my career options. Hmmm. Ernest Hemingway and Mark Twain had been journalists. Why not see if I could work for a newspaper?

Fate put me in the right spot at the right time and I was hired by the society section of a small Southern California newspaper. The society editor was a woman who had worked for that paper most of her life, and I began to worry that she would die at her desk.

On the first morning there, she threw a story, written on traditional newspaper copy paper, on my desk, and said, “Give me a DC 24.”

Uh-oh. I had no idea what she was talking about. Was my career in journalism about to end on the first morning?

I sneaked out to the newsroom, where my predecessor had moved, and asked her if she could explain this DC stuff to me. “Oh, she wants a double-column, 24-point headline,” she explained.

I could do that.

For the next two years I wrote about weddings and engagements, took pictures (I lied in my interview and said I could use a Rolleiflex camera and made a hasty trip to the camera store for some pointers before my first day on the job) and began writing feature stories.

Then, I was hired by a bigger newspaper to write more features and more weddings. And more headlines. And I thought sure I had tanked my career there within the first few weeks.

At the small paper, we used to cover parties and social events, running photos of teas and other events. So, when I was assigned to go to a library tea, I came back with all the information scribbled in my notebook: what was on the menu, who was there, and what they had worn.

Back at the office, I told my editor that “Oh, by the way, there was a really interesting guest there, from our circulation area. She had written an unusual cookbook.”

Then it hit me – I was supposed to go and interview the cookbook author and write a story about her, not what the women ate and what color their designer dresses were. Feeling really stupid, I quickly said I’d go visit the author in her home as quickly as possible.

I never wanted to cover politics, the economy, school board or the “cop shop.” Getting to talk to people in a variety of walks of life was thrilling to me. Because the newspaper was in a wealthy town, many famous people came to visit and I got to interview many of them, such as Eugene Ormandy, Edith Head, Nancy Reagan, Ray Bradbury, Diana von Furstenberg (and her husband Egon). I also got to meet Pilar Wayne in the waterfront home she shared with John, and visit the author Irving Stone at his Los Angeles home. And many more.

The ordinary, everyday people were just as interesting, however, such as the late-middle-aged woman who sold hot dogs by day and wrote poetry at night, and whose biggest dream was to have her poems published.

That dream came true when we ran one of her poems along with the story (which had expanded to include other part-time poets). It was none too soon for this woman who was passionate about words. She died less than a month after the story ran. Her family told me at her funeral that I had given her the best gift ever.

It’s a good thing I was nosy the day I passed the deli, and stopped to listen.

Smith, a writer in ASU's Office of Public Affairs, has worked as a feature writer, columnist and editor for four newspapers and one magazine. Smith holds a master's degree in American Literature from California State University, Long Beach, and a bachelor's degree in English from California State University, Fresno.