Ten Cents a Column Inch
I called the editor of the weekly paper that showed up in my paper box after I saw an ad for a neighborhood correspondent and told him: “I can do that. I’m home all day with some of the kids, and I have this old Underwood typewriter that still works. . except for the “e” key.. .”
Editor Chuck Kimble said he’d give me 10 cents a column inch for whatever copy he used in the paper each week. “Gee”, I thought to myself, “I can give him at least a thousand inches! I’ll be buying a new car in no time!”.
I was a stressed out housewife with a four year old toddler and a fistful of neighborhood news (gossip?) when I first walked into the Port Orchard Independent office in downtown Port Orchard, Washington, a small town on the west side of Puget Sound across from Seattle.
I soon found out that even 10 inches was going to be hard to come by after making my first couple of phone calls. I started with neighbors that I got along with and after asking the question—“Where did you go on your vacation last week,” the older lady next door responded with, “Oh, honey, I don’t think I want the world to know that!” (At that point in time “the world” as we knew it was population 4,500, more or less, our total circulation).
A couple of more calls resulted in much the same response. I told myself, “Maybe I’m going at this all wrong.”
So I made up a script. What kind of questions would I be likely to respond to should a neighborhood correspondent call me?
I called one woman I knew who had a group of Camp Fire Girls and said, “I’ll bet the mothers of all your members would love to see their girls’ names in the paper.” I came up with eight inches about the latest project they were involved in, and about 10 names. Then I hit on the “keeping up with the Joneses” angle. “Your neighbor down the street entertained 20 women at her monthly bridge party.” That really got the ball rolling. We had weekly Canasta parties, women going for shopping trips to the Seattle Pike Place Market, Boy Scouts’ overnight camping trips to the ocean, garden club meetings and what they learned from a celebrity speaker…I was on a roll.
The day of reckoning came when I presented this handful of wonderful prose to the editor who tried to let me down easy. “We are just a small weekly paper,” he told me and went on to explain about advertising space vs editorial space and how the “real” news--obituaries, sports and other vital information--made it necessary to cut down on other items, such as neighborhood happenings.
“We might not be able to run all of it,” he said gently and then went on to explain how I could update the items he didn’t have room for and run them the following week.
I was devastated. Moreover, I PROMISED all those people that they would see their names in the next issue. Big Shot me! Needless to say when the paper came out that week I spent more time on the phone, explaining to folks that there just wasn’t room for their stories but that I was sure they would run it as an updated item the following week.
So what happened then? A whole bunch of items were left out again due to a lot of local happenings reported by the editor who had seniority. I hadn’t been on the job two weeks and I had a whole lot of people in my neighborhood slamming down the phone as soon as they knew it was me.
But that wasn’t the worst part. Since only eight inches made the final cut each week I was earning 80 cents a pop for my arduous efforts.
I soon began to pace myself. I also refrained from making promises I couldn’t deliver. I also learned not to antagonize my sources by calling too often, or misspelling their names or getting dates and places skewed. I was learning.
Then I committed the unforgivable editorial sin. If the story wasn’t interesting enough (in my opinion) I began to embellish certain facts. Sometimes my humorous comments got a laugh from the editor and not just a few readers who called in or wrote in about my funny columns. Of course those who became the butt of my jokes didn’t find it funny at all. They threatened to sue! That’s when I decided, “Okay, if the readers wanted funny I’d give them funny, but only at my own (my husband’s and my kids’) expense.”
Doing it this way would only get threats of divorce and mutiny. I could handle it.