No room for nuance

John Bott, editor, in the Santa Fe New Mexican newsroom, 1974.

I fear what would have happened if I’d walked up to the editors in my first newsroom and told them I was filing a “nuanced” story.

This was over 40 years ago, and odds are that a curmudgeonly copy editor would have been the only other person in the room to know the meaning of the word.

I certainly didn’t at the time and I’m still not sure about the meaning, or of the seeming difference in usage between noun and verb. My usage here is hypothetical. But imagining the vetting of a story at the last paper I worked, I suspect the libel lawyers would be leaping if a nuance came into view.

I have no problem then or now with magazine and Sunday stories, or what we more often called features, and we, too, were reading and admiring the “new journalism” of the day. Even so, heaven forbid in that small town newsroom of the 1970s that I should say I was filing a “long form” story or a “deep dive.” I think I would have been directed to take a dip in the recently filled Cochiti Lake.

All I know is that the crusty New York Post veteran who gave me my first newspaper job, other than paperboy, once saved a hole on a page and gave me a deadline to file a breaking story. I wasn’t dictating from the scene on a pay phone for some reason — although I had learned to always carry quarters — and I took my time polishing my copy at my typewriter in the office. I filed late and long.

This former big city editor, John Bott, who had started in the business as a copyboy on the Post’s “Lindbergh desk” in the 1930s, had semi-retired to Santa Fe in the early 1970s. Though he still worked six days a week and called in on the seventh, disdaining an office to command The New Mexican from the head of the newsroom, he now was leading a paper whose circulation was around 20,000. Half of his staff, including myself, might be called kids. I was a bartender when he hired me. One of my best friends in the newsroom also had come from behind a bar and another Bott had hired at a cocktail party.

Chewing menacingly on his cigar stub, Mr. Bott glared at me as I presented my past-deadline story, much longer than the prescribed hole. “If this was a real newspaper, you’d be fired,” he growled.

I still tremble at the words.

My biggest laugh in the Billy Wilder-Jack Lemmon-Walter Matthau version of “The Front Page” (1974) is the scene where impatient editor Walter Burns looms over the shoulder of reporter Hildy Johnson, on whose story he is waiting, and asks him what he’s doing. Hildy says he is polishing the second paragraph. Burns replies, “Who’s gonna read the second paragraph?”

I ran into not-so-subtle editor reaction even at the weekly paper in Santa Fe. The tension was palpable, to say the least, as I sat in the editor’s cramped office while he edited a late story on deadline. He was running the story through his typewriter, firing questions at me as he went. When I tried to explain the nuances of a probably clumsy sentence in a story apparently in need of rewriting, this Newsday veteran snapped, in words that still sting, “We only have time for ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers.”

My first interview with a really famous person was with retired General of the Army Omar Bradley. I was in awe, for one thing, and I succumbed to the fundamental newspaper flaw of wanting to be a writer more than a reporter. I stayed up all night in the newsroom trying to write my story for the then-pms paper, filling my trash can with reams of crumpled paper. At something like 7 in the morning, I walked up to the city editor’s desk. Laying the story into his copy basket instead of giving it the usual toss, I mentioned I had worked on it all night.

The city editor glanced at it for a second or two and asked, “For this?”

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