I loved newspapers. I loved deadline news.

reading-newspaper2

MY HEART HAS ALWAYS BLED BLACK, the color of printer’s ink.

The first thing I read as soon as I was old enough to tell one word from another was a small town newspaper.

My first jobs were with small town newspapers: Gladewater, Mount Pleasant, and Plainview – never regarded as bastions of journalism in its highest form.

I wanted to be a reporter for one reason.

I was curious.

I wanted to be inside the inner circle of news reporting the moment something important happened. I wanted to know the news before anyone else because I wanted to be the one to tell them.

Sooner or later, I knew I would write a novel about a small town newspaper, and I set the story during the East Texas oil boom of the 1930s.

Deadline News is based on truth.

But isn’t all fiction?

The novel includes my own thoughts and opinions on the newspaper business as seen and experienced by a publisher, editor, and reporter, who all happened to be the same man.

This is what I wrote, and most of it was based on experience.

***

Deadline Cover Jul 31I ran the press and published the Henderson Advocate in accordance with the ringing of the bells. By daylight on Monday morning, everybody in town was reading what they already knew. They just needed cold, hard type to separate fact from fiction and confirm or deny the gossip that was already day-old news and often week-old new by the time my ink was dry.

Henderson probably didn’t need a newspaper, but that was all I had to offer. I hauled a used printing press to town in the back of a wagon, bought ten dollars worth of paper, a barrel of ink for fifty cents, and printed up a handful of business cards that read: Henderson Advocate. “If It’s Important to Henderson, It’s Important to the Advocate.” Cooper Bridges, editor and publisher. I also wrote the stories, sold the advertising, cranked the press, took the photographs, and swept the floor at night. My editorial philosophy was a simple one: facts appreciated, complaints tolerated, criticism ignored, rumors accepted without question, ads paid for in advance and in cash.

On the practical side, Henderson was so small that, by ten o’clock every morning, everybody had already passed on every scrap of rumor, gossip, or news in town, blessing it profanely and profoundly with their own editorial opinions. Who had done what to whom and why was hardly ever a secret.

On the business side, Henderson had very little money, and a serious lack of money meant a serious lack of advertising, and no advertising meant I was in danger of being out of business by the time the ink dried on my last headline. Being broke was an acceptable way of life. I had no desire to be busted as well.

Henderson did, however, offer a courthouse, and an assortment of wild-eyed, sordid, front-page trials could keep a newspaper, even a poor newspaper like mine, in operation for a long time. If written correctly, even the most mundane trial could turn out wild-eyed and sordid on slow news days, and most of them were.

FOR A NEWSPAPERMAN, the courthouse was where it all happened–the good, the bad, but never the indifferent. It was a gathering place for killers and pickpockets, scam artists and thieves, drunks and bootleggers, marriages made in heaven, divorces gone to hell, and reprobates of every shape, color, religion, and national origin.

If the judge had allowed me to set up my press in the basement of the courthouse, that’s where I would have printed the Advocate. There was no reason for me to ever leave. A man who slept too long or too deeply might miss the biggest story of them all, even if he had to concoct a few facts he couldn’t prove and quote a few of the misfits, scalawags, and what knots who had no idea about what was going on but offered an opinion on everything that happened, hadn’t happened, but would probably happen before the judge’s last gavel fell. It didn’t matter to my readers. A story printed once and told twice was regarded as truth and often preached against on Sunday.

A man could steal five dollars in a poker game or rob a bank and walk away with the same amount of money. We even had one old scoundrel tried, convicted, and sent away for taking a man’s last IOU, which was good as hard cash dollars and just about as plentiful.

Hostile divorces could be as gripping as homicides, depending on how badly a woman wanted to removed a worthless man’s heart, usually while it was still beating, and deep fry it for the judge, although suspicious deaths were a lot more common than divorces. I presumed all deaths were suspicious since no one I knew had died on purpose, with the possible exception of Weldon Davis, who stole enough rope to hang himself on the balcony of the Southern Comfort Hotel. Bad woman, some thought. Bad whiskey, others said. Bad luck was what I figured. He had the bad luck to hang himself with good rope.

What I liked about death was that it sold newspapers.

It didn’t particularly matter who died since nobody was rich and even fewer were famous within the pine-blanketed hills and blackberry ravines surrounding Henderson, Texas, during those dark and dying days of 1930. Someone’s sudden departure from this earth always affected someone else, and I couldn’t write front-page obituaries long enough or often enough to satisfy the inquisitive meddling of friends, relatives, acquaintances, neighbors, strangers, and the morbidly curious.

What I liked about selling newspapers was that it put food on the table or at least had an outside chance of financing an occasional dish of pork belly grease down at Herb Smooley’s Café or Johnny Hampton’s chili joint. Smooley simply served a better class of indigestion.

What I liked about eating was that it kept me alive long enough to write about the dying and the burying and the grieving that was as frequent in East Texas as the drought in summer and chilled rain squalls in winter.

Sometimes there was a bullet or buckshot involved.

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  • Caleb Pirtle

    Many times, facing a deadline, I would find a pay telephone or knock on doors until I found someone willing to let me use their phone, and write the story off the top of my head. I wasn’t particularly good. But our re-write man was. I still say silent thank you’s at night for Joe Titus of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

  • Roger Summers

    Two things:

    — Your thoughts on courthouses reminded me of the time long ago that I covered one big city’s courthouse for years and then went off to DeeCee for a spell and quickly came to realize that the Capitol was run just like a big ol’ Texas county courthouse. Scary.

    — Folks used to proudly refer to their hometown newspaper as “My newspaper.” Now they shun them, shrug them off, even seem embarrassed by them. Wonder how come that is?

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Newspapers lost their credibility when salesmen or accountants instead of newsmen became publishers. The scoop, the great front page story, or editorial integrity is no longer as important as the bottom line.

  • Don Newbury

    It was Joe Titus who spent much of his life correcting folks who said, “Over the weekend.” He always promptly corrected: “DURING the weekend.”…

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Joe Titus could take any raw rookie and turn him or her into news reporters.

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