SPJ 2020 Journalism Conference • Sept. 12-13, 2020



What do you remember about your first job?

By Billy O'Keefe

By Michael Malik
Indiana University
Every journalist — even the big names — started somewhere. Tales from that first job are swapped in newsrooms, bars and conventions across the world. Whether good or bad, these war stories bond journalists. Whether the story involves monkeys or dogs, a snowstorm or never writing a story on a typewriter. Every journalist has a story to tell.
Bob Dotson, NBC News correspondent
“It was a CBS-owned radio station in my hometown of St. Louis and I said ‘I’m your guy.’ … They sent me down to the St. Louis Zoo as an announcer for the elephant show, and they said if you’re good enough you can work up to chimpanzees. …
“Batman was big that year. … Chimpanzees are like four-foot-six and they weight 110 pounds and they can just bite your head off. At the beginning of the show they would send this little chimpanzee down looking like Batman to the stage.
“But they gave me a pellet gun and said there’s a chimpanzee named Captain Bozo who’s really mean. He’s about at the point where he’s not going to do this anymore because he keeps hearing when the chimpanzees retire they become breeders. So … if he ever gets up over the audience and drops down, we’re going to have some kids that get chewed up. So, just shoot him with the pellet gun.
“Towards the end of the summer the engineer and I are half looking at the show going on and we’re playing cards. Suddenly we hear a gasp, and here comes Captain Bozo … Well, my big mistake and how I lost my radio job was I leaned outside with the pellet gun and shot him. I dropped him right in the moat.
“Of course, the headlines in the St. Louis Post Dispatch and the Globe-Democrat the next day were ‘Zoo announcer shoots beloved chimp.’”
Samuel Freedman, Professor, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism
“I worked at the Courier News in Bridgewater, NJ — it was 45,000 circulation daily. I did what a lot of starting reporters did, I covered four municipalities: cops, school board, local government and so on.
“There was a big blizzard. It started snowing one day, and the editor of our paper decided if all of our staff went home (we were) probably going to be so snowbound the next day that no reporters would be back in. And our deadlines were in the morning because we were an afternoon paper.
“So they arranged for the whole staff to stay at a Holiday Inn down the road.
“It was like the most fun. Everyone was carousing at the Holiday Inn. They gave everyone a room and a $20 voucher for food, which, of course, everybody spent at the bar. The next day everyone was able to drive the half-mile back to the office and put out a special edition of the paper.”
Dave Carlson, Immediate past president, SPJ
“First journalism job was working for Gennette at the Chronicle Tribune in Marion, Ind.
“The first story I ever did was a rural school board meeting. This newspaper had computer terminals, this was 1973, and it claimed to be the first computerized newspaper in the world. There was an article about me in Editor & Publisher with a headline that said, ‘Reporter has never written story on typewriter.’ That was a big deal in 1973.”
Bill Kurtis, TV journalist
“It was my very first story in Chicago. It was a feature story about a guy who put contact lenses on dogs. I was the last one to go, but nobody showed the doctor putting the contact lenses on the dog. I had him demon-strate, which was the only story.
It didn’t exactly catch on, but nevertheless, I guess I scored.”




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