What It’s Like to Work With Tom Shales

By Jack Limpert

Tom and I go way back. I came to Washington in 1967 to start a weekly newspaper, the DC Examiner, for a strange, rich man, O. Roy Chalk, who then owned DC Transit, the company that operated the Washington bus system. Chalk hated the Washington Post, which had been critical of him and the whole idea of public transit being run by a private company. The idea of the DC Examiner was to give the paper away to the people who rode the buses and maybe steal some readers and ads from the Post.

We set up shop in the Car Barn, a big red brick building at the foot of Key Bridge in Georgetown, and I began to try to hire a staff. I connected with Tom, then either a student or dropout at American University. We clicked, he was hired for $50 a week, and he brought along some of his friends from the Eagle, the college newspaper.

We put out a lively weekly paper but in retrospect it had no chance. There was no circulation revenue. The bus riders were not a target market for most advertisers and I had no clue how to put together an ad staff. The root problem was that Chalk didn’t have a business plan other than to irritate the Washington Post.

Chalk lived mostly in New York and as the paper got going, he kept finding people in New York to write for the Examiner. The first was Walter Winchell, then in his waning days. The second was Damon Runyon Jr., who moved to DC to write for the paper—the young staff loved listening to his stories. The short version of Damon’s life: He was a talented writer, he had never learned to live with being the son of Damon Runyon, who had no affection for him, and he was a drinker. He fell in love with a young redhead on the Examiner’s ad staff and after some kind of split-up he drank too much and jumped off a bridge in Georgetown.

Tom wrote great stories for the Examiner, mostly about about the arts and entertainment, and after the paper folded he joined the staff of the Washington Post, where he mostly covered television and won a Pulitzer and many readers. Then after almost 40 years, the Post pushed him out along with a lot of its other writing talent. Along with James Andrew Miller, he wrote two lively books, Those Guys Have All the Fun, about ESPN, and  Live From New York, about Saturday Night Live, and he connected with his old friend, Roger Ebert, and he continues to write for Ebert’s website.
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So he wrote the piece about editors published here earlier this week.  He didn’t really want to do it—like a lot of older journalists, he thinks it’s a sin to write for no pay.

After the piece came out on Tuesday, the Posties jumped all over the fact that Tom had misspelled the first and last names of Reid Beddow, one of the Post editors he liked. Beddow died in 1992 and when I googled Reed Beddoe, Tom’s spelling, I got no hits and didn’t check further, as any competent copy editor would have done.

Tom felt awful about it:

“How about that, Jack — I misspelled BOTH the first and last names of the poor guy. Sort of an accomplishment, of my usual imbecilic type. Jesus Christ (did i spell that right?)!  I’m my own worst enemy.  Like Nixon”

I emailed back:

“Nobody with any sense or brains really cares that much about a misspelled name. At the magazine, a fact-checker gets paid the minimum wage—their job is to check the spelling of names. Fact-checkers are very easy to find. Great writers are very hard to find.

“You didn’t muff anything. You wrote a piece that told some good stories.

“Comments on the web are like fans at a ball game. They can’t play the game but they sit and cheer and boo and yell at the players about what they’re doing wrong. The fans can make noise but nobody cares. It’s the players who matter.

“Keep writing–your talent is still there.”
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The meaning of all this: Tom has a very interesting mind—out of 100 journalists, maybe out of 1,000,  you’d be lucky to find one with as interesting a mind.

Like many a very good writer, he’s too quick to react to criticism, to beat up on himself.

For many a print journalist, the digital world can be a cruel place and it’s hard to find much money in it.

And for many journalists writing for the web, a good editor is hard to find.

Comments

  1. As I recall, Tom was just one required lab science course short of a degree at American University, a chemistry class. Thus, he remained “degreeless” until he won the Pulitzer and AU wanted to add him to their list of distinguished graduates and awarded him his degree without his having to learn the ins and outs of chemistry.

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