Getting Into Journalism: Lincoln Steffens Made Me Want to Do It

Screen shot 2014-01-17 at 12.49.14 PM

By Mike Feinsilber

Jimmy Walker, the playboy mayor of New York, once told reporters he was against censorship. “No girl was ever seduced by a book,” he said.

Maybe so, but this boy was. I devoured The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens and it changed my life.

In the turn-of-the century journalistic reform movement known as muckraking, Steffens was the chief raker. He travelled the nation to uncover corporate monopolies and government corruption. I found his autobiography in the Monroe County Public Library in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, my hometown, and later tumbled to the three-volume autobiography of H.L. Mencken and the seduction was complete. I was going to be a newsie.

I was just a kid, but I started at the top—as a publisher. With sheets of carbon paper and an old typewriter, I spent Saturdays pounding out a one-page newspaper, which appeared the next morning on the family breakfast table. Its name was The Bagel Bugle. Circulation: 5.

In an act of empire-building, I joined up with a grade school chum, Peter Kiefer, and expanded to a second newspaper. Pete’s father, an architect, employed a secretary. She was willing to serve as our printing press. She’d make multi-carbon copies on onion skin. I named the paper (perhaps under the influence of Lincoln Steffens) The Daily Stink. It wasn’t a daily; I just thought “daily” was part of the name of a newspaper. I doubt that Pete and I exposed much malfeasance at Ramsey Elementary School.

Stroudsburg, a tourist town, is about 90 miles from New York and 90 miles from Philadelphia, so the newsstand outside LeBar’s Drug Store offered a generous array of newspapers, which, as I recall, cost about a nickel, sometimes less. So I serially read all eight that came from New York—the Herald Tribune (establishmentarian voice of the Republican Party); the Times which used to print transcripts of presidential news conferences, congressional hearings, court decisions and major speeches); the World-Telegram (a Scripps-Howard paper with a drawing of a lighthouse in its nameplate in keeping with the corporate slogan, “Give light and the people will find their own way”); William Randolph Hearst’s splashy Journal- American; the conservative Sun (“It shines for all”); the three tabloids, the News (conservative despite its blue-collar readership); the Mirror (a second Hearst paper) and the Post (liberal).

I paid only passing attention to the other out-of-town papers, the Philadelphia Bulletin or the Inquirer or the regional papers, the Easton Express, the Allentown Morning Call (which printed a column written in Pennsylvania Dutch) or the Scranton Tribune. I read the local paper, The Daily Record, and submitted accounts of my Boy Scout troop’s achievements, which got printed unchanged. I loved walking in and smelling the ink.

The Daily Stink survived fifth grade but when Pete and I moved on to sixth grade, our homeroom teacher, with a shameless disregard for the First Amendment, directed us to change the paper’s name. It became The Ramsey Reporter.

High school brought me to The Mountaineer, a monthly newspaper. I was its editor and wrote a column of wisecracks. (The biology class was going to visit the wild animal farm. Harriette volunteered: “Alpaca lunch!”) Corny, but Harriette wrote in my yearbook, “I’ll never forget ‘alpaca lunch.’”

College was an easy decision. Penn State had a student paper, The Daily Collegian. My sister sent me copies. I applied nowhere else. And applied myself—at least 40 hours a week—to the Collegian. Maybe I studied too.

A tradition of the journalism school was to send one or two students to summer jobs at the two jointly owned but completely competitive dailies in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. On the Intelligencer-Journal, I was the late police reporter, making the rounds to the three hospitals, the city police, and the state police in a company car and struggling to keep straight the challenging spelling of the Amish townspeople. I was paid $40 the first summer, $45 the second.

From college it was an easy leap to the wire services—25 years with United Press (later United Press International), 25 years with The Associated Press. The seduction turned into a lifelong love affair.
This is the first in a series of dispatches from journalists, working or retired, telling what drew them into the news business. If you have a getting-into-journalism story to tell, email [email protected] or [email protected]

Speak Your Mind