Getting Started in Journalism: “Okay, You’re Hired, and Expect to Work Overtime Without Pay”


UPI’s Bill Mead listening to Michigan Governor George Romney in 1966.

By William B. Mead

I was a liberal arts student, whistling along with B’s and C’s while enjoying college life at Northwestern. It was during the Korean War and employers weren’t that interested in young men like me because we faced the draft—two years in the Army—upon graduation. I thought newspaper work might be fun but didn’t know anyone in the business, and I hadn’t worked on the Daily Northwestern, our college newspaper.

The Army trained me as a Morse Code radio operator, a skill with a past but no future. After training I was posted to Staten Island, New York. Jenny Hilton, my college sweetheart, was already in New York, working for Mademoiselle magazine. Through Jenny I met several journalists including Bill Greeley, a reporter for Variety, the showbiz newspaper. I asked Bill how I could get a newspaper job when I got out of the Army.

Work for the wires, he advised. AP and UP often hired beginners, and wire service work was good training.

Jenny and I got married in 1956 and we lived in Greenwich Village while I commuted to Staten Island. We saved money and after discharge in July 1957 we traveled to Europe, returning home in October so broke that I could job hunt only in Richmond, Virginia, where we could live with her parents, or in St. Louis, where we could live with mine.

St. Louis came first. I applied to the AP and UP bureaus. No openings, kid, and besides, what are your qualifications, if any? In Richmond, Jenny’s father lined me up for an interview with Virginius Dabney, editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch; he advised me to apply to newspapers in smaller towns. The AP bureau was equally uninterested.

But at the UP bureau I walked in the door just when a warm body was needed. With the Virginia General Assembly about to meet, the UPI bureau manager, H.L. Stevenson, had wheedled approval to hire another staffer, swelling the bureau roster to four, beginning January 1, 1958. Steve was working 70 or 80 hours a week so he didn’t have time to mount a recruiting drive. Okay Mead, you’re hired, at the Guild beginner’s wage of $67.50 a week, which included a bonus for working six days. And expect to work overtime without pay.

For two months I came to work every day expecting to be fired. But Steve proved to be tolerant even while sometimes sputtering at my performance,  and he was a great mentor, rising to become UPI’s executive VP. He taught me how to report and write in the UPI style and how to love the work. He became a close and valuable friend. He died in 1995 and I still miss him.

Remembering the Detroit bureau and all those new cars:

In 1965, I was named Detroit bureau manager. Detroit was then the fifth most populous city in the US and its economy was strong, thanks to the Big Three auto makers–General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler.

For UPI in Detroit, the auto industry was the most important beat. The companies eagerly demonstrated their new models to the press by offering “loaners”—new cars you could borrow, often with no deadline for return. I harbored the suspicion that this amounted to bribery, but the friendly public relations men assured us that they were not investing in favorable coverage. No, they just wanted journalists to be familiar with their latest products.

I first tried to discourage the use of loaners but our UPI staffers were underpaid, often driving clunkers, and the system was ingrained. Old-timers told me that new Frigidaire and Philco home appliances used to be appear at the UPI bureau at Christmas time: Help yourselves, gents. And these weren’t loaners. Frigidaire was owned by General Motors and Philco by Ford. Chrysler made tanks for the Army but never offered us one.

Glitches were quickly smoothed over by friendly public relations reps. A new reporter came to work one day, temporarily leaving his wife and family behind. He latched on to a loaner, hit the roadhouses, wisely took a taxi back to his hotel, and awoke the next morning wondering where he had left the car. He sheepishly confessed to the PR guy, who assured him they’d find the car, don’t worry, call any time.

Our auto writer, Dave Chute, sometimes needed two cars once his daughter reached driving age. One day the daughter’s Chevy loaner backed into Dave’s Ford loaner in a memorable double-loaner-fender-bender. The PR men sent tow trucks.

Edward Lechtzin, a UPI colleague, ascended to the auto beat in 1971 and to the public relations staff of General Motors in 1977. Why? GM tripled his salary. So Ed knew loaners first as a borrower and, with GM, as a lender. Here’s Ed:

“The most interesting loaner I ever had while in the UPI bureau was a top-of-the-line Mercedes. It must have cost around $20,000 when a Ford Mustang started at under $2,400.

“I was around 25, with hair almost to my shoulders and a full beard. They would have described me as a hippie. The bureau’s sports reporter, Rich Shook, and I drove the Mercedes across the Ambassador Bridge that connected Detroit with Windsor, Ontario. This was long before 9/11 and crossing the border in either direction was no big deal except when the customs agents thought you might be smuggling drugs.

“So picture one very scroungy looking guy (me) with another not-so-savory character coming across the bridge around one in the morning in a luxury Mercedes.

“The usual repartee was a quick ‘Are you a U.S. citizen? Where do you live? Thank you.’ But not on this night. The agent asked me if the Mercedes was my car. When I told him I had borrowed it from Mercedes, he ordered us to pull up by the customs office. Asked for proof that I had borrowed it from Mercedes, I pulled out the release form and discovered that it said in big letters, ‘NOT TO BE REMOVED FROM THE USA.’

“The agents prepared to take the car apart in search of drugs. My pleas got me a brief reprieve and I called the Mercedes PR guy at 1:30 a.m. He came and reclaimed the car. We took a taxi home and I was never loaned another Mercedes.”
Bill Mead worked for UPI, as bureau manager in Detroit and as a reporter/editor in Richmond, Chicago, and Washington. He then moved into magazine work, as Washington correspondent for Money magazine and then as a writer and editor for The Washingtonian. He has authored six books on baseball history. His latest work is the ebook Come Back Moo, a biography of his remarkable grandfather.


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