Why I Went Into Journalism: It Started in the Fifth Grade

By Mike Feinsilber

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Mike Feinsilber enjoyed a 50-year career as a wire service journalist.

Getting a job in journalism was pretty easy when I graduated from Penn State in 1956. I already had a journalistic history: editor, publisher, and typewriter production chief of the Daily Stink, a samizdat newspaper whose carbon copy issues were circulated among fellow scholars in fifth grade at the Ramsey Elementary School (it didn’t come out every day—I just didn’t know that’s what “daily” meant).

Then came the Ramsey Reporter, the same publication renamed at the insistence of the sixth grade homeroom teacher; the Bagel Bugle, a Sunday morning breakfast table newspaper typewritten by me on Saturdays and reporting to my mom, dad, sister, and brother what was going on within the family; the Mountaineer, the monthly high school paper, of which I was editor; the Daily Collegian, the college paper (which was a daily), whose staff I joined as soon as I got to Penn State and of which I ultimately became editor; two wonderful summers as the $40 a week police reporter (3 p.m. to 3 a.m. as it worked out) at the Lancaster (Pa.) Intelligencer-Journal, a tradition-rich morning paper.

So, if nothing else, I had this to show prospective employers: a burning yearning to be a newsie.

The Penn State journalism school was pretty good about informing Pennsylvania newspapers of the graduating crop of would-be journalists. So, even before I graduated, the Easton Express, an afternoon paper in a Pennsylvania city 32 miles from my hometown, called me with an offer I found easy to refuse: being the paper’s religion editor with responsibility for putting out the church page for Saturday’s paper.

No, thanks. Like Sherwin Williams paint, I wanted to cover the world.

So I applied to the Associated Press in New York, was interviewed by a senior editor, took a writing test, and was told my application would be circulated among the bureaus to see if any wanted me. United Press sent a representative to Penn State to interview prospective employees. The UP man had back problems. He interviewed me lying flat on his bed in his room at the Nittany Lion Inn. It was disconcerting but productive: When could I start in the Pittsburgh bureau? Day after graduation, I said.

After my first day of work, I called home, on the opposite side of Pennsylvania. My mom told me that the Associated Press had telephoned with word of a job waiting for me in AP’s Philadelphia bureau. But, loyal to my employer after a single day on the job, I decided to stay with United Press.

Like all new hires, I was on probation for six months, which meant I could be fired without cause or explanation at any time during that period. After that, I could be fired only with cause or with severance. My salary was $67.50 a week, a pittance more if I worked nights.

I was diligent and UP generally liked my work. One day I was asked to write a sports story on a minor league baseball game based on the box score and notes from a stringer. (The bureau sent a senior staffer to Pirates games.) I’d never been much of a sports fan and the sports pages were unknown territory. So I turned in a story with a lead something like this:

“ALIQUIPPA, Pa. (UP) —The Aliquippa Tigers beat the Donora Bears in a baseball game here Monday night by a score of 4 to 3.”

The desk editor looked at my piece. Well, you’ve got everything there, he said, but it just doesn’t read like a sports story. They found non-sports news for me to write.

As the six-month deadline approached, the bureau manager called me in. We like your work, Feinsilber, but to be candid, you’re draft bait. If you got drafted, by law UP would be required to rehire you at third-year scale. (Probably something approaching $100 a week.) So we’re going to have to let you go.

I mentioned the conversation to a colleague, who turned out to be the chairman of the Pittsburgh unit of the guild, the ever-so-weak union that represented UP’s overworked and underpaid staffers. He had a conversation with the bureau manager. Maybe he suggested that firing a staffer because he might be drafted skirted the law. The bureau manager reconsidered. I was kept on the payroll.

But the bureau manager’s instincts had been pretty good. Healthy and no longer protected by a college deferment, I got a post card from my hometown draft board suggesting I show up for a pre-induction physical. Within a month, I was in an Army uniform.

The bureau manager’s instincts were right on a second count: two years later, I returned to the UPI payroll (United Press merged with the International News Service during my military career). Now I was earning the princely pay of a third-year newsman.

I stayed with UPI for the next 25 years—working in Columbus, Harrisburg, Newark (as bureau manager), New York (as a feature writer), Saigon, and Washington. By that time, the competition between two wire services, which were sort of on equal footing in the 1950s, had collapsed. UPI was fading fast, losing the race; AP was the dominant news service. I was lured away by a generous job offer from AP, and spent the next 25 years on the AP’s Washington staff and another 10 as a part-time AP Washington bureau writing coach.

I was a wireguy.

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