The Resident Genius
By Dave Friedman
Over the years a number of smart Newsweek correspondents have told me I was a genius. I’m not saying I am, just that several correspondents insisted that I was. How COULD this possibly be?
I’d been a reporter for the Lehman College newspaper, Meridian, and hoped to pursue a career in journalism. Days after I graduated in August 1976, I walked into 444 Madison cold and was hired as a messenger in the service department on the 13th floor. At the turn of the new year I moved down one flight to the editorial mail desk and thought I was fulfilling my goal of working my way up the ladder. It never happened.
Newsdesk stint: Other than a three month fill in stint at the newsdesk while Debbie Dzolan was on maternity leave in summer ’77, I couldn't get a shot at a researcher position. By this time applicants for such entry-level jobs had degrees from prestigious Ivy League universities or journalism schools. No more starting on the clip desk and proving how much more you were capable of doing.
Instead I delivered the mail to the editorial staff and clipped the AP and Reuters wires until there was an opening in the wireroom for a distribution clerk. Readers of a certain horse-and-buggy vintage will recall how copy came into New York via various teletype machines. Then it was ripped off, cut into page lengths, run off on a mimeograph machine using different colored paper depending on where it had originated (domestic files on pink, foreign files on blue, Washburo files, green and advisories, white) collated and distributed by hand.
Some time in the early ’80s a new wrinkle—computerization—was introduced into the wireroom. Instead of reporters’ files printing out automatically when transmitted, copy was now locked in the memory of a terminal and had to be actively retrieved. My shift started at 6:30am but the wireroom staffer whose job it was to retrieve the copy didn’t start his day until 9:00am. Luckily Newspaper Guild rules weren’t so strict (or followed) that my figuring out the process by which I could retrieve the files locked in the terminal wasn’t a problem. Instead a reputation was being born.
The wireroom staffers, Don Gordon, Frank Hoey and Gary Faulkner were all veteran ex-military teletypists who “punched” copy at blazing speed. But they were not interested in the new-fangled machinery which was supposedly “automating” the process. I on the other hand would never be a speed typist. Rather, I was an empty vessel and the drill for accessing the locked up copy was something I quickly mastered and happily demonstrated to anyone else who needed to perform the procedure.
XyWrite: Computerization continued and the various telex machines were removed and correspondents stateside and abroad were given first generation portable computers to write their files using a word processing program was called XyWrite and modems to transmit them with via CrossTalk. My workday was suddenly consumed with phone calls from correspondents asking “how do I move a paragraph?” or “I lost the last page of my file, what do I do?” or “How do I connect the computer to the modem if I have to dial by hand?” . My favorite was this frequent and desperate plea: “I turned my computer on but I can’t see anything.” “Did you turn the monitor on as well?” I would ask, pretty certain of the
answer. “Oh, I didn’t know I had to do that.”
The Genius: I was the answer man at the reporters' beck and call. “My God,” the reporters would say, “you’re a genius. How do you remember all that?” “Simple,” I’d say, “I need to know it to do my job because I need my job.”
This run lasted a some 15 years, until a new generation of younger computer savvy journalists came to the magazine. For these new kids on the block what the veterans found incomprehensible was second nature. The expertise of the “genius” at the newsdesk was needed less and less. And by May 2008, when my Newsweek tenure ended, few of the folks around even knew the magazine, was losing a genuis. But just ask Mark Starr, Tony Clifton or Tom Mathews to name a few and, even today, they will tell you of my Einsteinian genius. Please don't any of you tell them any differently.
Dave Friedman worked at Newsweek in New York from 1976 to 2008.