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Rewrite men are legends of journalism history

Sam Bauman

A friend sent me a clipping from the Los Angles Times the other day. Al Martinez had written a piece about the death Ted Thackery, a rewrite man on the Times and before that on the Los Angeles Examiner.

I had met Thackery when I was working on the foreign desk of the Times. “Met” was about as close as I got. He was in rewrite, I was in the news room. Perhaps 100 feet apart, but our worlds seldom overlapped. He dealt (I should say fought) with the city editor; on days when I would work the metro desk I would get his copy, but by then it would have been “sanitized;” that is, his “improvisations” would have been edited out.

“Rewrite” is a journalist job that has largely disappeared, along with “slotman,” “rim rat” and “copy boy.” Computers have done away with those tasks. Rewrite was perhaps the most critical in the old days. It lives today on smaller papers in the guise of the city editor who does the rewrite.

A rewrite man never left the office. He (or she, although there weren’t many of them) would take calls from reporters roaming the city. Many of these reporters would never touch a typewriter. They would call rewrite and people like Ted would take the call.

There was a definite skill to rewrite. Each did it in his own way, but the general formula was for the rewrite man to ask the reporter what had happened. The reporter would generally say something like this:

“Hey, Tony the man Bombo got his in Four Corners while he was getting a shave. Two guys did it. Took the razor away from the barber and slit Tony’s throat. Couple of eyewitnesses I got. Cops say it was a gang hit.”

At that point the rewrite man would calm the reporter, go down a list of questions that would apply to almost any event and then start writing the story with the reporter still on the line.

This would all be done much faster by a pro than it can be described. And Ted was a pro. He was also of the old school of journalism, tough talking, mean, a heavy drinker with little patience for amateurs. While reporters usually didn’t like him, he made them better reporters. Often he was able to train them well enough that they could dictate a finished story to him from hasty notes. He almost always asked a question they couldn’t answer, just to keep them from getting egoistic.

Some of us who have spanned the Old Times of Hot Metal to Computers Today mourn the passing of people like Ted. They were originals, people who got into the news business often by accident. It’s only in recent years that a college degree was needed to sit down at a computer and start banging out stories.

There was a rim rat in Tokyo I remember fondly. He would come in at 6 a.m., neatly dressed (the rest of us would be in T-shirts and zoris or flip-flops), sit down and start editing copy. But as the morning progressed somehow this guy managed to get stoned.

One of the tasks of rim rats (OK, copy editors) was to write headlines. One day this guy turned in a headline that read: “Artifacts from 10,000 ago.” The slotman (the guy who supervised copy editors) read the head and turned purple.

“What does this mean?” he shouted.

The guy looked at the head, nodded and said, “It reads OK to me.”

Later the managing editor, intrigued by the mystery of how the guy managed to get drunk while working, followed him to the men’s room. The guy emerged and the ME went in and searched the room. Of course, there was a bottle of booze hidden in a toilet tank.

I doubt if there are many rewrite men out there today on the metros. Newspapers hire people who can write stories and laptops plug in almost anywhere. Maybe in New York they still exist and I’m sure that almost everyone working in a foreign news bureau could qualify as a rewrite person. Much of the news collected by overseas bureaus comes from local stringers who call in often in smashed English with news items.

Me, I was never a good rewrite man. I had to write from my own notes, although I did manage to muddle through in Italy where the news business is a bit more laid back than in the USA.

I was on the other end a couple of times, once when I was skiing at Cortina and heard of a dam disaster down the Po Valley in Langarone. I rushed down to the scene and found a telephone in a bar that had been sliced in half by the wall of water that had rushed across the valley. It was the only phone in town and I had to fight to keep it open. I couldn’t get through to Rome so I called Munich and got the story out, but at that time my German was pretty basic so I had a hard time getting over the facts of 2,000 fatalities.

It was better when I was working the Easter morning crash of an Alitalia turboprop that had crashed in the valley between Vesuvio and Mount Somma. The Rome bureau wakened me at 3 a.m.

At Vesuvio I found a phone at the scientific offices monitoring the volcano and had my pregnant wife stand by to keep it open for me. I got the facts by climbing around the wreckage and talking to cops, then called a finished story in to Rome. I carefully avoided using the name of the valley between the two mountains, thinking it was a little too pat. The valley was called “The Valley of Death.”

Later, when I saw the story on the teletype, I saw that the rewrite man had slipped “the Valley of Death” into the lede. A rewrite man at work.

Anyhow, I found out from the clipping that Ted’s full name was Thedor Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Olwyn Refrau und zu Holstein. Such a name would never have made it into a Ted rewrite.