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Thursday, February 25, 2016

Don't Chase Fire Engines

"Don't Chase Fire Engines" ©Mary Montague Sikes
Years ago, John Gunn, the state editor of The Richmond News Leader (an afternoon newspaper that no longer exists), came to our home to interview me for the job of area stringer for the paper. Gunn contacted me after reading my letter to the editor that was published in The Tidewater Review, the local newspaper where I lived.

"You don't have to chase fire engines," he told me that day.

Be alert, carry a camera, and be ready to promptly file a story, he said. The News Leader was always in competition with The Richmond Times-Dispatch (the morning newspaper) for stories. My job was to "beat" the competitive reporters which was hard to do unless I was attending a morning meeting and could file the story before the press deadline.

I loved this job with the newspaper even though, when officials decided to go into closed session to block public coverage, I was thrown out of meetings, along with the other reporters. This happened most often with the boards of supervisors of the three counties I covered. Until we were readmitted, we would sit together in narrow corridors, in stairwells, and occasionally outdoors when there was no other place else to go. Sometimes the closed sessions lasted for hours.That happened so often in those days that Gunn decided to do something about it. He co-authored Virginia's Freedom of Information Act that became a law in 1968.

Although I was often in rooms filled with dense clouds of smoke, I learned so much from the experiences there. I learned about local governments, schools, people, and I learned about writing and doing interviews.

Yesterday, as I watched one tornado warning after another come up on the television screen for our area, I thought about those early experiences with the newspaper. I thought about how that young reporter would have gathered the news somehow. She would have typed out her story and dictated it over the telephone the next morning. Then she would have taken her camera and gone hunting for tornado damage photos. Finally, she would have removed her film from the camera and taken it to the post office to send by special delivery to Richmond.

What a different world from the one in which I learned not to chase fire engines.

6 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

So different from today.
Heard you guys had tornadoes as well. Sad that three people lost their lives. We were fortunate here.

Birgit said...

Please keep safe since I have heard and seen the weather reports. I love your painting with all the Reds and that hint of deep Aqua. Amazing how it used to be. So different and it really wasn't that long ago.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Times have really changed. Would that reporter be working for a newspaper or a website now instead?

Mary Montague Sikes said...

Yes, the loss of life was really sad. We were fortunate to be on the edge of the "red box" each time, Alex.

Thank you, Birgit. Times in journalism have really changed!

Diane, the newspaper jobs are quite different now. I think that reporter would be learning all she could about marketing instead.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Monti - interesting ... I've just watched the film "Trumbo" - which I found fascinating .. so your reference to the Freedom of Information Act of 1968 brought Trumbo to mind.

Not Chasing Fire Engines - what a great analogy ... but I'm glad you were out of the tornado zone ... I've never experienced one and have no wish to ..

Take care - cheers Hilary

Misha Gericke said...

It's so interesting to think how different things were then. A lot of things like e-mail and so on I take for granted now, even though I was actually born before the internet became a thing. :-D