In the 1950s it was almost impossible for a person of color to get a job in the white-dominated newsrooms of America’s newspapers.
During my last year at Kent State University, I was called into the office of William Taylor, founder of the School of Journalism and my adviser. Professor Taylor told me that I should select another major because blacks could not get jobs on white newspapers.
He was being candid and honest. However, as I left his office, I told him I would get a job on a white newspaper. During the final quarter at Kent, I sent resumes to many newspapers in Ohio. I received no response.
The late Murray Powers, managing editor of the Beacon Journal and an adjunct professor at Kent State, urged me to get an appointment with Ben Maidenburg, executive editor of the Beacon. Maidenburg interviewed me for three hours. A sharp-tongued individual, Maidenburg minced no words.
He told me that the newsroom had a lot of rednecks, hillbillies and drunks. “What would you do if one called you the N-word?” he asked. I paused and I asked Maidenburg, “Who signs the paychecks?” Maidenburg said, “I do.” I told him I didn’t care what they said in the newsroom.
I was hired at the Beacon Journal on Feb. 13, 1956. I was the first person of color hired among 600 employees.
I was assigned to the state (suburban) desk and had the privilege of writing obits, meetings and club notes. I worked a shift that started at 6 a.m. My desk was located next to the sports desk and I had the privilege of listening to the late Jim Schlemmer, who was sports editor and one of the greatest sports writers in the country. Jim would grumble endlessly but during the course of grumbling, he would tell what his column was about during that particular day. He was a consistent frowner but had a heart of gold.
During my six years on the state desk, I was promoted to assistant state editor. That would not have occurred if it weren’t for the late Frances B. Murphey and Craig Wilson. Murphey was a rugged lady who covered Summit County and wrote the Good Afternoon column. Murphey could use the rank language if she felt it was necessary. Also, she would give you advice whether you wanted it or not. Murphey was a dedicated journalist who loved the Beacon Journal.
Craig Wilson was a gentle person and a faithful reader of Popular Mechanics. He learned how to install the driveway in his new home. He was very creative and sensitive to the needs of others … Craig covered Barberton, was the creator of Action Line at the Beacon and was an obit writer. He was very low-key but had the ability to get one’s attention.
Murphey and Wilson were the only two people who encouraged me during my first years at the Beacon Journal. They would stop by my desk and asked me if I needed any help and occasionally took me to lunch.
I finally went to Maidenburg after almost six years on the state desk and told him I was trained to be a reporter and I wanted him to take the chains off me. Maidenburg responded and I was sent to Stow to cover a council meeting.
I was met at the council door by an elderly gentleman. I told him I was a reporter from the Beacon Journal. The gentleman said, “Porter? Porter?” Apparently, he was hard of hearing and I yelled to him that I said “reporter” not “porter.”
When I started at the Beacon, I could feel there were some in the newsroom who hoped that I would fail. While I was still on the state desk, I wrote a headline for a story about Buchtel High School. I made the mistake of spelling Buchtel “Butchel.” Instead of talking to me, the person who saw that mistake sent a note to Maidenburg. Maidenburg rushed out of his office and informed me if I could not spell Buchtel, I wouldn’t be around there very long.
When I became news editor several years later, I ended up replacing the person who wrote that note.
When I was running the news desk, Maidenburg had the habit of looking through the first edition and finding a headline that he didn’t like. He would call the desk, criticize the headline and then demand, “Who wrote it?” No one would acknowledge ownership to the headline. I knew who wrote the headline but I wouldn’t reveal the person to Maidenburg. Maidenburg finally said, “I guess it was written by an orangutan.”
My last bout with Maidenburg on headline writing and story selection after he received the first edition was truly memorable. This time, he came out of his office to my desk. He didn’t like the headline on a particular Page One story and said it was awful. I suggested to Ben that he rewrite the headline and we would change it in the next edition.
Maidenburg spent about 30 minutes in his office and finally brought the headline to me. I looked at it and told him, “This headline is worse than the one we have.” Maidenburg was furious. He walked back into his office and would not speak to me for two weeks.
When he was about to retire in mid-1975, he called me into his office. He told me I was a good editor, but I was too argumentative. I looked at Maidenburg and said, “Ben, I learned from a master.”
Maidenburg was an outstanding editor who truly loved the Beacon Journal and Akron.
The Beacon Journal had a poor system of evaluating its employees, particularly in the newsroom. One would get a verbal assessment from his or her supervisor but nothing written. Most of the time the supervisor would say, “You’re doing OK.”
When I became managing editor — the first person of color to hold that position at a major metropolitan newspaper — I called the personnel department and told them I wanted a copy of my personnel records.
When I got the records, I discovered that the previous managing editor thought that I had the potential to become a news editor at the Beacon and that was it. Needless to say, I replaced that managing editor some years later.
I really became an effective manager after I became managing editor. I had a young reporter in my office who had made some errors and I chewed him out. I went up one side and the other. For a brief moment, I heard my voice, and I couldn’t believe I sounded that bad. The reporter was in tears, and I said to myself, “I will never do this again.”
This was a step in my belief of being sensitive to the needs of others.
As a managing editor, I was recruiting minorities and women not only for the Beacon Journal but for the rest of Knight Ridder Newspapers.
Another incident at the Beacon was very interesting. We had hired this young, talented African-American as a reporter. He went to Atlanta for a weekend and failed to report to work the following Monday. The city editor called me three times and said that the reporter was still in Atlanta and had not returned. I told the city editor that was his responsibility. If he wanted to fire him, go ahead.
It was an interesting dynamic, and almost a reversal in practice. This white city editor didn’t want to fire this young African-American because his boss was African-American. He didn’t realize that race had no impact on the situation.
One of the greatest experiences I had at the Beacon Journal was when this lady from Barberton called me and told me the Ku Klux Klan was taking over Barberton. In the course of our conversation, she asked me if I were a member of the Klan. I said, “Hardly, Ma’am.”