The Stolen Story and Other Newspaper Stories/The City Editor's Conscience

The City Editor's Conscience

THE telegraph editor with the bald head was hanging his umbrella on the gas-jet over his desk, so that no one would walk away with it by mistake or otherwise. The copy-readers were taking off their coats and cuffs and sitting down to their day's work. Nearly all the reporters had arrived; and one of them had already been sent down to the weather bureau to find out when the rain would stop, while another was on his way uptown on the elevated railroad to the home of a prominent citizen who had died during the night, just too late for the morning papers. Others were seated along the rows of tables waiting for assignments, and finishing the perusal of the morning papers, which was part of their business. Murdock, arriving late, came into the room quietly, taking off his coat, but the city editor, on the way from the telephone-closet, dashed down upon him:

"If you can't get down here before 8.30, you'd better not come at all. This is no morning paper. Don't take off your coat. Run up to the Tombs Police Court and see if you can't get something good for the first edition."

That was what the city editor said all in one breath, faster than you can read half of it, then hurried up to the desk and hammered the bell six times in rapid succession with the open palm of his hand, each stroke coming down quicker and harder than the one before it, until the last was but a dead, ringless "thump." And when Tommy or Johnny came running to the desk, the city editor snarled in his quick, tense voice:

"Here, if you boys can't answer this bell quicker, you'll all be fired. Run upstairs with this copy."

Johnny took it meekly but quickly, and ran (until out of the editor's sight) up to the composing-room, put the copy on the foreman's desk, then walked over to the inky-armed galley-boy and confided, "Maguire's
The Stolen Story and Other Newspaper Stories - Maguire's chewing the Rag, again.png

"Maguire's chewing the Rag, again."

chewing the rag again." That was the way the day began, a little after eight o'clock.

It usually began in some such way. But this one was not to end as usual.


Maguire had no business to be so sarcastic with Murdock for being a few minutes late, especially as Murdock was usually one of the first men down in the morning, and Maguire knew it. So a few minutes later when he turned to Brown, one of the other reporters, he said, in a very gentle tone, as if asking a great favor of him:

"Say, Brown, take that story off the 'phone for me, will you please?—'bout a bull that's broken loose on the way to a slaughter-house uptown—been terrorizing people in Fifty-ninth Street, near the river—make half a column of it—vivid and exciting; you know how we want it."

Brown hurried into the telephone-closet saying, "Yes, sir."

That was very pleasant for Brown, but did not sooth Murdock, who, by this time, was several blocks away, hurrying up Centre Street. However, he did not need much sympathy, because he was lucky enough to get a beautiful story of an Italian-quarter stabbing, which turned out to be a murder, and so proved to be worth three-quarters of a column, and that is a very good amount of space to get into the first edition of an after noon paper that is out on the street at 10.30 a.m.

But Maguire, the city editor, flared up and then had remorse again half a dozen times before the first edition came out. The telephone-boy had shouted up to the desk, "Wintringer's on the 'phone, Mr. Maguire."

Wintringer was the police head-quarters man. He had a lot of small fire and accident stories of the early morning and that part of the night not covered by the morning papers.

The weather was damp, and the connection was bad. "Aw! for Heaven's sake, Wintringer," screamed Maguire, "why don't you open your mouth when you talk?" Then a moment later, "Don't yell so loud. I'm not deaf." And finally in a wail, "Oh, I can't make that out. Write your stories and send 'em down by a messenger!" Then he rang off, dashed out of the telephone-closet, tearing up the notes he had tried to take, hurried up, scowling, to the desk, where he began ringing his bell again and calling to one of the boys for a certain set of proofs, and sent two men out on assignments while waiting for the proofs to come.

A little later Henderson, the copy-reader, who was handling Murdock's murder story, wrote a head-line for it with twelve letters when, in that style of head, there were but eleven spaces, as everyone in the office should know, as Maguire reminded him, and also told him what he thought of him for such a blunder.

Then the new reporter, who had been sent down to Cortlandt Street Ferry a half hour before to find out about the collision of a yacht with a ferry-boat in the fog, ran up to the desk with an air of great importance and began to inform Maguire that "several women fainted, children screamed, a big-crowd gathered," etc., as usual.

The city editor, who had heard details of that sort all his newspaper life, and who wanted the news, interrupted with a question, snapped out like the crack of a whip:

"Whose steam-yacht was it?"

"The steam-yacht belongs to—the name of the owner of the steam-yacht—why, let's see, er——"

"Aw! Run back and find out." Then turning to another man, and forgetting all about the yacht, the city editor said, smiling eagerly, "Well, would she talk?" This was to the reporter who had gone uptown to try to get an interview with the woman who had been a widow for four hours, and whose husband had been important enough to require a column and a half "obit." The obituary itself was already in type, having been written months before the prominent citizen became ill.

The reporter answered Mr. Maguire's question, mournfully. "Nope, wouldn't talk. Still prostrated."

"Too bad," said the city editor, scowling, for it would have been good stuff. "Wait a minute," he added, "take a run down to Wall Street. She has a brother down there some place. If he isn't in his office, find out where some of the other relatives are. We've got to have something about the funeral arrangements, at least. Make your best time, please." The "please" was added, perhaps, because he now remembered what he had said to the new young reporter, who was hurrying wildly down to the ferry, wondering how in the world he was expected to find out the name of the owner of a yacht which was now three miles down the bay.

Then it came Brown's turn to catch it. Brown was the one who had been asked so politely to take the bull story off the 'phone. When you take a story off the telephone you are not paid at space rates but by time, that is, so much—or rather so little—for an hour or a fraction of it. Of course Brown could not take more than half an hour if he wanted to, because the story was to go in the first edition with a spread head, but he did not want to. In fact he was anxious to finish it quickly, so that he might be sent out on some other story before all the good ones were assigned. So he hurried through the work, stepped up to the desk, and tossed the story down on a pile of other copy.

Maguire snatched it up, ran his experienced eye over it, and then rushed down the aisle after Brown. His voice went up an octave or two: "You haven't more than three sticks here! I told you distinctly to write a half column of vivid description—how the bull broke away, ran down the street, terrorized everybody—and look at this thing—write it all over again—just as if you had seen it yourself."

"But I thought——"

"Oh, you thought!" snapped back the city editor, as he wheeled toward the desk again.

"Yes, sir," said Brown, meekly, and began rewriting the story.

A little later Maguire came down and said, gently: "Say, old man, suppose you wind that thing up right there, will you? I guess that covers it. I've a big story waiting for you."

And when Brown brought his copy up to the desk, Maguire bowed and said "Thanks," before beginning instructions as to the big story.

Now all this was early in the day, before the first edition went to press. The busy, nervous minutes rushed by, the electric fans buzzed, the reporters hurried in and out, the copy-readers' blue pencils wriggled, the typesetting machines clicked, the various editions were run off, the papers were hustled away in wagons and cried on the street, and the strain on Maguire's nerves and temper kept increasing. It was not until the last story was set up, the last head written, the last batch of proofs sent back O.K'd., and the forms were locked up, the plates cast, and the big presses put in motion, with the great rolls of paper revolving, and the printed, folded sheets of the welcome last edition came fluttering down upon the "delivery" at the rate of six hundred a minute, that the city editor had time to take a calm, full breath. Then he stopped looking annoyed, and cooled off from a city editor to a human being. He leaned back in his chair, put his feet on the desk, and smoked luxuriously.

He always leaned back in this way with his feet on the desk when the last edition went to press. Since waking and reaching out of his bedroom-door for the morning paper (which he propped up on the bureau and read in eager snatches while hurriedly dressing), this was his first moment of freedom from strain and anxiety; and the sense of relaxation and relief was delicious. For his day's work was over, and there it was, all before him, a finished result in black and white. Even if he wanted to change it he could not, so there was nothing for him to worry over.

But he often did worry, and it was very seldom by reason of finding that some other afternoon paper had beaten him on important news, because such things seldom happened with Maguire. It was simply because he was a good deal of a brute in the way he treated his men and knew it. Some city editors are brutes and don't know it. They don't worry.

This afternoon the first thing he saw was that head-line of Murdock's murder story, and then he remembered what he had said to old, patient Henderson, his most faithful copy-reader, who never made any excuses, and had lots of feelings. That started Maguire to thinking.

He remembered how it was in his younger days; he could not stand being treated in that arrogant fashion by city editors, and once he had lost his place on a certain paper because he could not stand it. He could recall the scene very vividly, and how he had enjoyed telling the bullying city editor just what he unreservedly thought of him. The tale is still handed down in that office. And now he was very much the same sort of bully himself. He had not expected to turn out that way. It seemed too bad.

He wondered what his men unreservedly thought of him. To be sure he was always liberal about letting them have days off, and when they had been ill told them, in a blushing, self-conscious manner, that he was glad to see them back. Also he was obliging about lending money in the office, and those who were slow pay he never dunned—which in newspaper men is a rare trait. And whenever any of the men died, which is not a rare occurrence in a newspaper office, he was the one to get up the subscription list for the flowers, or, as it more often happened, for the widow's rent. But he had an idea that the men considered all these acts as merely conscience-salve. Indeed, he some times thought so, himself, and felt quite ashamed about it—after the paper went to press.

But after the paper went to press he had little or nothing to do with the other men in the office. The editors of the other departments all had their intimate friends, and none of them was jovial and familiar with him. They did not say, "Hurry up and put on your coat, I'll wait for you down-stairs," to him; they treated him with a great deal of polite respect, and said "Good-morning, Maguire," and "Good-night, Maguire," and but little else. Maguire did not know how to make advances himself. He did not know how to do anything except get out a rattling good newspaper, and he lived all alone, now that his wife was dead, and the paper was all he had to care about. Perhaps that was the reason he cared for it so much.

He looked around at the men. But as he looked around, two of the reporters at a near-by table suddenly stopped talking. One of them looked up at the ceiling; the other began to read something. Maguire felt the color come into his face, and he asked himself something that he had asked himself several times of late; but this he decided was absurd.

He looked at the clock. It was later than he had thought, and yet the room was quite full of men. Usually it was nearly empty by this time. One of the copy-readers was passing by. "What are they all waiting around so late for?" Maguire asked, in his quick manner.

The copy-reader turned round and looked. "Why, so they are. Well, I suppose they're waiting around till it stops raining."

The city editor knew of other places along Park Row more congenial to newspaper men to wait in till the rain stopped, but he said nothing. He turned his back to the room and spread out the paper and read for two minutes. Then he said to himself, "Well, I may as well go home." He arose, pulled down his desk-top, reached up for his coat, turned around and found himself face to face with the whole staff, who stood in a semicircle.

For a moment no one said anything. Then there was some whispering in the line, and Henderson, the old copy-reader, stepped forward toward the city editor. He looked very grave. So did the rest.

For a newspaper man, Henderson was very deliberate. He cleared his throat.

Instantly Maguire cleared his throat, too, and said: "Well, what's this?" He was even more amazed than he looked.

"Mr. Maguire," Henderson began, looking him straight in the face, "it becomes my duty to tell you that a committee has been appointed to see to your case."

Again Maguire snapped out, "What's this?" and his face was livid. He half arose from his chair, then sat down again as if he wanted to show them he was cool.

"A committee," Henderson went on, carefully, "and as chairman, I am now addressing you on behalf of it, and in the presence of those who appointed it." He looked around at the others as if asking, "Isn't that right?" He took another step forward. He was playing with his watch-chain with one hand, and held the other behind his back. Henderson seemed to feel assured that he was right. "You may not be aware of it, but you have been watched for the past few weeks—systematically watched. I regret to say that the committee cannot report that they altogether approve of your conduct."

Maguire sprang out of his chair. "See here! That'll do. I've had enough of this. If you have anything to say to me personally you can call at my home or meet me on the street; but here, in this office, I want you to understand——"

Henderson waved his hand. Those behind him began to whisper something to him. "One moment please, Mr. Maguire," he said. "It's in your official capacity that we are addressing you, sir. There are several things that we have to find fault with you about. One of these, as I was about to say, is the altogether unreasonable, the—what shall I say—yes, unreasonable way in which you guard the desk, stay by the desk, all the time, as though you thought somebody was going to hurt it." Henderson was talking more rapidly now. "You are the first to come in the morning and you stay here all day, and you're the last to leave at night. You don't even go out to lunch. Why don't you go out to lunch?" Henderson began to grin. "The staff wants to know why in thunder you don't go out to lunch?" He now brought his right hand out from behind his back, "And they want me to ask you to wear this thing" (there was a watch in Henderson's hand with a chain dangling from it). "They have come to the conclusion that it's because you don't keep track of the time. They say you are about the squarest city editor in Park Row, even though you do flare up occasionally and get red in the face. And you see" (he was sticking the watch up under Maguire's face) "we were afraid that unless you went out to lunch your health would go to pieces and you'd lose your job, and then we'd get a city editor that we couldn't work so easily for days off and—and, well, I had a lot more to say only I'm rattled now—Here, Maguire, take it; and after this, see that you don't forget your lunch when the time comes. Pardon me, boys, for falling down on that speech."

But the others were not looking at Henderson.

Maguire's face had worn several sorts of expressions, and now it had none. He had reached out and grasped the chain in the middle. Now he stood there with the perspiration pouring down his face and looking like a little boy who had been caught doing something bad.

He knew the whole staff was looking at him, and some of the editors, who had lingered to see the fun. The office-boys were there too. But he only opened the back of the watch and exposed the shining golden inside case, as if he wanted to see the karat mark. Then, realizing what a foolish thing he was doing, he abruptly laid it down on his desk on some copy-paper. He knew he had to say something. "Well, boys," he began, looking up and then down again, "I don't believe I have anything to say." He stood still a moment looking helpless. Somebody coughed. He suddenly realized that he must seem very ungrateful, and he opened his mouth and said:

"Gentlemen." Everyone was silent. "This is a very pretty watch." Inwardly he was calling himself a fool for that remark. They knew that. He knew they did. He mopped his brow. "I thank you, boys. I thank you all. I'm much obliged." He looked as if he hated watches.

Some of those in the line made a move as if to wind matters up, but Maguire had just begun:

"I tell you, boys," he said with his head on one side, "I don't deserve it at all. When I think of the way I treat you fellows sometimes—you know what I mean."

"That's all right," one of the men said, aloud.

"I just want to say to you though," Maguire went on, "that one gets it as bad as the next in this office." He grinned a little.

"That's so," several of the staff said, and again there was the movement to conclude, but the city editor evidently thought it would be anticlimaxical to stop there, and he always hated a story to fizzle out at the end. Besides, he had more to say. "But I tell you, boys (his voice was low and solemn now), if it offends you sometimes it's nothing to the way it hurts me. Every time I jump on one of you fellows it rebounds on me with redoubled force. Why, sometimes, I tell you what it is, I can't get to sleep at night thinking about things I've said during the day."

Everyone of the staff that could had turned red, and a number that thought they could not.

Newspaper men can't stand much of this sort of thing, but none of them had sense enough to stop him. They just stood there looking silly and feeling foolish, and they might have allowed him to go on until he had made them wish they had not given him a watch, if an impudent office-boy had not broken in at that point. "T'ree cheers for Mr. Maguire," cried the shrill voice. "Hurrah!"

No one joined in, but all began to laugh, and Maguire laughed too, and that broke the strain.

Henderson set an example for the rest by going up and offering his hand to Maguire.

The city editor shook it, and then saying, "Tell the boys for me, will you, Henderson, please," he picked up his overcoat and anti-climaxically skipped out of the room and down the stairs without daring to look at one of them.

The next day things went on in the same way as ever, apparently.