By Eric Shackle
This article was published in the Texas daily newspaper, Hereford Brand, on April 28, 2001.Generations of famous editors, politicians and businessmen began work as copyboys, when that job was the first rung of a traditional ladder to success. My own climb up the journalistic ladder led not to success, but to a small weather station perched on the roof of The Press, a morning daily occupying a gaunt, fortress-like building in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Aged 16, and just out of school in 1935, at the end of the Great Depression, I had scored a job there as a copyboy (wages one pound, then equivalent to four U.S. dollars, a week). I dreamed of writing like my favorite American authors, Don Marquis, Damon Runyon and Sinclair Lewis.
I worked from 6pm to 2am six days a week. Every midnight, I had to go on to the flat roof of the Press building, then scale a rickety, sometimes frost-covered ladder, flashlight in one gloved hand, pencil held between clenched teeth, to check the temperature and the previous day's rainfall and hours of sunshine.
In those distant pre-war days, copyboys had to fill paste-pots and inkwells, dole out fat 2B pencils, buy sandwiches and cigarettes for reporters and other staff, hunt rats that infested many of the barn-like, uncarpeted newspaper buildings around the world, and perform a dozen other menial tasks.
Soon after The Press's presses began producing the early edition, the copy boy had to get on his bike and carry a huge armful of papers across Cathedral Square and feed them into mail boxes at the General Post Office. They had to be posted by 2am to catch the country trains. One night, in heavy rain, my front wheel caught in the slippery tramline (streetcar track) and I went sprawling (came a gutser was the then popular phrase I used in describing the incident next day). Thirty-six rural readers must have wondered why their papers, received by post, were liberally splashed with mud.
Damon Runyon (1884-1946), "the greatest newspaperman of his age," may have been a copyboy, since he was only 15 when he began working for the Pueblo (Colorado) Evening Press. As a cub reporter, he "developed a taste for fancy clothes, nightlife and alcohol." Soon afterwards he was a full-fledged news reporter. When a typographical slip rendered his name RUNYON, he decided to keep it that way.
He went on to write about everything. The Great U.S. Writers Web site, which (surprisingly) is in Yorkshire, England says his subjects were "baseball games, boxing matches, murder trials, congressional hearings, obituaries, victory marches, funeral processions, interviews, profiles, editorial, humorous columns, and front page leads. Some days you would find four Runyon items in one edition. W. R Hearst gave his editors a unique instruction 'Run Runyon uncut.' He sold 76 stories to American magazines between 1929 - 1945. Collections of these stories sold in their millions in the USA and Britain. What's more, editions were published in French, German and Spanish. Runyon enjoyed international acclaim." There's a fascinating Story of Damon Runyon at the Denver Press Club Online.
Being a copyboy at the age of 17 was the best job he ever had, U.S. novelist and Chicago Tribune writer Bob Greene wrote in his nationally syndicated column one day last year. "I was a copyboy at the Columbus Citizen-Journal, a morning newspaper that now... is dead. The paste pots had to be cleaned in the men's room -- in the days before computers in newspaper offices, pieces of paper with headlines written on them had to be pasted to pieces of paper on which news stories were typed. Paste pots -- ceramic coffee cups filled with thick white paste -- were used for this. When they would get all gunked up, the copyboys would have to swab them out with copy paper dipped in water. This seemed like a fine way to earn a paycheck; it was actually sort of fun.
"The sandwich runs were for the entire news staff -- four times a day the copyboy on duty was required to ask each reporter, copy editor and photographer whether he or she wanted a sandwich, and then go out to Paoletti's restaurant and fetch them. This, too, seemed at the time like noble work, and as I recall the most popular sandwich among the C-J staff was something called a Denver, the making of which necessitated the copyboy standing around Paoletti's while eggs fried on a grill."
Another former copyboy is Dr Harris Sussman, of Boston, Massachusetts, "a teacher of teachers, a trainer of facilitators, a recognized futurist and a speaker who is often noted and quoted." He says: "On my 18th birthday, October 26, 1962, I thought the world would end -- not just my world, the whole world. I was working at The Washington Post in Washington, D.C... I was a freshman in college, the first undergraduate (I was told) to be a copyboy there. I would be there for only three months, on a co-op job that was part of the schedule of my college, and only because the father of one of my classmates was an editor in the newsroom...
"As a copyboy, I was a newsroom go-fer, I distributed mail to the reporters and editors, I went on errands. Occasionally, I heard, a copyboy would be allowed to write an obituary. On rotation with the other older copyboys, I had a shift in the wireroom, a glass-enclosed box where teletype machines clicked out news stories. It was noisy, with a dozen machines tapping away, and every now and then a bell would ring at one of the machines, signaling a story of special urgency. I tried to read them all at once, following the lines of type as they emerged. Sometimes there would be a message, signed 'tuvm,' which meant 'thank you very much.' I loved it."
If you want to find out why Sussman thought the world would end in 1962, click on http://www.sussman.org/13days.html
Editorial cartoonist Pat Oliphant, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1966, just two years after leaving his native Australia, described his first job as a copyboy in a 1998 speech at the U.S. Library of Congress, which was exhibiting 60 original cartoons and sketchbooks spanning the artist's American career and 30 years of world history.
"Born in 1935," he said, "I went to work at a newspaper when I got out of high school and started with total immersion on what I was supposed to do with my life, which I had no idea about, actually, because I didn't have any direction. I knew I could draw, I knew what I was interested in, but I didn't know what I was gonna do with it.
"So I went to work as a copyboy for Rupert Murdoch's first newspaper, The Adelaide News, at a mere pittance, in 1953, late 1952. And then I moved across town after about three months to a newspaper called The Adelaide Advertiser, which was the competition, and copy-boyed there for a while -- we called it copyboy then, not editorial facilitating assistant or whatever it's called now.
"I was intending to become a journalist. I don't know why, but I liked to write and I liked to draw. I couldn't see how you could make a living drawing, actually, so I was gonna be a journalist.
"I decided there were too many journalists and so I went to work in the art department of that newspaper; I think they must have despaired of me actually becoming a journalist and from there I 'sprang-boarded,' if that's the word, into the cartoonist slot when our then cartoonist left to join the News. So I happened to be in the right spot at the right time."
Girls, too, used to work as copyboys, particularly during World War II. Never known as copygirls, they answered the familiar yell of "COPY BOY!" with unquestioning alacrity, which would shock today's politically correct pundits who would have insisted on yelling "COPY PERSON!"
Last October, it was announced that Connie Godwin, long time press aide to Senator Ted Stevens, would retire by the end of the year. Noting that she had been on his Washington, D.C., staff for almost two decades, Stevens praised Godwin during a surprise lunch in her honor, attended by print and broadcast reporters from the Senate press galleries.
At 74, Godwin was the oldest active press secretary in the U.S. Senate. "She's interesting to work with," Stevens said. "Connie pursues things in her own way. She's a master at trivia concerning the State of Alaska and always produces the right fact at the right time."
Godwin, a former editor of The Anchorage Times, grew up in the newspaper business, where her father was a Hearst managing editor. She began her own journalism career as a copyboy on the Washington Post more than 50 years ago. "In that less politically correct era, you were a copyboy to the editors, regardless of your sex," she noted.
Some copyboys had wealthy parents. In Australia, Tjerk Dusseldorp, son of millionaire industrialist G.J. Dusseldorp, was a copyboy on the Sydney Morning Herald. He used to drive to work in his Mercedes convertible.
Sadly, with the death of hot-metal printing, today's computerised newspapers no longer employ copy boys. "No one is needed to run copy from reporters to editors, from editors to the rim, etc.," says Barry Jensen, of the marvelously-named Eccentric community newspaper, in Birmingham, Michigan.
"We do hire interns, but the union contract requires that anyone employed in the editorial department receive union-scale wages. In the old days, we'd hire an intern or two every summer for free. They didn't get paid, but they got experience at a real newspaper and college credit (I did that myself as a callow youth). The good ones would very quickly get feature assignments, and would be invited back upon graduation. The bad ones would spend the summer typing up obituaries and calendars."
Don Cooper, who edits The Hereford Brand in Hereford, Texas, agrees that the copyboy's role was eliminated by the newsroom computer, adding "After the demise of the copyboy, U.S. papers started having 'newsroom clerks,' a job that also has died out."
FOOTNOTE: Former U.S. Vice-President Al Gore once had a summertime job as a copyboy on the New York Times. He has been criticised for having described the position as that of a "newspaper trainee."
Copyright © 2001. Eric Shackle Story first posted July 2001.