Part 3: From 'My Times in Black and White' - Gerald Boyd at the P-D
One morning I reported to work and responded to a summons from Charles Prendergast, the executive city editor. Prendergast was a veteran journalist who had been an editorial writer before joining the news department. He was always full of energy, bounding through the newsroom eagerly unloading one idea after another on the staff.
He had a fresh one for me: would I like to cover city hall for the Post-Dispatch?
I was stunned. It was a coveted position, one that traditionally went to older, more established reporters. I had been at the P-D a little more than two years as a full-time reporter. Prendergast was asking me to go from zero to 50 in mere seconds. Despite all of my internal whining about not getting opportunities I thought I deserved, I doubted I was ready. But I did not let on. Ready or not, I could not pass up the chance. I certainly could not lobby for better opportunities for black reporters and then reject one when it came to me.
I knew that this would test me like nothing before. In the history of St. Louis journalism, no black reporter had worked at city hall for a mainstream publication. I would cover the mayor, the (board of aldermen), and several city agencies. The beat would expose me not only to the political elite in the city but also to big, contentious issues like education, development, law enforcement, and racial disputes. It was a difficult job. I knew that I would grow tremendously or I would fall flat on my face. I accepted the offer, and for once, I dropped my usual poker face. I could not stop smiling as I said yes.
Fear can serve as the ultimate motivator, and in all honesty, I had plenty as I took my spot in the P-D's first-floor office in city hall. Fear of failure brought out the best in me. By extension, so did the competitive nature of the beat. Each day, I scanned the Globe-Democrat to see if I had missed a story or to compare what its reporter had written with my account. There was no hiding. Either I beat the competition or got beaten; either I wrote a better story or he did.
That the P-D was an afternoon newspaper made my job even more of a challenge. I had three deadlines throughout the day, and whenever news happened, I literally ran to my office and banged out a story. I was in constant motion, racing and interviewing and typing. At the end of each day, I walked back to the P-D and rewrote my stories for the next day's first edition.
Publication date: Feb. 01
Publisher: Chicago Review Press
As arduous as it was, I could not get enough of my job. The constant pressure to make repeated deadlines helped me to think and write faster.
I also learned how the most important news sources are not always the elected officials but the people close to them, like employees, friends, or even family. It became clear that I had to work the people at the edges. That might be a secretary, for example. If her boss spent an hour in the morning meeting with Mr. Smith, and if I knew Mr. Smith was pushing an issue, that's where I would snoop.
But my most important lesson had nothing to do with writing or gathering news. I found my passion. I worked 16- and 18-hour days. No matter how tired I was each night when I fell into bed, I awoke refreshed, eager for more. I loved what I did, so much so that I would have covered city hall even if they did not pay me.
I never fully understood what drew me to politics. If I had to guess, I would say its intoxicating mix of power, ego, diplomacy, and strategy. I was fascinated by politicians' unending mission to win people over. I could certainly relate to the need to win the favor of others, whether it was my teachers or the Coopers or relatives or friends back on Romaine.
I was also enamored by the game itself: the tactical maneuvering to achieve a particular aim, as well as the postmortems -- analyzing why a candidate won or lost. I would sit in the back of the chamber where the board of aldermen met each Friday talking to Richard Gephardt, an alderman and future U.S. Democratic presidential hopeful, about how we wanted to do more with our lives.
I was not nearly as cynical as some of my colleagues, but I realized early on that most politicians sought to exploit me and other reporters through access, flattery, and, when all else failed, threats and intimidation. It was soon obvious that the bureaucrats I covered needed me or, more precisely, the Post-Dispatch, to get their message out, and that I needed them to understand what was happening. We were linked in an uneasy partnership.
Back then, for example, journalists knew much more about their subjects than they shared with readers and viewers. We did not report on the sex lives of politicians or other personal matters, like whether they drank too much or were bigots. Unless they were outright crooks or scoundrels, few of their foibles made it into the paper.
I stretched and learned and grew. I investigated abuses of St. Louis area neo-Nazis by city police. I spent three months exploring political favoritism by local judges in appointing attorneys to court positions. My stories led to reforms mandated by the state legislature and the resignation of a judge.
One of my more difficult lessons involved investigating the mishandling of $45 million in federal community development funds and the failure of city officials to adequately monitor projects funded under the program. My page one story rattled the city's political and development communities and faulted the head of the agency in charge. On Saturday night when the early edition of Sunday's paper hit the streets, the agency head called me. He did not dispute the report, but he said his child had seen the paper and called him a crook. He would never forgive me for writing the piece, he said, prompting me to apologize for making his life miserable. I could always empathize with my subjects in a way that some colleagues did not. That became one of my stronger traits as a journalist, one that I believe made me better.
Almost two years after I started the city hall beat, Prendergast summoned me to his office again. The Post-Dispatch and the Globe-Democrat annually selected a journalist of the year. Prendergast announced I had been chosen for the award, named after Con Lee Kelliher, a reporter who had worked at both newspapers. I was the first black journalist to receive the honor.
From “My Times In Black and White” by Gerald M. Boyd © 2010, to be published by Lawrence Hill Books on February 1st, 2010. Reprinted with permission of the author. All rights reserved.