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Writing Lessons: The Indianapolis News in the 1950s

thenewsAt fifteen, I took up summer employment as the switchboard operator and cub reporter on the “Great Hoosier Daily,” the Indianapolis News. My father was a friend of Orien Fifer, the managing editor, and they must have been willing to risk the communications network of this afternoon daily to a green-behind-the-ears girl with only her high school yearbook as a source of experience.

The fact that it was the Broad Ripple High School yearbook was a defining factor for me, though I don’t think the managing editors, Eugene S. Pulliam (the junior Pulliam) and Fifer knew or cared anything about that. They just expected adult-level performance from whoever sat at that front desk. My job was flipping little phone relay switches carrying reporters’ off-site stories to the re-write reporters who sat at the desk in that large newsroom in the Star and News building 307 N. Pennsylvania Street.

It could have been a scene from the famous 1931 movie The Front Page, by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Hot sweaty reporters truly did huddle at those beat-up desks in that un-air-conditioned room with large, old, typewriters clickety-clacking away. They could be writing stories or, just as often, covering the city’s news. These were the beat reporters, who jammed hats on their heads (sometimes) and rushed out to City Hall or the police station or the scene of some brawl or neighborhood where Korean war vets returning—and talked stories back to the rewrite guys. And I was the one to “act snappy” when Ed Ziegler Jim Newlin or Griff Niblack (oddly, my own uncle) called breathlessly to send their articles through before deadline.

Better not make a mistake, kiddo. They were not unkind, but they had a job to do to beat the Star and the Times in our town to the stories. My job at first included getting the weather forecast from the airport and writing a little box at the top of the front page. Writing! And then—the first week I was on the job, the summer headed for record-breaking high temperatures, 100 plus for five days in a row.  “Give me four short paragraphs,” City Editor Clay Trusty kind of growled at me. So I did, (Thanks Mrs. Griggs) and lo and behold, I had the lead, the headline on the front page! No by-line, of course.  It is still in my high school scrapbook. Nothing like that was due to happen for quite a while on that summer job.

What did happen was that I helped Albert, the copy boy, get the sweet roll and coffee order in that early morning time (report in 6:30), kept “nut cases,” as they were called, from getting past my desk to berate reporters who had written stories they didn’t like, steer legitimate visitors to the right desk (obituary for instance) and, soon, write small stories for the society page about groups who had planned meetings.

I absolutely adored it. This newspaper had a distinguished history dating back to just after the Civil War. The reporters had the reputation of being the finest in the state (not controlled nearly as much as those on Pulliam’s favorite The Star), they were excellent writers and the atmosphere was so high-powered, yet at other times marvelously funny and friendly, and always respectful of a young girl in their midst.

As the weeks and months progressed and turned into summer years, four of them, I was given increasingly large assignments and expected to write professionally. So I did. Soon I was fill-in for the vacationing reporters: for Bess Watson, obituaries, Georgia Gianakos, film and TV, and even the city desk guys. I found myself on conference calls with TV star Larry Storch and other celebrities and I was sent to cover and then review, at the Circle Theatre, the new Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy’s film Adam’s Rib. I hope but really doubt, that I could understand the subtleties and innuendos.

All kinds of assignments in Indianapolis eventually came my way and I admired, beyond measure, these excellent newsmen and women.

What did they teach me?

Deadlines are deadlines. Just accept this true saying and learn to pace yourself as a writer. You cannot bend it.

Writers are a fraternity and support each other when they can. They can be smart, caring and incredibly fun to be with.

It doesn’t matter who owns a newspaper and what the political persuasions of the people writing for it are; the news on the information pages (not the editorial ones) has to be honest. “Who, What, When and Where” was viewed as a sacred trust. Don’t think of putting a slant or opinion in on it.

Newspaper and periodical writers were, and I suppose still are, under tremendous pressure: they drank too much, smoked way too much in those days and had trouble maintaining relationships. Salaries were low; I made $25 a week at first, raised to $35 and some of the new college grad reporters made only $50 a week. It wasn’t much better up the line.

Grammar and syntax do count. There were editors of course, “copy desk” in our case back then, but you were expected to turn in “clean work” to them. No time to re-write your garbage; get it right and get it smooth the first time.

The main thing I learned at the time was that writing seemed to be in my bones. Yet, while I wanted to write more, I did not want to work under deadlines. Had enough of that, I told everyone. Not for me.

And so, ironically, I ended up teaching journalism including the every-week close for the school paper and also the student yearbook and eventually managing a publishing company for some thirty years, with hundreds of crucial book deadlines, all with financial implications in sometimes excruciating time constriction

So much for serenity in writing. There are other satisfactions

See Nancy Baxter’s books by clicking back to the website. Newest title: A Cabinet of Curiosities from the Civil War in Indiana: Important, Moving, and Sometimes Odd Stories from the Human Side of the Civil War.

Nancy Niblack Baxter, senior editor Hawthorne Publishing


Posted in Book Publishing, Indiana History, Self Publishing, Writing Non Fiction |

The Boiler Room Reporters: A Hot Time in a writing career

At Broad Ripple High School, Indianapolis in the 1950s, the only spot available for the school newspaper, the Riparian, was in the basement of the “Old Building,” next to the furnace. Here we huddled at ancient, beat-up desks, about twenty-five of us coming in for different “study hall” times. We were a  group of cub reporters for the newspaper, the news service (sending articles about Broad Ripple to the Indianapolis Star and News) and the yearbook. It was the best training any of us would ever get in how to craft a writing career.

Why were we there? Because we wanted to write, of course but mainly, I have to admit, to study and learn the craft under master teacher Ruth Marie Griggs, who headed the national Journalism Educators of America just before our crop of student writers had come—and to hang out, eat snacks, read the first editions of Mad Magazine and exchange jokes with people who would become lifelong friends. And to create a publication which would regularly win “All American” awards—best in the nation. And that is just what we did.

During those boiler room years on the Riparian staffs were people who would become leaders in Indianapolis: Carol Elrod, reporter for the Indianapolis Star and Dick Moll, future admissions director at Princeton and author of books on college admissions.  John Mutz, who would be lieutenant governor, was on the newspaper staff.  Just before us were Sue Hetherington, a civic leader for Prevent Blindness and other causes  and just after us was Steve Goldsmith, future mayor of Indianapolis. Deborah Paul of Indianapolis Monthly called  Mrs. G “Mrs. Bullwhip,” so she worked under her as well. I don’t know if other famous grads of BRHS like David Letterman and Jane Pauley were on the staff but the list is long. Students may have learned more next to that furnace than they did in some of the classes.

“Mrs. G” was a stern taskmaster and for many of us it was the first introduction to the fact that writing was disciple. Although there was a journalism class that accompanied the on-site experience next to the boiler room, it was at those grubby old tables, sitting around at staff meetings, that we learned. And even more, as we met the deadlines which were strictly enforced. In those days the yearbook, where I served as assistant editor, came out the last week of school, and that meant: everything had to be planned and dummied up early, with clubs and sporting events and plays covered and stories written in the fall and early winter. The final deadline was in March. Every day during our study halls and after school we were at work, and the photographers knew no breaks from their work of taking group photos or the ping pong club or the football team.

Mrs. Griggs had developed the unique concept (for student publications) that advertising, so necessary to the self-supporting yearbook, could be done professionally, as Madison Avenue did, with clever concepts, photographs of students in every place which advertised, and well-crafted copy. They would be a viable reading section in themselves. We ourselves visited the prospects, did a selling job on why their ad investment would be well placed with a publication serving a thousand homes, and contacted students to be photographed in the business. It was exhilarating to feel part of a larger world of commerce, and it provided lifetime lessons. Actually all of the time in that boiler room publications office shaped our future.

What did I learn?

  • That sophomore silliness won’t work when serious writing has to be done. Grow up and write methodically, even if you are only 15 was the message. Long hours, fact-checking, delving deeply and sometimes tedious re-writing will be part of your lifelong work formula if you opt for a writing career. That’s what you are “hired” for. That is what will advance you. ( Top staff assignments, editorships, were sought after and announced with pride at formal meetings.)
  • That process is as much a part of good writing as inspiration is.
  • That excellence is not won by “easy,” We were not allowed, nor did we want, to observe outmoded or tired clichés students had used for years to throw a yearbook together. No baby photos, no wills and fortunes, no hidden insults, no “favorite friends” dopey photographs in The Riparian Yearbook, 1952, All American.
  • That news, freshness in writing, and creative expression can hide behind everyday events and must be looked for, appreciated and cultivated before they become good writing. A nose for news will lead you to the subjects which will mark the best of your writing career.

The Old Building was long ago demolished and through the many years since we left, the Indianapolis Public School system spent millions of dollars refurbishing Broad Ripple High School into a beautiful campus, distinguished as a fine arts magnet school. Ruth Marie Griggs died in 2003, with a few of us who had kept close near her side in the last days.  She had received the ultimate teaching honor in her field in 1964: national Journalism Teacher of the Year. The newly trendy Broad Ripple neighborhood, sadly, does not have enough school-aged students to come to our halls any more to our high school. It closes this spring forever, but as long as there are any of us from the Riparian staff left, that basement office will be remembered as the “hot spot” which taught us how to write.

Nancy Baxter, Hawthorne Editor




Posted in Book Publishing, Indiana History, Writing Non Fiction |

Steps in a Lifetime of Professional Writing: destiny, determination or hard work?

Number One: The Writing Tree

We’ve featured on this blog site many of our successful Hoosier writers telling their stories from time to time and giving hints on how to succeed in a writing career. Now I think I’ll follow my friends and talk about my own writing career. I wish I could click off a well-organized recipe for success or summon perfect career-altering advice to would-be writers who want to “go professional,” and I do offer workshops in successful non-fiction writing, but this isn’t a magic formula course. I have to say I think building a writing career is a combination of education, grinding effort, learning from “flops,” (which are many) benefiting from present needs in the market and being in the right place at the right time. No magic wands. Still, I’ll chronicle a few landmarks and will enjoy remembering sixty some years of writing, often for pay. Maybe hints for others will come out of the nostalgia trip.

In our back yard in the (then) far northside of  Indianapolis in the 1940s was a young elm tree.

It did not know it was destined to become the victim of an elm-tree blight epidemic which would take down almost every elm in the Midwest, but happily sat instead about ten feet tall with small branches near our brick outside grilling oven. Behind it in this 2/3 of an acre lot on Carvel Avenue, near the Monon tracks, was an abandoned city refuse lot, with many interesting pieces of junk from yesteryear.

But the elm tree was good for climbing for an eight or nine-year-old girl who was often out-of-doors, roaming the woods and fields around the house either with neighborhood friends or alone. These were the days when children left their homes in the neighborhood in the morning after a quick bowl of Wheaties, dropped in for lunch and were outside till supper time. We wound trails through the wooded lots, found kittens among the ruins of the old ice house across the street (there had been a pond, now dried up)  and picked delicious grapes among the abandoned truck gardens skirting the refuse area.

I climbed the elm tree when I was alone and took with me a small brown spiral notebook. I perched comfortably between two branches. No human was around. Birds sang, the wind rustled through the Lombardy poplars and bees buzzed in the strawberry blossoms in my dad’s adjacent large garden. I had come there to write. It was an urge inside me, barely formed as yet and yet insistent. “Write, look around you and write,” a voice said. Where did that urge, so familiar to many of us, come from? Not from my parents. They didn’t suggest anything for my sister and me to consider as a career or even childhood occupation. Plenty of books in the house, intelligent discussions about politics and history going on in there, dog and cat to play with, good dinner to eat—but no suggestions for developing talent.

Some people would claim genetics. My dad, who was a judge at this time, had been a journalism graduate at IU and had been a young reporter for the Indianapolis Times. True, he and another reporter had covered the Ku Klux Klan trials in Indiana in the 1920s and had won the Pulitzer Prize for that newspaper with their coverage of the bringing to justice of D.C. Stevenson and his accomplices. But I did not know that at all at that time, and indeed, my dad did not ever speak of it. School offered opportunities to write small pieces, but they were not interesting.

What was I writing? Do I still have that spiral note book?  I wish I did; like much of a precious hoard of childhood hours it is long gone.

I believe there were poems.

Growing up in Indiana in the 30s and 40s meant becoming well acquainted with local poetry. We knew James Whitcomb Riley but even then wondered why we studied him,  thinking him just a little odd and not understanding the by-now gone old Hoosier dialect. Nobody I knew wanted to emulate the goblins getting “ya if ya don’t watchout.”

No, we were taught Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Walter DeLaMare, Kipling and a whole host of lesser poets which suited the public taste for memorializing cultural and historical heroes and poets of the woodlands and lakes. Every spring Public School 70 had a poetry contest. Each student must memorize a poem and compete by grade; prizes were awarded. So the boys among us chanted “Gunga Din, Din, Din” and “Listen my children and you shall hear, of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.”

Girls could learn those too but generally chose nature or adventure poems, Rose Fyleman’s “Fairies at the Bottom of our Garden” or “Sheridan’s ride,” Thus we caught some of the drama and meaning of a fine heritage of culture and history. Bible stories were read every day in the third grade; psalms were memorized. Classics of literature were part of the educational plan.

Poems were in my own little spiral book, and paragraphs about flowers and rabbits, unimpressive and childish prose, no doubt. And when spring came I climbed down out of the tree and built myself a little lean-to in the nearby woods where I could put down a small blanket, observe the violets and spring beauties and trillium—sometimes raindrops beginning to fall, first gentle as a mist and then more insistent, and write about them.

At some point, as I headed home for dinner from my writing shed, I must have decided I wanted to do this, much more of it. An inner urge, coming from I’ll never know where was calling, akin perhaps to the later urges to be noticed socially, then to find a mate and bear children.  I knew there was more to come from the unidentifiable urge, and I was right.

Any takeaways for others? Only that reading excellent literature and poetry and living in nature can stimulate responses in those who are listening.

CivilWarIndiana-smNancy Niblack Baxter is the author of books available from Hawthorne Publishing; click back for her new title A Cabinet of Curiosities from the Civil War in Indiana.

Posted in Book Publishing, Indiana History, Writing Memoirs |

Indiana Historical Society Holiday Book Fair: what sells?

Festival of Trees - Revision 01The first weekend in December is always reserved at Hawthorne Publishing for the Holiday book fair in downtown Indianapolis. The Indiana Historical Society has recently combined this much-anticipated book event with a Christmas tree extravaganza which fills almost every room at the facility on Ohio street with sparkling trees of red and green but also magenta, purple and snowflake white.

This year’s fair was not held as it is usually in the Lilly auditorium, the large atrium-like room in the center of the building. Instead, the trees occupied the space, delighting a thousand or more visitors that day. Families could look at Christmas trees and then go upstairs and get a great read on Indiana history.

The Author Fair at the Society was originated some fifteen years ago to honor the best books in the Hoosier state. Authors submit their recent publications and a literary jury judges them and selects about 60 to “Hi, ho, come to the fair.”

The Author Fair this year was upstairs in the William Henry Smith library. Books and exhibits had been moved out by volunteers in a matter of hours and tables set up for the authors whose new book for the year had been selected from three times that many applicants from Indiana. Qualifications were connection to the Hoosier state of the title or the author him/herself, contribution to Hoosier history, and general interest and quality of the book.

Curiosities-xlMy own new book A Cabinet of Curiosities from the Civil War in Indiana: Interesting, Moving and Sometimes Odd Stories from the Human Side of the War was there, and I sat with it at a table near the back of the library in a room along with other war history books.

Sports books are always particularly featured; fans who wanted to read about Bobby Knight or the Pacers in some form lined up to get their books autographed and purchased right on the spot in a larger central room. Clearly, basketball and football books were the most popular titles in this sports-interest state. But it was also obvious from the never-ending line of history buffs who filtered through the book fair that many folk in Indiana care about the state’s history itself.

It is reassuring to know that the purpose of my new book, to stimulate interest and memory of the Civil War especially in the small towns of Indiana is bearing fruit, not necessarily because of my own efforts. A certain group of people are always drawn to the dramatic and all-encompassing history of the great conflict which sent 200,000 Hoosier men to the eastern and western theaters of war and  killed 20,000 of them. The stark human drama is irresistible to dedicated buffs and citizens in general.

DreamDivided1My series of books on the Civil War just about sold out. Some people from Wabash Indiana came to the table to say they had driven to the Author Fair particularly to get other books; they had heard me speak in Wabash and bought the new book and now wished to get my other titles The Dream Divided and Gallant Fourteenth: The Story of an Indiana Civil War Regiment. Many people were also visiting a neighboring table for the book about a Confederate Bulldog (Butler University student) and Andrea Neal’s book Road Trip: A Pocket History of Indiana. Children’s books with vivid, well designed covers were popular.

After they filled their carry-alls with history books, the families could visit Santa over near the room where microfilm is usually available for research.

The transformation of the usually staid rooms and files of Indiana’s long-time advocate for and preserver of our Hoosier history was spectacular and joyous.

Nancy Baxter, Hawthorne Senior Editor

You may order Nancy Baxter’s books on Indiana history by clicking back to the website.

Posted in Book Publishing, Books on Indiana, Indiana History |