1971: Getting a Job in Journalism

June of 1971. We lived in the old Amazon married student housing that has long since been plowed over. It was a collection of old army barracks, left over from the second world war, with some two-story apartment buildings and a row of single story wooden houses, with curved roofs dating back to military use, which is where we lived. It covered several acres just east of South Eugene High School, west of East Patterson, north of 24th. Ave, across the street from the old YMCA.

Often on weekdays around noon I’d start popping out of the front door to look north along the row of identical houses, anxious for the mailman. When I did, I’d often see others doing the same. Our little house was one of the closest to the south end of the row of about 12 or maybe 14 little houses. The mailman would come from the opposite end of the row, walking, and leave the mail door by door. As I opened the door and looked out, I’d often see other people doing the same. Like prairie dogs in a Disney documentary.

Jobs were scarce in 1971. And jobs are always scarce for grad students looking for their first jobs. Of course there are other reasons to look for the mail, and not all of us were done like I was then, and looking for jobs. But it felt like that to me.

We were broke. And we were ready to leave Eugene and the University of Oregon and get into real life. I hadn’t finished my master’s in Journalism, but I’d finished the class work so all I needed was to do a thesis, which I could do from anywhere. We’d used up the $5,000 student loan and Vange’s meager earnings at the university weren’t enough. We needed to either get a real job or get another student loan.

I really wanted a real job in real journalism. I’d fallen thoroughly in love with the idea of it. My grad classes in Journalism were steeped in the lore, the traditions, the ethic, the meaning of it all. The great newspapers, the reporters, the scoops, the think pieces and investigative pieces, I wanted all of it. I’d sent resumes and applications all over Oregon, California, and Mexico City. Each of them was to me like a lottery ticket, a reason to hope, a reason to wait anxiously for the mail to arrive.

I’d not only fallen in love with Journalism; I’d also fallen into it. Literally. We’d moved to Eugene in September of 1970, just nine months married, for me to do a PhD track in Comparative Literature. I loved English Lit, but had lots of German Lit too aftr a year in Innsbruck, and then I’d fallen in love with Vange and learned Spanish. The University of Oregon had one of the better comparative literature programs on the west coast, second to Stanford (which hadn’t accepted me). They didn’t give me money, but they admitted me. Two weeks into that, I found myself having to do a 10-page paper on Robert Herrick’s poem ‘The Altar’, notable for how its written form looked like an altar (long lines, short lines, long lines). In other words, boring, meaningless drilling down into the detail. Meanwhile we’d just bought me a pair of shoes from a store clerk who brightened up, while helping me try on shoes, because he too had studied literature, and had the PhD. So I wanted out. But we’d moved to Eugene, moved into housing, paid tuition, taken a loan. I spent an evening browsing the university catalog. The next morning I walked into the school of Journalism and waited until I could talk to the dean. As it turned out, he too had gone from PhD studies in Literature to Journalism. I switched that day. And Dean John Crawford found me scholarship money and helped me every way he could. And damn, what a difference! Journalism also cared about writing, but it was also living, changing the world, doing something that meant something. I found my home there and dove in, doing two years of class work in nine months, with straight As (I ended up getting the degree with honors, but that was four years later, after I’d finally done a thesis).

Mexico City was a variation on the dream. Vange’s mom Eva connected us to a University of Oregon alum in Mexico City with a head-hunter business, and with his encouragement we allowed ourselves to dream the life of a foreign correspondent, with a lavish salary, company car, private school tuition for kids (not that we had any at that point). It turned out to be horribly unrealistic, by the way — but it fueled the dream.

By the time the envelope from the ‘Mexico City News’ came, I’d interviewed at AP in Portland (they’d said “not enough professional experience,” which was hard to argue, since I had none). And again at a weekly in Newport, Oregon (same story: only hiring experienced journalists).

The envelope was thicker than most. I opened it eagerly. And, to my amazement, it contained plane tickets! Back then plane tickets came as a booklet of several pages, with copies for boarding and so on, and a cardboard back, all of it sized to fit nicely in a standard letter envelope. The flights were ‘open’ so I could call and reserve. Mexico City and back, paid for by the News.

We were amazed, excited, deliriously happy. At that moment, we were living proof of the idea that real happiness is anticipation of happiness. There was the still-alive dream of the foreign correspondent living in luxury in a foreign capital. And for Vange, she was 23 years old, missed her mom and her siblings and life in Mexico City, and this meant going back there was married to her American husband. For me, also 23, this was not just the ticket to real actual Journalism, but also a ticket to move again (after the year in Innsbruck) away from the United States to another country, to live and work there. And to Mexico City, my wife’s home town, which I’d really liked in our visits.

So I went to Mexico City. Vange waited at home because it was an expensive round trip. Her mom Eva met me at the airport and treated me royally along with Laura her sister and Horacio her brother. We had a nice dinner that night, and a lot of encouragement. My Spanish had improved with each visit, and I’d gone from my first-year Spanish at Notre Dame to a Eva loaned me her car for the three day visit. And Vange waited with very little news, because back then, calls from Mexico City to Oregon were prohibitively expensive, like $20 per minute.

The next day, reality hit the dream. enjoyed driving Eva’s little Datsun bluebird through city traffic. I found a parking space, which was still possible in 1971. But then I arrived at the Novedades building.

The ‘Novedades’ was one of at least six daily newspapers in Mexico City. It was not the best (Excelsior), but it was a major player. ‘The Mexico City News,’ the only English-language newspaper in the city, was a Novedades property.

    The Novedades building was on Avenida Morelos, near the corner of Balderas, in the heart of the newspaper district. Newspapers clustered together, within one or two blocks of each other, in downtown Mexico between Reforma and the old downtown district around the Cathedral and National Palace. The ornate but aged dark stone building was probably built in the 1920s, I guessed. It was six floors high, run down, but still working hard every day, the brain of a national network of newspapers and magazines.

‘The News’ newsroom included maybe eight desks, a water cooler, and a 10 by 20 editor’s office with a door and windows out to the desks. It was on the fourth floor. The editor, Jaime Plenn, was a small older bald man with a slight New York accent and no gift for small talk. He made no effort to hide his discomfort with what I discovered was me having been pushed on him by a then-vague power called “upstairs.” Somebody (he rolled his eyes as he said it) seemed to think that a Mexican wife and a grad degree made a journalist. That same somebody (eyes rolling again) thought they could build a new generation of news people for the news, people who weren’t nondescript oddballs and misfits.

And oddballs and misfits they were. Stereotypes as if from a bad situation comedy. The sportswriter had a foul mouth and the beer belly. The business editor was a fifty-something portly woman with short hair and a cloud of cigar smoke. The social editor was a well dressed late-thirties woman who seemed like she’d ridden a couple of decades on being good looking (and she still was). The main reporter came with a New York accent, a big sweeping mustache, long hair, a flower shirt and sandals.

I “interviewed” with all of them. All were generally welcoming to this 23-year-old American kid who looked like he was 17. They were mostly showing off, trying to play their character roles. Jaime Plenn made it clear, from the beginning, that the job was mine to take.

The dream crashed and burned when I got to the salary. The job was mine to take. The salary was $MN3,200 pesos per month. That translated to $267 per month. I took that with a straight face because I’d never actually lived in Mexico City; but it seemed like very little. And thus ended day one of the job visit. I was supposed to come back the following day to sign papers, and then to get my ass down to Mexico City as soon as I could.

Eva was shocked. “That’s impossible. You can’t live with that,” she said. She was so disappointed. She too had bought into the dream of the foreign correspondent, fed by her friend Craig Dudley, the University of Oregon alum. Craig, as it turned out, dealt with expat executives from major corporations. He had no idea how journalists lived. Eva had bought into the dream too.

That evening, as I sat at dinner with Eva, Laura, and Horacio at dinner, they were all shocked. Eva, who ached to have Vange back again in Mexico City, led the charge. She didn’t want me to make a mistake. She was never able to give bad advice on purpose.

“Tim, you have to tell them no. Go back tomorrow and tell them you can’t live on that.” She knew that I didn’t know costs and money in Mexico City. I hated to do what she said, because I had no job at all, I too wanted to move to Mexico City, and it was actual journalism. But I trusted Eva. I longed to talk to Vange about it, but I couldn’t, because we were that broke. And Eva clearly spoke for Vange too.

And so I did. I went back and told Jaime Plenn I wasn’t taking the job. Too little money. Which was a hard moment at first, and then an awkward moment, and then, as I sat and listened to a couple of calls, it became an appointment “upstairs.”

“Upstairs,” as it turned out, was the office of Guillermo Gutierrez, a wealthy Bolivian expat political exile, with a big desk in a big office of dark oak and deep green, and a secretary in an outer office. On the fifth floor. I didn’t know his history or even his position in the Novedades organization. To me he was a Mexican businessman dressed in an expensive business shirt, tie, and suspenders, with his suit coat on a rack. He was also very clearly the author of the idea of getting this young American with Journalism education and Mexican wife down to the Mexico City News. Upping the quality was his idea.

“Here’s what we’re going to do,” Guillermo Gutierrez said, leaning forward towards me, elbows on the desk, speaking softly. “You take the job for the 3,200 pesos. Take the paycheck along with everybody else on the fourth floor. But once a month, you come upstairs to my office, and I’ll hand you 5,000 more pesos in cash. And that will remain between you and me.”

So, victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. I said yes. The dream, downgraded from good money and luxury lifestyle to barely enough, survived. I called Vange to tell her, in three minutes, I’d taken the job and we were moving to Mexico City. I finished the details and flew home to a very happy young wife and eager anticipation. We packed up the 1968 Volkswagen I’d bought in Munich. We drove once again down to Mexico City, our second time, but this time to stay. Our nine years in Mexico City began.

However, the story doesn’t end there. The plot actually thickened. For several months I worked at The News, starting on the copy desk, doing cuts and edits and writing headlines, and then getting to go out and do reporting on stories. It was journalism, quirky or not. I liked my oddball coworkers and even Jaime warmed up a lot.

But then one day in November when I went upstairs for my monthly under-the-table payoff from Guillermo Gutierrez,he was gone. Gone for good, his secretary told me. Ya se fue para siempre. That’s when I learned he had been a political refugee from Bolivia, which meant nothing to me until then. Hugo Banzer had taken over Bolivia via military coup, and Gutierrez, a right-winger, had gone back to Bolivia to join the Banzer government. And that was that. Nobody knew (or admitted to knowing) about my arrangement, which had always been secret. He’d made me promise never to tell Jaime Plenn or coworkers, and I kept that promise. So I was stuck, badly.

Two months later I joined UPI, United Press International, as night editor for Mexico City. Full time. Paid in dollars via deposit into Citibank in New York, for $115 a week.

That’s me in 1972 in the UPI office at Avenida Morelos 110, in Mexico City.

1972: Get the Story or Don’t Come Back

June, 1972. I had turned 24. Vange was due with Laura, our first, in a month. I’d been Night Editor, Mexico City, fox six months. Denny Davis, the Mexico City bureau chief, decided to send me to cover the anniversary of the San Cosme riots of June 10, 1971. Also called El Halconazo, the Corpus Christi Riots … which were depicted in the 2018 Alfonso Cuaron oscar-winning film, Roma.

Denny was hard for me to like. He was a former military man, middle forties, dark brown hair with a brush cut, straight laced, impersonal. A dedicated journalist, though. He believed in the tradition and the value of what we were doing. Looking back from decades later, his off-putting manner may have been shyness. And an odd factor in a boss-underling relationship, for the setting of UPI in Mexico City, is that my Spanish was fluent and I was totally integrated into my Mexican family. Denny always sounded, looked, and acted like an outsider.

What he said, though, has stuck with me for life:

“You’re mainstream now. This is real journalism. It’s not ‘do it or have a good reason why not.’ It’s ‘do it or don’t come back.

“Go a day early if you want, check out the area, give somebody with a second floor apartment and a phone a hundred pesos in advance, and another hundred on the day, to let you watch from the second story with a phone in your hand.

“Or do something else. I don’t care. But do understand that you can’t just have a reason why you didn’t get the story. Reasons why not don’t matter. If you don’t get the story, don’t come back. You’re fired.”

It turns out that during the real riot, in 1971, my predecessor, Paul Wyatt, was late with the story. He didn’t get fired mostly because he stumbled into the office late wearing a white dress shirt covered in blood. He wasn’t wounded but a student protestor standing next to him was shot dead. Paul was covering it from the ground, mixed with the crowd. That was obviously traumatic in the UPI bureau. Denny didn’t make it about him, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t want me dead. So he wanted his advice taken seriously.

This story here isn’t about my riots, or my news report, or what happened to me on June 10 of 1972. There was no story. The protest fizzled out quickly, without making anybody’s news. I did go a day early and scope a second-story apartment, and paid the occupant 100 pesos. I did go before the announced demonstration and get settled in my watching post. I did call in the story. But it was a non-story.

The actual history of the 1971 event is shown very well in the movie ‘Roma.’ The Mexican government turned to the fascist playbook back then, after the riots of 1968, and trained a paramilitary force of young men who wore khakis and white shirts. Those men attacked the rioters, right-wing disguising itself as left wing, killing about 140 demonstrators.

And the nugget here is not what happened, but the fallacy of equivalence: too many people think they can get away with not getting things done if they have a reason why not, instead. I don’t. Denny Davis taught me that lesson and it stuck.

1973: Headlines: Naked, Vicious, Brutal, and So Forth.

I was 26 years old. Married, already a father, but still, so young, and so full of illusions. I still thought – although I was starting to wonder – journalism could be about changing the world for the better. And not at all ready to accept the truth as Matt Kenny presented it to me that night, beer in hand, in a bar in Mexico City.

“Tim,” Matt said, “you have to learn about 50 words that will almost guarantee you play in the papers.” He swallowed. He looked at me and frowned. “But first I have to warn you,” he said, shaking his head, “you’re probably not going to like it.”

He swallowed again, then started listing the words:
“naked, violent, brutal, cruel, vicious, rape, clash, showdown, face-off, fists, bare, nude, stripped, fight … “

I can’t remember them all. Using these words, and combinations of them, Matt told me, would guarantee much better readership. Headlines with these words beat all other news stories.

This was in 1974. Matt Kenny, 50-something, gray hair, glasses, and quick to smile, was day editor for United Press International in Mexico City. I was night editor. Matt had been with UPI longer than I’d been alive. We were at that bar together that night because I Matt was a nice guy, a teacher at heart, and I was annoyed at him. So he took me out for a beer, to explain. To teach. And what he taught me 44 years ago is still true today. It’s true about headlines, readership, traffic, and people. Matt’s 50 words still work.

I was annoyed at Matt because a few days before he had rewritten my lead about the Kon-Tiki-like raft Acali arriving on Mexico’s Caribbean coast. I covered the story live, from Cozumel, and Matt handled it on the desk. It was a scientific expedition, a social science experiment, or so said the adventurous organizer. I wrote a lead focusing on the science, the experiment. Matt rewrote my lead to emphasize “suntanned bikini-clad” women and the co-ed journey across the Atlantic Ocean on a raft. He took the science out of it, and replaced it with the sex. Later, it became known as “The Sex Raft”; so Matt had a point.

Results of Google search for images of raft Acali

United Press International, alias UPI, was a wire service with generations of history as the “other wire service,” the competition to Associated Press, AP, which still lives today. Mexico City was an outpost. We filed stories from Mexico City to the New York editors. The system gave the editors in New York our first sentence only, as they scanned new stories coming in. From that one line they decided whether or not they wanted to see the first paragraph.

That’s me in UPI office in Mexico City.

Matt was right, of course; I didn’t like it. And he was right about headlines. Matt Kenny was not unhappy or bitter or cynical or even hard-boiled. He was a pro. He did his job well. Matt’s 50 words don’t tell us anything about him — I liked him a lot, was proud to work with him — but they tell us a lot about us. I’ve seen it over and over in the years since. I see it in the coverage of politics, news, and life in general, not just in news media, but throughout social media. And in email subject lines too. That’s who we are. It’s not the media; it’s us. Now, about violence and the primary elections … do you think this is related?

1974: I Sold Out

Back in the late sixties, when I was a hippie and hippies were everywhere, there was this thing called “selling out.” The whole hippie culture opposed the “military-industrial establishment.” We were supposed to “turn on and tune out.” Employers were “the man” and getting a job was “selling out.” Particularly, getting a job in the establishment, as in for a corporation, or the government, or a successful corporate law firm … that was selling out. And it was a bad thing.

I lived that ethic. Other stories here talk about me leaving home and going to the Haight Ashbury to be a hippie. I protested the war in Vietnam, protested pollution, protested Richard Nixon and LBJ. Even after I met Vange and married, I was going to be a poet, or maybe a literature professor. and never “sell out.” I veered to Journalism (another story here: “1971: Becoming a Foreign Correspondent” ) and that was not selling out at all. I was going to tell the truth. Fight the military industrial establishment with the truth. I believed that down to my bones.

Sure, I have to admit, the Journalism I got into was steeped in journalistic ethics. I lapped that up in my studies for a master’s degree. I truly believed, also down to my bones, in the value of telling the truth, reporting accurately, separating reporting from opinion. So too, back in the 1970s, all my professional colleagues. We believed in the mission. Journalism, in fact, easily overrode the idea of representing some sort of hippie values. Journalism was ethical to the core.

In October of 1974 I was offered a combination of a fulltime job with Business International (which no longer exists) and an exclusive stringer/freelance relationship with McGraw-Hill World News, which published Business Week and several dozen other business magazines. That was clearly selling out. I felt it, I regretted it, but I also did it. I rode journalism into business writing and out of general news reporting. Which was, by any and all of my closely-held hippie values, selling out. I was going to be writing for Business Week and the like, definitely the military-industrial establishment.

I’d been mainstream journalist from June of 1971 through October of 1974. I covered hurricanes, kidnappings, volcanic eruptions, politics, leftist guerrillas, tourism, whatever the world wanted to know about from Mexico. But that changed.

Why? Family plus some growing up. Going from UPI to business writing doubled my monthly earnings. And we needed the money. By 1974 we had Laura and Sabrina. I sold out the same month Sabrina turned one year old. We had a fifth floor walkup apartment and an old VW, the same one I bought in Munich in 1968. I wanted the luxury of having a car that would start when I turned the key, more time on weekends with my family, a better apartment, and money to spend on the family. Selling out was part of it and I didn’t deny it (actually there was no oppportunity to not deny it except to myself; nobody else cared. Nobody else in that world even understood the issue.

So I sold out. And, as it turned out, took a step towards who I was supposed to be. Business writing led to wanting to actually do business, not just write about it. And that led to my Stanford MBA and from there to Palo Alto Software.

I have always carried a bit of baggage about it, selling out, as kind of a rueful pool of memory of how idealistic I once was. I don’t regret it for even a second. Building Palo Alto Software was huge and way more ethical than hanging around without having sold out, writing poetry nobody was going to read; or, for that matter, staying in Journalism, filling the spaced between the ads. I did business plan software that empowered millions to take steps towards building and owning their own businesses. Literally, millions. We sold it at fair prices. Palo Alto Software has employed hundreds of people through the years, given some great jobs and benefits to me and my people, and helped us all. Palo Alto Software employees have, in the meantime, had lives, bought houses, helped the local economy. I thank God I sold out.