Tales of a Young Buck
First Job: A Memoir of Growing Up at Work
By Rinker Buck
416 pages; $27.50
Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp
Carl Sessions Stepp (email@example.com) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.
After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.
In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.
You could call this the story of an agreeable young fellow who lands a dream job on a small New England paper, finds mentors, friends and romance in the grand flush of youth, and after a year of adventure moves on to the big city.
Or you could see it as the story of a snake-charming hustler, "the most unlikely prospect imaginable for a newspaper reporter," who finds it "amazingly simple to buffalo" gullible editors into hiring him by lying about his credentials and misrepresenting his graduate experience. He then spends a year specializing in sexual and social revelry and grinding out obits and weather stories till a better offer comes along.
In short, like most journalists, Rinker Buck seems to be a complicated specimen, and his book raises a complicated issue: What does it take to launch a successful journalism career?
The issue is even more timely than usual, given the current whither-journalism-education debate centering on Columbia University's prominent graduate program.
"First Job" does not directly address the matter of how journalists are made. It is a straightforward memoir, long on hijinks, short on introspection. Buck's tales, told with flair, are just exotic enough to hold readers both inside and outside the news business.
The story runs from 1973 to 1975, Buck's cub reporting days at the Berkshire Eagle, a well-regarded paper in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. (He later became a magazine writer, editor and publisher in New York; Buck now writes for the Hartford Courant.)
Through luck or talent, Buck encounters a dazzling array of characters, from the paper's eccentric publisher, Pete Miller, to John Wayne, Norman Rockwell and William L. Shirer. He also lands inside one fascinating story after another. A seriocomic search for a rare bird brings him to the attention of the Smithsonian Institution. A local tornado blows him onto the property of a colorful "hillbilly clan" whose lost '64 VW Beetle turns up in a nearby maple tree, leading to a photograph that makes Buck briefly a mini-celebrity.
Remembering our own first jobs, most of us will identify with the coming-of-age conceit and intensity that Buck evokes: the supercharged friendships, the infinite insecurities and possibilities, the live-in-the-moment vitality.
Unfortunately, "First Job" has a major flaw: Buck's unseemly attention to his sex life. "Romantic intimacy," he writes, is "an important aspect of my tale." But this seems a lame excuse for fixating on his "flings with ski bunnies and Eagle staffers," his affair with a local married woman, "group-groping" with his best friend and best friend's girlfriend or eyebrow-raising encounters with a gaggle of teenagers.
His descriptions of the free-love era do add some relevant context, but I wish an editor had cautioned Buck to tone it down, particularly the lubricious (and virtually unreadable) descriptions of sex acts themselves.
Overall, though, Buck seems to have hit an unusually rich vein at the Eagle, and "First Job" can be read simply as a good story. Still, in reading it I kept thinking about various qualities journalists need and where they come from.
Preparation: Buck arrived on the Eagle's doorstep with no journalism degree, and he could have used one. He could barely type and had written only "a handful of articles" for his college paper. But he was bright, nicknamed the "Book Turd." His Bowdoin College education paid off when Publisher Miller, in as idiosyncratic a job interview as one could imagine, suddenly quizzed him on Civil War Gen. Joshua Chamberlain, who had taught at Bowdoin and whose story Buck knew in detail. Later, however, asked by the managing editor whether he could take pictures, Buck dissembled, and then submitted a portfolio of someone else's work.
Talent: Buck writes delightfully. But "First Job" tells us little about his skills in those early days. He does offer a few examples of his self-styled "absurd verbosity," leading us to appreciate the patience of his city editor. Again, some formal training perhaps would have saved Buck time--and kept him from having to lie his way onto the staff.
Personality: If he didn't have all the tangible skills, he excelled in the intangibles: personality, charm, luck and a silver-tongued ability to talk his way anywhere. These are gifts, and good journalists get them any way they can.
Initiative: Buck worked hard, often volunteering for extra duty, and he was resourceful. For example, he was offered a 15-minute interview with a visiting John Wayne as long as he asked no questions about the current Watergate scandal. But Buck arrived for the interview with a "tastefully voluptuous" woman friend who snowed Wayne into "open[ing] up with both barrels."
Stymied by his entry-level obits beat, Buck used his spare time to dig up front-page news about the emerging energy crisis.
Mentoring: More than anything else, Buck benefited from solid, old-fashioned mentoring, the kind that seemed much more common in the 1970s than in today's streamlined newsrooms. Publisher Miller took a personal hand in Buck's career. Roger Linscott, the Eagle's Pulitzer-winning editorial writer, became a lifelong friend and adviser.
Legendary author and reporter William L. Shirer became a buddy and teacher. (Appallingly, Buck repays his mentor here by calling him "a horny old man" and "too kinky for my tastes.")
What does all this tell us about how journalists are trained? Like many others, the modestly prepared Buck found a side door to success. Perhaps, then, we should be wary of dogma. There is no one right model. Journalists benefit from training and talent, knowledge and instinct, brainpower and street smarts. They can be early birds or late bloomers, master craftspeople or inspired artists; they can be smitten with a great teacher or big story, get where they are via careful plan or lucky break. Journalists are not so much born or made as they are ignited. And the spark can be almost anywhere.###