Budding Writer, 1979: Thrill of the chase

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Venus lingers over Lake Champlain, as seen from Sand Bar State Parkl in Milton, Vermont, April 12, 2023. By Howard Fielding. Offered under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

In what I described as “a basically non-day,” this young budding journalist wrote about his first experience with spot news (even though it was for a weekly):

… At Bradford I delivered my copy, learned a little more about procedures, and talked with Robert. Then I experienced the thrill of the chase — following a fire truck to a small grass fire, and taking pictures thereof. Later I followed up with 10 pictures of the proposed Town Garage for Bradford, and left the film there.

Journal, Volume II
13 April 1979

Journalists, like lawyers, have a reputation for ambulance-chasing, but the real action is following the firefighters. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and where there’s firefighters, there’s news.

It was the first of many fire scenes I would cover in my reporting days, and they usually went well. When I introduced myself to the scene commanders, they usually allowed me to watch from a safe distance, take pictures, and ask a few basic who-what-where questions.

It also helped that the Bradford fire chief was a major advertiser for his auto shop.

In those days before digital cameras, we’d use a roll of film for one or two assignments. Usually the rolls came in 24 or 36 frames if you bought them, or fewer if your photographers rolled their own. Mostly I was shooting black-and-white because that’s what the newspaper printed, and what our darkroom was set up for.

Typically a reporter would leave the film for the photographers to develop and make contact sheets for the reporter to identify. A contact sheet showed tiny prints made directly from the strip of film, so each photo would be about an inch high and an inch and a half wide.

An editor, or the photo editor, or even the reporter, would study each frame through a loupe, or magnifying glass, and select the photo that best told the story. Sometimes that was simply because you could identify people in the picture.

Once you selected a photo, the photographer would enlarge it to give the print to the editor for captioning and identification. Finally, a layout editor would use a sizing wheel to specify the reduction size for the halftone — those little dotted prints that finally make it to the press.

When I was on the layout desk of a daily, that whole process would normally take about an hour. In today’s digital world, it can be done before your coffee gets cold.

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