As a reporter and editor, Frank Fee Jr. witnessed history. As a war correspondent in Vietnam, he lived history. As a professor and scholar, he brought history to life for others.
“A journalist doesn’t really do the same thing twice,” said Fee of his varied career.
His journalistic career began when, as an undergraduate at Cornell University, he went to work at the Schenectady (NY) Union-Star. He received a bachelor’s degree in communication from Cornell University in 1965. He said that at the time, “the profession tended to disparage journalism-trained journalists.” Indeed, the preference for graduates of journalism school is a recent development.
After graduating, Fee continued working for the Union-Star, with assignments covering a number of different beats, including police, education, City Hall and state government.
“Journalism was, in terms of public esteem, still considered very highly,” Fee noted.
After being drafted in 1968, Fee began work at the Headquarters of the United States Continental Army Command in Fort Monroe, Virginia.
“Through some…typical bureaucratic snafus and incredible good luck, I ended up as an information specialist,” he said.
Fee’s job was to research and write fact sheets for distribution to Army personnel. He was later assigned to Army headquarters in Vietnam, where he served as a combat reporter-photographer for the Army. Fee served as an editor, production editor and photographer during this time.
“It was incredibly dangerous work,” Fee said, “but what it reminded me and several of my friends who were in the information offices was that as far as we went and as many people as we interviewed, we could never find the one person whose job was so horrible that he couldn’t think of anybody else who had it worse off.”
After returning stateside in 1969, Fee resumed his newspaper career, including stints in West Virginia and New York. Changes to the profession came quickly and in many forms.
“A blanket statement would be ‘keeping up with the times,’” Fee characterized the period. “When I started, I was banging away at a big old Royal, and everybody had, and all of a sudden…the best thing that would come along was the IBM Selectric typewriter.” Referring to the change to electric typewriter, Fee said, “That type of change takes forever, and all of a sudden it’s on you, and bang, you don’t know where it’s going.”
After a 30-year career in newspapers, Fee grew interested in returning to school. In 1996, he graduated with a master’s degree in communication from the State University of New York (SUNY) at Brockport.
In 1995, Fee was selected for the Freedom Forum accelerated doctoral program offered by the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He was a member of the first class of Freedom Forum Fellows, selected from among more than 60 applicants.
“[UNC’s] plan was to take mid-career journalists with national reputations and interested in teaching, and put them through a Ph.D. program that would be really compressed,” Fee said. He graduated with honors in 1997.
The doctoral program sharpened the research acumen he cultivated as a reporter and editor, transforming the somewhat uninterested adolescent into a respected scholar of journalism history. At UNC, Fee taught courses in the history of the black press, and much of his research focused on the nineteenth-century press and Frederick Douglass, former slave-turned editor. He retired from UNC in 2011.
Interviewee: Frank E. Fee, Jr.
Date: March 25, 2015
Location: Third floor studio, Carroll Hall, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Interviewer: Evan Schmidt
Interview Length: 1 hr 46 mins
Transcribed by/date: Evan Schmidt, April 2015
Evan Schmidt: I’m Evan Schmidt. I’m interviewing Dr. Frank Fee for the NewStories oral history program at UNC-Chapel Hill. Today is March 25th, Wednesday, and we are sitting in the third floor studio at Carroll Hall. Dr. Frank Fee, where are you from?
Frank E. Fee Jr.: I’m originally from New York state. I was born in Brooklyn and grew up in upstate New York and essentially traveled up and down I-90 in my professional career until I came to Carolina as a graduate student in 1995.
ES: That’s interesting. And at what point did you think about becoming a journalist?
FF: I think, like a lot of people, I started thinking about becoming a journalist because I wasn’t very good at math, and I was very good at English and literary composition. I had the encouragement of a high school English teacher who envisioned me as working for the New York Times one day. That kind of put it in my head, and I started looking for schools that offered something in the form of journalism, although journalism in those days was not well developed as an academic discipline.
The profession tended to disparage journalism-trained journalists, and as much as in the 1960s, the average journalist had–if they had gone to college at all–had gone to a liberal arts program. So the idea of going to a J-School was a little bit off the track as far as career was concerned. But there were a couple of schools that I was interested in, and Cornell University, where I graduated from, had what’s now a very well-developed communication program. A leading graduate is Kate Snow of NBC News, but at the time it was a small department in the Department of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
ES: That’s interesting. So you were an undergraduate, and you graduated in 1965.
FF: That’s correct.
ES: What was the status of the journalism profession then?
FF: Journalism was, in terms of public esteem, still considered very highly. It was the way people learned. Journalism, in particular at that time, was largely newspapers. Radio had been around for a while–certainly was an important source of news during WWII, the late 40s and early 50s. But there were still dailies in a lot of small towns across America, a lot fewer by the way than there had been in, say, from the 1960s, going back in 1955. There were fewer in 60 and we saw a steady and significant decline in newspapers–dailies–in the ensuing years. When I joined the Union-Star in Schenectady, I think there was something like 2,300 dailies in the United States at that time, which compared to the number of municipalities, was not large, but it was still pretty significant. Over time, by 1970, there were fewer. Partly because they couldn’t sustain themselves economically and partly because in the late ‘60s, all of the chains started rolling and gobbling up newspapers, and in some cases consolidations took place. If there was a morning paper and an evening paper in the same town, they might buy both and merge them into one. And that was a trend that kept going through the 80s and the 90s.
ES: In what ways has academia’s approach changed since you were a student?
FF: Can we hold that question?
FF: Let me go back to one supporting point.
ES: Go ahead.
FF: One of the ways you can measure, anecdotally, the importance of the newspaper to the ‘50s and ‘60s population … When President Kennedy was assassinated in ‘63, the story was that the phones lit up at the newspaper saying, “We heard about it on the radio. Is it true?” People were still unwilling to trust the electronic media in comparison with the print media. They went to the newspapers to confirm what they had heard on the radio. They heard it with their own ears, but they needed to know it from the newspapers. By contrast, even ten years later but certainly fifteen or twenty years later, with some of the other attempts on presidents and other things, people didn’t call on newspapers to find out. They trusted their TV. They trusted their radios. They trusted their eyes and ears.
ES: When would you say that people began to trust electronic media such that they no longer would have to verify with old-fashioned media
FF: I think in the ‘60s, television became ubiquitous and that kind of turned the tide. People could see, and you have to keep in mind that in the ‘60s, the leading news shows were fifteen minutes in prime time. They didn’t expand to the thirty-minute form then, or in some cases the sixty-minute form, they experimented with in the late ‘90s and the 2000s. TV news was still a very, very compressed time slot, but people were seeing and as … This is somewhat anecdotal, but I think you can find a lot of evidence to support that one of the things that really moved the needle in favor of the electronic media was just the interest in news that the Vietnam War brought about. Where there’s a sustained day-to-day need for information, more and more people were indeed following both what their eyes could see and what their ears could hear. Print just couldn’t keep up time wise, and over time the electronic media really came to their present state. Their present state is not too good by the way but they were at the beginning of the ‘60s and early ‘70s, the climb over the hill that was really important to them and less important and detrimental for the newspapers.
ES: That’s interesting. Would you like me to go ahead with another question?
FF: Yes, go ahead.
ES: How has journalism education become more or less important when being considered for a job in the field?
FF: Well, as I said in the 1960s, you still had the sense in the profession that journalism education wasn’t nearly as important. It was more a set of skills that could be taught on the job and taught quickly on the job. That was what they really were looking for–people who were very broadly educated, liberal arts education essentially. The J-Schools were a little too narrow. That may have been fair, may not have been fair. My own experience at Cornell was that the communications department at that time was so embryonic and so small that that was almost a benefit, because it forced you out of the J-School. There wasn’t a J-School. It was a department, offering probably no more than fifteen or twenty courses, but it forced you into other areas. So I spent a huge amount of my time in liberal arts college. I got that liberal arts education that the newspapers were looking for. In time, though, schools like Carolina, like Syracuse, like Missouri, were coming along. Missouri had journalism programs since, I think, 1904 or something. But in time they started to really gain acceptance. Their programs did require, and now our accreditation requires, that no more than twenty-five percent of your degree in journalism is in J-School courses. Seventy-five percent is other areas.
So the academy, I think, moved to meet the insistence of the profession. At the same time, the profession said, “Well okay, we realize these people can hack it, can do it,” and it became more important then for a J-School program graduate. So as a result, it almost became the only degree that people would look at in some cases, which wasn’t really right. But I think in many cases it became a required degree. Whether or not it was really the one that put you over the top or not, it got you in the door. I think in that respect, that’s kind of a really anecdotal offhand answer to a very complex question.
FF: There was movement on both sides, and over time, the journalism degree became important. I didn’t have a journalism degree, per se. I had a bachelor’s from Cornell. My major had been in communications, but I had really very few courses. I don’t think I’d had a reporting class until I was a sophomore or junior. By that time I’d already worked a year. As a matter of fact, there were times where the professor couldn’t be in class, and I was the one that taught the class. I’d had a year of professional experience, which nobody else did.
In time, the program became much more developed, much more relevant. The profession and the academy, which don’t have a great tradition of talking to each other, started talking to each other more.
ES: Would you say those changes occurred around the time you graduated from Cornell?
FF: I would say they were starting to change. My first newsroom was a small paper–about 45,000 in circulation when I joined it–the Union-Star in Schenectady, New York. I don’t think there was a single journalism school graduate in the newsroom. I’d say when I first joined it, I had been in and out of Cornell for a couple of years, and so I joined it as a cub reporter without a degree. When I came back to it–to the paper–I was probably the only one who could even remotely say I have a journalism degree, and mine was pretty thin in the journalism. It was great in the Ivy League program but not so much in the journalism part.
ES: That’s a really interesting perspective. To return to the earlier question regarding the changes in academia’s approach to journalism, are there any that stand out in your mind?
FF: Well, I think if you take the long term, particularly the period that I’ve been involved in academia, the first thing that you have to look at is the fact that early on and well into the ‘50s and ‘60s, when you talk a journalism school or journalism program, you were talking about print. You’re talking about newspapers and maybe magazines, but newspapers are really what came to mind. So one of the big changes was the development of radio and television programming in the academy and essentially balancing things out. Of course, at the time too, I think in the early days, public relations and advertising were not really considered programs that belonged in a journalism school. I would have to do some research on that to say definitely that there were many or few or none. But off the top of my head, I think just the fact that most journalism programs in the early days were being run by former journalists meant that the mindset was tipping toward print and then with the technology later on, radio and broadcasting. So there’s that. I think another thing was that the technology itself was changed and pushed everybody into new dimensions that we never dreamed of.
I can talk about that a little bit later, but the influence of technology cannot be underestimated. In any area you want to look at, it’s huge and it happens in spurts. But when it came, it came quickly. It kind of took everyone by surprise, and everyone said, “What do we do now?”
ES: Absolutely. That makes sense. In regard to the shifts and new dimensions and media, would you say that the academy had to meet the demands of the media? Was the media was changing, or do you think that it’s possible that changes in the academy and students kind of pushed that drive as well?
FF: I’d like to say that the academy took a lead on that, but I don’t believe that’s really the case. I don’t think it was really true for one particular reason and that being that the academy is turning out graduates to get jobs essentially. If they’re not trained for the jobs that are available and what the profession wants, their graduates are not going to get jobs and the mission fails. I think that to the extent that it was possible, the academy has always been trying to figure out, “Where is the profession is going?” and “How can we meet that with people who are coming out of our schools ready to go on the job?” And to do what’s needed. Because the industry did not always know where it’s going, that’s been a really tough challenge.
ES: You mentioned that you hadn’t even taken your reporting class when you first started working at the Union-Star.
ES: What was that adjustment like?
FF: It was huge. I had come out of high school and was considered, at least in terms of the language arts in particular and English literature and English courses, the top of my class. I went to work in the newspapers and found that the style of writing that was getting me top grades and was making this English teacher profusive in her praise was exactly the opposite of what was required. In time, I came to realize and regret this English teacher who was not only over-the-top and probably not a very good influence on me.
Another retired professor, Bill Cloud, who I worked with a number of years here, wrote this. The question always comes up: “Why do you want to be a journalist?” The answer is always “because I like to write.” We agreed that the real answer is “because I like to find things out.” That’s a critical skill, but it’s a critical mindset as well for a journalist. That was something that I went on the job not really having. My father said that at the time he was surprised I was into journalism because he felt that I had such a lack of curiosity that if a six-foot hole opens up beside me I wouldn’t look over to see what was in it. He was probably right. I just love floating along. It really was an acquired skill to learn to ask a question and then ask the next question.
The writing style was different, and of course straightforward–no highfalutin’ language or anything like that. Just tell the story and get on with it. We used to say, and probably still, to write for a reader that has a sixth-grade education. The idea was not to write down to them, dismissing the person who has a sixth-grade education. It’s that the reader of a newspaper early in the morning or at night doesn’t want to look at a dictionary or do a lot of somersaults to see what’s going on. That was the type of writing that I gravitated to. I loved it.
I remember the first day on the job; I was given a bunch of press releases to rewrite. My paper had very high standards, and that was probably what hurt it in the long run economically. But it had very high standards–nothing just got in the paper. There was no just retyping a press release and shipping it off. You went and looked at this press release and said, “Where are the holes?” and “What are the questions?” I was given about half a dozen press releases the first morning. I typed them up and turned them into the city editor and kind of sat back and waited to see them in the paper. The paper came up and none of them were there. After the paper came out, the editor came over to me and he had sat down with me and said, “OK, here’s what you should have done,” and “Here’s what you did wrong.” It was, first of all, humbling and a little scary because I felt that the first day on the job I had failed. But I kept at it and made mistakes along the way–some pretty humiliating. But the important thing was to keep at it and try to learn and figure things out.
Now, another thing I dealt with as a young reporter, and every one out college and J-School graduates are going to deal with it in some point, though not as severe as me. I was on the job and my first byline came when I was 18 years old. I was dealing with news sources and newsmakers who were my parents’ and my grandparents’ ages. I was brought up to be very respectful and stand-by–only speak when spoken to and things like that. Now I have to create a relationship with these people that is as much as an equal relationship as I could possibly muster. That took some doing as well–being tough when you have to. I remember having to stand up to cops who didn’t want to say anything. Or worse, they wanted to have to give my story to my competitor down that street at the Schenectady Gazette.
ES: Tell me more about that experience.
FF: I remember one time going into the detective’s room at the Schenectady P.D. I know that they had held some information from a story that I had had a day before. I still remember his name–Fred Hoekstra from the Gazette. He was the police reporter. I just went in, and before it was over, I was having a small shouting match with the chief of detectives, which was–and again with these unequal power situations, these unequal age situations and what have you–it came out of what I kind of developed to deal with this lack of curiosity issue and a lack of an age and gravitas situation. I kind of created a persona that this isn’t Frank Fee. This is the Union-Star speaking, and I, with that in sort of in my cloak, I was able to stand up to people. While it didn’t go well that day, we never had that problem again.
If the story broke on my time, I got it, and if the story broke on Fred’s time, he got it because I was the afternoon paper, and he was the morning paper. I’ve had other experiences very similarly where if you just kind of stood your ground, things worked out okay. But looking back on it, shortly after it occurred, and looking back on it even now, it still surprised me.
ES: In making this adjustment, both in your persona and your writing style, did you have any doubts about your choice of journalism as a career at this time?
FF: Never. At no time since did I ever question that. I really loved the work. As my first managing editor who hired me said, “Frank, the Superman stuff is for the comics. This involves a lot of donkey work that, you know, day in day out, writing press releases, doing obits stuff like that.”
Even that was great learning. I don’t think I knew at that the time in reflection, and since I got into graduate work in particular, I discovered to my surprise that not only do I like to know things, but I like to learn things. I like to be aggressive and proactive in finding things out. It served me well as a newspaperman, and it served me well as an editor, and it served me well in academic activities as well. Never did I look at journalism and say, “I’m sorry I’m here. I wish I’d done something else.” But it’s had its ups and downs, and I’d recommend it.
ES: So you mentioned you’d made this pretty big change from being an eighteen-year-old, who your dad said you wouldn’t want to see what’s in the hole around the corner.
FF: Right. [laughs]
ES: And now, you’re this very accomplished scholarly researcher, and you’ve become an expert on a number of things.
FF: You flatter me.
ES: What stands out in your mind about becoming more inquisitive about subjects? How did you make that change?
FF: I think it was first of all, looking at good writing, good reporting. I was fortunate in this newsroom–this first newsroom–and it always strikes me how much luck influences. You can do all you want, but again, if you go one direction or another, it’s frequently a matter of luck. I got into a newsroom that, as I said, had high standards. Working with people who I really respected, I studied their methods and that really got me started. I had good editors who asked tough questions and demanded excellence. You either did that intuitively and met those expectations, or you found ways to meet those expectations. They were not something you could come across.
I remember one day, a very small matter, but a critical one. I was never a good speller. I could write like crazy, but I could never spell very well. I didn’t have any interest in it. Here I am on the job and still feeling like a cub reporter. I had been there for about a year or so at that point. We had a really, really tough copy desk editor, who came up to me with a fist full of a story wrapped up in this fist. We were still writing on paper, of course. With my managing editor and the publisher within about six or eight feet from my desk, Jerry asked Ashe, the copy desk chief, “Frank Fee, my son in the sixth grade can spell better than you.” And he was right probably, for all I know.
But in any event, as a result of experiences like that, I have worn out dictionaries because I don’t commit anything to just chance. I tell my editing students, “Develop a life list like bird watchers do–all of the birds that are seen–develop a life list of all of the words you have had trouble with. Interestingly enough–a quick aside–but going back to my Frederick Douglass research, Douglass was staying with a family in Rochester in 1850. When he left, he left behind a piece of paper, and on it was “words I can’t spell very well.” All of us have had the same problem and found the same remedy eventually.
ES: That’s fascinating. Let’s talk about your time in Vietnam. When did you first go to Vietnam?
FF: I went to Vietnam in 1968–September of 1968. By that time, I’d had a year or almost a year in the Army. I was inducted just before Thanksgiving–the week before Thanksgiving in 1967. Through some sort of typical bureaucratic snafus, and again the incredible good luck, I wound up as an information specialist, which was the job category that they called. What had happened was that, to make a long and very complex story short, in early ‘68 the army had come up with something called Operation Pace, in which they were looking for people who had civilian-acquired skills that they could use without sending them to Army specialty schools. The Army was part of a joint services defense information school, and that’s where they were training the journalists. But I had the skills that they thought would suffice. I was put immediately on the job and started out right after basic training at a place called Fort Monroe, which is up in Hampton Roads, Virginia, which was then somewhat anachronistically, called the Continental Army Command. Basically, the command had responsibility for every Army activity in the continental United States. When I got there, none of the enlisted men had ever moved there. All served their terms in Fort Monroe and went home to civilian life. Then, all of the sudden, the Defense Department … The next thing we know, it was like if you were there for six months before you were shipped to Vietnam, you were doing pretty well. I was pretty much on the bubble at six months. Again, luck. I had gotten posted to as good as you in get in the Army information areas stateside.
When I went to Vietnam, I was scooped up somehow without having any hand in it at all and was posted to the command headquarters of the U.S. Army in Vietnam at Long Binh and was doing essentially a version of what I had done as a civilian, which included writing for a weekly newspaper, which at the time was the largest Army weekly in the world. They were also putting out several magazines, quarterlies, and one annual. Not directly related to me, they had audiovisual, which was their radio and photography people. I was in something called Command Information. All our work went essentially to the troops, whereas down the hall was Public Information, which was news items that went to civilian publications and what have you. It was an incredible year. We had all-country travel orders. I saw the DMZ and the barbed wire. I saw the Mekong Delta and pretty much everything in between.
ES: Wow. What stands out most in your mind during that year?
FF: A couple of things. First of all, just yesterday, I think it was, I was talking to a young woman who was fitting my eyeglasses, and somehow the mention of Vietnam came up. She asked me where I was. She seemed to know more than most people, and she said her uncle was in a unit called the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols. These guys–maybe four, five or six of them–would go out as teams and be out for days or weeks, essentially scouting. It was incredibly dangerous work, but what it reminded me and several of my friends who were in the information offices was that as far as we went and as many people as we interviewed, we could never find the one person whose job was so horrible that he couldn’t think of anybody else who had it worse off. You’d interview these LRRPs, and they’d say, “Yeah, but we’re not like the tunnel rats.” And these are guys who’d have to go in with a .45 and a flashlight in these tunnels, and the odds are they were going to meet an enemy who would be doing the same thing. I had a terrible fear of caves anyhow, so the whole idea seemed really terrible. You’d talk to them and they’d say, “Oh you know, you could be forward air-controller.”
It was amazing, the human spirit there. No matter how awful things were for them, they always felt they weren’t the worst off. That was something that kind of took us aback and we remarked on. I think that certainly one of the things we had to terms with, as Command Information, was that we were not writing for the public. We were not free to just expose anything. We were not only putting out publications, but we were also putting out fact sheets that ranged from “wash your socks regularly” to “if you want a career in the military, here’s how to do it.” These were probably being sent out to the troops and read by nobody, but a lot of money was being invested in these things. So we were writing for an internal audience and somewhat in the way of, I guess, a company publication.
The most direct connection I had was in Schenectady, New York. They had a huge electric plant at that time, and the GE Works News was the most sought after newspaper at that time and was distributed free to all the GE workers. It was probably better read than either of the two dailies in Schenectady at that time. [laughs]
We were writing for that, and it was somewhat of a recognition factor. You know, if your unit was recognized in the newspaper, you were written up, something about what you’re doing was there was real. That was important to the troops because it was very easy to feel that you were kind of off in an area that nobody else thought very much about. I think that it probably was even more so, and I’m just conjecturing, but I’d say it was possibly even more so with the all-volunteer military that we’ve had in Iraq and Afghanistan. In my day, I was a draftee. Most of us were. The civilian population had a real interest in what was going on–more so than I think exists today. I think it’s too easy to say they’re over there, and I can go another few weeks without knowing too much about them. In Vietnam, those stories are out every day, and the population really wanted it, I think.
For me, personally, it was incredible. The country is beautiful, for one thing. I would love to go back. Again, a journalist doesn’t really do the same thing twice. That’s part of the excitement and fun of it. Like I say, I travelled all over the country, saw some beautiful sights. I did see some combat, but not a whole lot. I had the ability, because of what I was there to do, of being able to pull back when things got a little too hot. Actually that’s what people would want you to do because if you were not a member of a team—of the unit—you were not an asset when things got rough, so they wanted you out.
I developed photography skills that I really didn’t have before. I could take pictures, but I developed photography skills because the way to get around Vietnam was to hitchhike by helicopter. You’d climb over to a little base and they would have a tower and a landing strip. You’d say, “I want to go to Phước Vĩnh or Cần Thơ,” or something like that, and they’d call out to passing helicopters and say, “We have someone who wants to go there. If you have any room, stop by.” And they would do that. If you travelled with a photographer—a reporter-photographer team—two people would reduce chances that they would have room on that aircraft. It became expedient to not only write but to shoot my own stories.
I developed those skills, and you mentioned learning layout and things like that. I learned layout in the Army, pretty much on my own. The first day, I was handed a sheet of paper, given a stack of press releases with stories and pictures and said, “Okay, lay out a page.” It took me eight hours. I had no idea what I was doing. I got better at it, but that first time I was absolutely horrible. I didn’t really do layout again until I got back to the States. I had the experience, which may be neither here nor there to what you’re interested in, but it kind of ties the two together. I had come back and become a reporter again for the Union-Star. A friend of mine, Tom Schley, was the layout editor. He was going on vacation, so they tapped me to be his successor. I had about three nights of watching over Tom’s shoulder and still being really baffled about how to put a page together. The first night he was gone, I did the pages, got them out, made my deadline, went home. I had started at six o’clock in the evening and get home about three o’clock in the morning, go home, and go to bed. The first night, I had this incredible bad dream. I was in Vietnam again, and there was this firefight. Everyone around me was waging this fierce battle. I was in the center of it all trying to get my pages done. I was designing pages for the newspaper. Then I woke up and everything was over. The next night, it was the same thing, only this night I’m on some sort of a moonscape. I’m in a cement bunker with a big window, and I’m watching the end of the world, and I’m desperately trying to get my pages done. This went on for five nights. Then I kind of snapped out of it. I got used to it. I’ve since talked to other people who have had the exact same experience of when they first started doing layout because it’s such an intense experience. Everything comes in on you at once. You’ve got photos. You’ve got stories. You’ve got the kind of things that don’t work out. You’ve got headlines to write out. It’s just so intense of pressure that when you first start out, it produces a similar type of drain. But you get over it.
ES: You worked for a number of different publications.
FF: I did. They say, and nowadays, I’m not even sure how it works anymore … They used to say that to be seasoned as a reporter, you should work for three or four publications and kind of learn new ways and new managements. I had something of a left-handed advantage in that the Union-Star kept getting sold. Without ever having to make a move myself, I had the advantage of working for three or four or five different newspapers as the paper was being sold and new management and new ideas would come in. I started when I was eighteen [corrected by interviewee] and worked ever since when I was in town, essentially from 1961 to 1967 when I went overseas. I came back in 1969, and they were now owned by the Hearst Corporation. Hearst owned two papers in Albany, which was the capital of New York state, which is about twenty miles east of Schenectady. They were in the process when I joined the paper of bringing the Schenectady operation into the afternoon paper, the Knickerbocker News in Albany. Before too long–I guess it was within a year–they had moved the news operation out of Schenectady altogether. In the process they promoted me to city editor for the Schenectady operation. When we fully consolidated, I became the city editor–what we called the metropolitan city editor–which covered Albany, Schenectady, and the city of Troy across the river from Albany. I did that until 1972 when I joined the Ogden Newspapers, headquartered in Wheeling, West Virginia. Then hopscotching along, they owned a paper in New York, which was in Jamestown, which is in the southwest corner below Buffalo. I worked there for four years. In the process, I had become very active in state newspaper editor’s associations, the Associated Press Managing Editors in New York, and the New York State Society of Newspaper Editors. Through that, some of the executive officials in Gannett said to me, “If you’re interested in making a move, let us know.” At the time it seemed appropriate to make the move, I called them up and joined Rochester in 1976 and stayed there until 1995. In those periods of time, I’ve been city editor, I’ve been reporter, managing editor, city editor again, suburban editor, copy desk chief. There’s pretty much nothing in the newsroom I haven’t done at one point or another.
ES: I’d imagine that through that number of different jobs, you saw an evolution of how people edit the papers and layout pages and such.
FF: Yes. Yes.
ES: Tell me more about that.
FF: I guess it starts with the premise that newspapers are not quick to change, and because the job is so demanding, thinking about newer or better for many people in the business is really tough. Their job is just to get the story out, essentially in whatever form it’s taking. Research and development has never been a strong point in newspapers. In some respects, you can see things that had gone on forever, and all of a sudden, they change. A lot of it has to do with technology. A lot of it has to do with just this idea that “we have to get the paper out.” A lot of it is an enabler of technology. There are a couple of things to keep in mind–that things didn’t change quickly until they changed quickly. Gutenberg in the fifteenth century comes up with movable type and a press that revolutionizes printing. That same press could have been run by Benjamin Franklin in the early eighteenth century, and likewise, Gutenberg could have run Franklin’s press. They were virtually the same press. Nothing had changed.
Things develop in the 1820s, 30s, with the Industrial Revolution finally finding its way into printing. Their improvement is the steam press, but it’s still kind of the same system moving forward until you get to a guy named Ottmar Mergenthaler, who invents something called a Lineotype machine. A Lineotype machine means you no longer have to set the type by hand, letter by letter by letter. You have a machine, the molten type lead flows into a matrix of letters. What you come out with is a line of type that the Lineotype operation has typed in from a story has been given. The 1880s–they were still using line of type machines in the 1980s. Things lurch and they don’t. Presses were expected to have a lifespan of fifty, sixty years. There was not a great deal of investment in technology. There was a lot of money spent in technology, but it was the same technology. It was still going on when I came on. One of the factors that influenced–that the technology influenced–was layout design. You can see this still in the New York Times of the early 2000s and even today somewhat. You have what we call “tombstoning.” You just run straight lines–straight stories–one column deep, all of the way down to the bottom of the page, wrapped up to the second column. Then you’d start another story, and so on. If you look at any paper from the nineteenth century, that’s how it’s done. In the earliest part of the nineteenth century, it was done paradoxically. Your front-page story–your first story–is your oldest story because it’s the one you could do something with as a team. Your newest story gets over here on the last page–the last column–because that’s what you had left. You had to do it that way in order to get the paper out. This kind of tombstoning approach–straight up and down design–is great for newspapers but it makes tough for readers.
All of a sudden, there were people who were using hot metal, as we called it in those days to create better designs. The Christian Science Monitor was using a wider broader column. Instead of the vertical design of the tomb stoning, they were doing a horizontal design, where stories, instead of going deep, went wide across the page. That’s a much better looking page. Newspapers are starting to look at that when, all of a sudden, computerization shows up. They can’t design with computer yet, but they can make type so much faster and easier than they ever could before. It’s called photocomposition. This may be lore and myth more than truth, but the correlation of time gives it some credence. The boom in newspapering, which as they say in typesetting had been doing the same thing since 1880, corresponds to the first layoffs, the first cutbacks at NASA. The story is that a whole bunch of NASA engineers who had been let go are looking around for some place that they can use their skills, and they discover printing as something that is desperately in need of something new and something different. All of a sudden you have these startup companies that are producing machines that will set type for you. You don’t have metal involved. It’s phototypesetting. The experience I had seeing this change–how quickly it was coming–was that every year in those days the American Newspaper Publisher’s Association used to have what they called the mechanical show. This was a big convention where everybody who was producing any kind of equipment for the newspaper industry would unveil their newest and best and greatest tools–machinery and presses. There was a company called ECRM that had a real lead in terms of phototypesetting but their equipment was very expensive. It was beyond the reach of a small paper or even a medium-sized paper. The large papers were held back because the union contracts were putting a lid on too much innovation in mechanical areas–production areas. ECRM comes to this mechanical conference which was in nineteen–I want to say seventy-three–in New Orleans. They had on the floor a new machine, which could set type twice as fast as their big old one and cost half as much. They couldn’t write orders fast enough for this thing. Two days later, ECRM, on that same floor, introduces a new machine. It’s the one they just unveiled, but they’ve been working on it every night for all they’re worth. They introduced this new machine, which is twice as fast as the one they just introduced, and it’s again half as expensive. That was the way things were going. Whereas you wrote off a press in terms of forty, fifty, sixty years, now all of a sudden, the equipment was obsolete by the time it was arriving at your door, much less the time you paid for it. This was earth-shaking to the industry and caused no end of consternation and a whole lot of rethinking of what we’re doing and, again, how to think about the whole business.
With that–with electronic typesetting–comes this wonderful thing called the electric typewriter. When I started I was banging away at a big old Royal and everybody had them. All of a sudden, because the typesetting equipment needed to have type that was a uniform typeface–uniform sized, uniform everything–the best thing that would come along was the IBM Selectric typewriter. We’d probably still be on Royals if it weren’t for electronic typesetting. That type of change takes forever and then all of a sudden it’s on you and, bang, you don’t know where it’s going.
I was at a big academic conference in Washington and I want to say 2004, 2005. A friend of mine, Carl Sessions Stepp, who was at the University of Maryland and was a writer for the Washington Journalism Review … I said to Carl, “you know, something big is going on.” He said, “Yeah.” Within a year, the industry was completely up. The idea of the structure of the newsroom with the copydesk as sort of the end was gone. They replaced it. Now they don’t have copy desks–a lot of places don’t have copy desks. Some of us like to think that that’s a bad idea because it means an awful lot of stuff is getting through to the reader that shouldn’t. But that’s the way it’s going. Anyway, I’ve taken too much time.
ES: Well, absolutely, it’s fascinating so thanks for telling me about it. I want to ask you more about your time in New York and West Virginia as well. Before I do that, I wanted to ask you another question or two about Vietnam.
ES: First, you mention that it was a pretty dangerous environment. Were there any times in particular where you felt in danger?
FF: There were. There were. Sometimes, when I wasn’t at all. The very first time I thought I was in danger was when I had gone in. I had been in country about a week. Everything that moved scared me to death. I rode in as sort of shotgun with a courier coming out of the office. We used have a daily run to Military Assistance Command Vietnam headquarters–MACV headquarters, which were at the Tan Son Nhut airport in Saigon, which was about twenty miles away from our base. I went in with him, and it was supposed to be really kind of a “see the countryside” thing right up until the time we had a breakdown in the truck. The guy–the friend of mine–said, “I’ll hitchhike and go up and get some help.” Now, I’m sitting there, not knowing a thing about this country, assuming that everyone is about to kill me and standing guard on this truck, while all of Saigon … It was just incredible traffic. All over Vietnam, in particular Saigon, the traffic was just bizarre–milling around me, and mostly ignoring me. I just felt like this was the end of the world.
My post, Long Binh, had 50,000 troops on it. It was pretty impregnable. But occasionally, a rocket would be fired in. One night, we had some rocket noise, or some noise—we didn’t really know what it was. I went to the front of what we call the hooch, which was a long barracks building. In the front were a bunch of guys who I didn’t know very well–I was still new in country. They’re yelling, “Yay, give it to them,” thinking it was all outgoing. I kind of wandered to the middle of the building, and there was a guy who was pretty savvy and had been around for a while. He said, “Gentlemen, in my considered opinion, that is incoming.” With that, he dove, and I was right behind him. We were not the target, but as I say, it could happen.
There was an experience in a place called Quần Lợi, which was the Third Brigade of the First Air Cavalry Division–I’m not sure exactly. But they also had the Eleventh Cavalry Regiment [correction by interviewee], which was at that time commanded by the son of General Patton of World War II fame. And all of a sudden one night, I’m up there on a story. I’m just kind of traveling through, and there is a huge noise–a grenade had gone off. And this guy from the Eleventh … I jumped into this slit trench, and we’re standing there. Now we’re both barefoot, because it was night and we had both been asleep. We’re lying low, waiting to hear what’s going on next, and he said, “You know, there’s cobras in here, too.” [laughs] And with that, we both flew out and decided to take our chances with whatever the Viet Cong or the NVA had.
There were other times, too, that were pretty scary, but as they say, in retrospect, I didn’t get into any knockdown, drag-out firefights. I was more of a comedic figure in some respects. I remember going out again with an armored cavalry unit, and I had a photographer with me at that time, and then we had somebody from the local unit to be our guide. Each of us was assigned to a different armored cavalry vehicle and all of a sudden, right after we got started, there was machine gun fire on the right flank. The word came down, “Get the visitors out of there.” I’m watching as both vehicles that my two partners are in peel off, turn back, and take them back to the helicopter. Nothing happened with my vehicle; they didn’t realize I was on it. I’ve got a camera around my neck, and all I carried in the way of a side arm was a pistol, so that was useless. You get on this thing and you don’t have a whole lot of place to hang on to. And so it’s bucking along and what not, and I’ve got this camera. All I want to do is get the camera out of the way so I can get closer to the deck, then I can get lower profile, hanging on. Well, the word got out and the unit looked around, and there was this guy taking pictures of the whole thing. All I was trying to do was stay on that vehicle and not get shot off it. But it made for more good stories when we got back.
ES: That’s a great story. In The Uncensored War: Media and Vietnam, author Daniel C. Hallin points out a view that the Vietnam War was unpopular largely because of the news coverage it received. This view states, “No televised war can long maintain popular support.” What does your experience tell you about this idea?
FF: Well, I think one of the things to keep in mind about Vietnam was that it was possibly American journalism’s least censored war. There was no longer the accrediting as it was done in World War Two and Korea. The military really made a good-faith effort to be open to civilian press. I can remember, in these hitchhiking rides around the country, frequently running into somebody–a civilian journalist–some of them from the Saigon press corps, if you will. But others were editors from some place in Ohio–something like that–who had taken advantage of the opportunity to go over and report on the war. There was no–as the title suggests–there was no censorship, per se. I think that the kind of warts-and-all coverage certainly did have effect. I mentioned earlier that in those days your six o’clock news, your six thirty news, was still only a fifteen-minute affair. So it’s possible from our perspective to overstate how much of the war the readers actually saw on TV.
But certainly, the ability of the civilian press to write the war as they saw it had to have had that effect on the civilian population at home. Plus, the number of deaths above and beyond what they were seeing, and the horror that they might be seeing. It was pretty sanitized. You were not seeing then in the newspapers or in the TV photos–films–anything like you would see today. The rule was “no dead bodies.” I can remember huge discussions going on over whether, or how to play a photo of a Buddhist monk who had set fire to himself and killed himself in protest in Vietnam. A lot of papers didn’t use that. How much the readers actually saw needs to be a study of what the papers and what the media were really doing then, as opposed to what we think they might have been doing now.
But the death count and the injuries and what not were piling up, and this wasn’t the Civil War, where everyone was in it. This was the war that nobody really understood very well. The toll was pretty ghastly for something that was not clearly explained. I think in that respect the media was important. Certainly, you have the iconic Walter Cronkite moment after Tet, when he goes there and essentially says the war is over. And President Johnson says, “Well if I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost the war; I’ve lost America.” I think the military learned some things out of that, and I think that the controls that are exerted have been exerted in Iraq, for instance, and Afghanistan in the so-called insertion of journalists in units was a pretty clever thing to do for the military. No matter how hard-boiled a journalist you are, you pretty quickly become a real fan of those guys who are standing around you, protecting you, and giving you food and water while you’re there. And I think it’s got to have influenced a lot of reporters, and a lot of them have admitted that. So Vietnam was different in many respects.
ES: What publications did you work for during your time in Vietnam?
FF: Well, the newspaper–the weekly newspaper that the command put out–was the Army Reporter. Then there was a quarterly magazine called Uptight, which is kind of interesting to look at it now. “Uptight” in those days meant that you had your act together, and you were ready to go, essentially. It was not that you were terrified or strung out or anything like that, the way we might think of it today. Then there was another publication, which was called Tour 365, which was given to troops as they left. It was put out quarterly, too, which was your year in Vietnam–“Here’s what was going on.” Again, I’m not sure that that one in particular was ever read. But it also, as an aside, demonstrates the incredible expense and importance to the Army of putting these publications in front of their troops. It was a real morale issue and unifying issue, as well.
ES: Absolutely. In Summit to Saigon: the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War, the author argues that the Vietnam War divided African Americans more than any previous issue in American history. What does your experience and research tell you about this idea?
FF: It’s an interesting and very complex question. I’ve done some research on it; I’ve got some anecdotes also. I looked at how essentially three of the leading black newspapers looked at Vietnam–the Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier, and the Amsterdam News. What surprised me … I looked at them in three different time points where there might be reason for disparate reactions.
One was the Muhammad Ali case. Ali refused to be drafted and fought induction, and as a result, the minute he said he wouldn’t be drafted, was stripped of his heavyweight title without any kind of due process. He was really harassed by the government. They backed off, but Ali famously said, “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger,” as a reason for not going over to fight. Traditionally, there have always been in America’s wars, particularly in wars of–whether you call it imperialism or colonialism or whatever, whether we were sending troops over to fight people of color–there was a dichotomy in the black community always when this came up. “You know, we’re people of color. We’re going over to fight other people of color. Is that right? Whose fight is this? Or are we Americans, and if we do join in the mainstream fight–the white American fight–will we gain acceptance and be able to rise above whatever our status is right now?” This is something that [Frederick] Douglass had argued in the Civil War, came up again in the Spanish American War, came up again in World War One, World War Two, and it was still around in Vietnam. So the Ali issue was one polarizing issue that was worth taking a look at, how the black press responded.
Another was Tet, and then there was Martin Luther King’s coming out against the Vietnam War, as well–his speech or sermon at Riverside Church in New York. And at each moment, the editors of these three leading black newspapers were squarely with Johnson and for the war, even as they were looking at reports that were true that there was a disproportionate number of blacks being killed. They weren’t disproportionate in Vietnam in terms of raw numbers, but in terms of combat injuries, fatalities, and wounds, the percentage was much higher for blacks. But Johnson had given the Civil Rights Voting Act. Johnson, and the government and the military provided base housing that was equal all, and that really was important in those days, which was a very segregated society. Which they looked at as–“this is better than we’re going to get any other deal outside base, this equality of housing is huge.” They stuck by the government. So you have this point where the black press is supporting the war effort, not the war itself necessarily, but the government. Against that you have Ali, you have King, you have these disproportionate casualties.
At the same time, Vietnam is the first war that we went into as an integrated service. Segregation was still very much the norm–it was the rule–in World War Two. And even in Korea, Truman in 1947 issues an executive order saying that the U.S. forces are to be desegregated henceforth. A lot of people think Korea was a desegregated force going in, but it wasn’t. The last force unit to desegregate came in 1953, and it was a transportation company–a lot of black soldiers always ended up as the heavy lifters and what have you. In any event, it was only until you got to Vietnam that you had an integrated force going in there. But if you looked around you, anecdotally, whenever the fighting–there are all sorts of reports of fighting where blacks and whites just saw no color distinction. They were out there to save each other. But when you got them back in the base, there was complete separation. Blacks would go in one area of the vessel, whites in the other, and it was very much a kind of Jim Crow atmosphere to this Northern boy who was not used to this kind of thing. Vietnam in some respects changed things. It empowered black people coming out particularly in the military. It gave them skills, which was another thing that the black editors looked at and said, “You know, our guys are learning skills that they would not learn on the streets of Selma if they weren’t military.” So this is another plus. There were pluses and minuses all the way.
ES: That’s a very interesting perspective. Now jumping back to United States and your return in the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s as a reporter. You worked at a range of newspapers in New York and West Virginia. What is most memorable about the newsroom environment then?
FF: Well, I’ve talked quite about the technology and how technology changed. I think there was also a change in that when I started in ‘61. And don’t hold me to the precise numbers, but I would say that typically you would work ten years as a reporter and then you would be considered for a promotion to be a city editor or an editor of some sort. And if you worked there another ten years, you might get to be managing editor. It was a very long slow process. It was a process that if you looked around, certainly there were women in the newsroom when I started, but other than the women’s pages or the so called society pages, I never saw a woman editor until I got to Rochester, NY. I take that back. I had a woman editor working for me, she was really good when I got to Jamestown. But when I started out there were no woman editors, and that would be true right up until–in my career, you have to keep in mind that other tracks may have had different perspectives–but in my experience I didn’t see woman editors until the early 1970s.
Then all of a sudden, I got to Rochester and there was this incredibly capable woman by the name of Nancy Woodhull who, when I got there, was editor of the features section, and it was an award-winning features section. She was doing really great things. Nancy, interestingly enough, did not have a college degree. I think she did go, but she did not have a college degree. But she was just one of these incredibly brilliant creative people who moved up and became, before I left–well, long before I left–she had become the managing editor of the paper. She went on to corporate ranks and was very successful. Died very, very young, and at her funeral, everyone that was big in the industry was there. She was incredibly important. At that time, I would say, you were seeing almost fifty-fifty or more and it was not … Gannett has a bad reputation nowadays. People like to rag on Gannett, and possibly it’s more true in some of their other papers. I was at Headquarters, and Headquarters was, in my opinion, run right.
When I first started, the entire executive offices of Gannett Company, Inc. were on the fifth floor of the building that held the Times-Union and the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester. You always kind of felt like you were being watched. But the resources were there, and they would go anywhere for a good story that had something to do with Rochester, or even not. Rochester was then home to Kodak, which it still is, but Kodak has been in bankruptcy. They got out in 2013, I think, but it was nothing like when I was there. IBM was there. Xerox headquarters had been there. Rochester was a booming place, and so you had among other things, a lot of resources to support the newspapers, but a tremendous number of people moving through. That made for some very interesting news, because the first rule we would have in the newsroom was, “Did you check the clips?” Meaning, no matter what happened, find out if in our files clip files, from past stories, it’ll tell you something that will add to this. There was always a Rochester connection. Some of these probably way before your time and you probably have no recollection of ever hearing about them, but when the Russians shot down a Korean Airline plane over the Kamchatka Peninsula–in the 1990s I think it was–there was a family that was from Kodak on there, so it made it our story. When the Hillside Strangler case was going on in California, they were finding women’s bodies dumped along the hillsides of highways and what have you. Turned out the Hillside Strangler and his cousin were from Rochester. The strangler actually–I forget his name now, but any event–years before my son came through, but he had gone to the same Jesuit school as my son did. There was a guy, a really loopy guy, who decided to steal a nuclear submarine. Turned out he was from Rochester.
We had tremendous stories. We had a mob–an actual mob. They were bombing each other, shooting each other, and what not. One of my first days in Rochester, I get in the elevator. We had a business at that time–new reporters would spend a week…or new staff, I went there as an editor…but new staff would go spend a week with various reporters going around the community and getting to know it and know these people. I’m with the court reporter, Neva Flaherty–we’re in an elevator and all of a sudden the door opens up and in come the defendants in this mob murder trial. F. Lee Bailey was one of the defense counsel on this. They get in and they start teasing Neva … We’re never going to get out of these elevators.
One of my copy editors when I became copy desk chief … The story is told that he showed up at somebody’s house. I don’t know if it was a party that he went to or something like that, and he found Red Russotti, who was one of the mob chieftains of Rochester, who is in the kitchen, and this guy [Del Ray] a very mild-mannered guy … He had been shot down in World War Two and was a POW. The line was, “Is it true, Mr. Russotti, that you killed people?”
So Rochester in those days was just a fabulous place, and as a result, it was a very progressive newsroom. It was more a matter of “Can you do the job?” That was exciting, and I think that other people will tell you different stories because they came from different angles of Gannett or different chains. But that period of time in the mid-70s to the mid-80s was really exciting. You were asking earlier what happened to the physical newspaper. We were doing things with layout and design. We were winning awards and totally different from what the traditional approach had been. Nowadays, everybody’s a storyteller. Some of us old-timers say, “That’s what we were doing, too.”
ES: Absolutely. Now tell me more about your three-month stint in West Virginia.
FF: The company I joined, Ogden Newspapers, headquartered in Wheeling, was at that time a fairly small chain. I don’t know where they’re at now. But they owned a paper in a place south of Wheeling, I think was called Parkersburg [correction by interviewee]. When I joined the paper, they wanted an almost instant decision. They were funny in that respect because I was down there interviewing. My wife was still living in Saratoga County, New York, area where we live and she always lived. And they’re wondering whether I should fly her down that weekend or the next down so she can go down to Parkersburg [correction by interviewee] to see the place and see if she’s going like it. I said, “No, we’re cool on this. I can make the decision.” So I went back and told them “Yes, I can take the job.” This is a quick aside on the thing–a bit of drama. There’s always drama in my life. I was due to fly back from Wheeling on a Thursday or Friday evening with a stop in Pittsburgh–actually it wasn’t a stop. The nearest airport to Wheeling was Pittsburgh at that time. I drove up to Pittsburgh to get on my flight and was told, “The flight is delayed; you’ll have to spend the night in Pittsburgh.” So I begrudgingly did, called my wife and told her I’d be home the next day. It wasn’t until the next day when we had a stop in Syracuse, and some people got on the plane at Syracuse. They had newspapers, and the flight attendant was quickly taking the newspapers as the people got on board. One of them put them down, and the papers were talking about this horrific plane crash at Albany airport where I was due to land at about the time I was due to land there the night before. What had happened was a flight coming out of New York had crashed on approach and almost everybody was killed on it. So my wife knew that I was okay because I had called her, but one person in the newsroom in Albany–I had told my executive city editor, he knew I was on this job interview–he was beside himself whether I was still on that flight. In any event, that was a little bit of drama that was aside.
I got the job. I accepted the job with the Wheeling newspaper. On the very first day, I’m in the halls and along comes the general manager with another guy in tow. He says, “I want you to meet the new editor.” This was the job I was supposed to have. I had no idea why I had brought my wife in, my little girl. The job I had signed up for was gone.
Fortunately what they had for me was that I would become editor of their paper in Jamestown, New York, which was at the time about 35,000 in circulation, which is not big by most standards but it was bigger than anything else in that chain. It was not their flagship but one they felt very strongly about. So I was there for three months and the idea was that I would learn about them and they would learn about me and we would kind of go on. But I was sort of an editor without portfolio, helping out around the newsroom of the morning paper as needed. Then, somewhat secretly, I was told a report to Jamestown, such-and-such a date, and I was introduced to their newsroom as their new editor. They never saw it coming, and it was kind of a rocky start, but it worked out well.
There was another place where you could do some experimenting, more so than I think the chain wanted. I was sort of out from under their eyes and so we did do something that I learned much, much later you don’t really do We reconfigured the newspapers, going again for the very narrow columns running up and down the wrapper to kind of a horizontal layout. We changed the face of the paper, but the corporate office may not have been thrilled about what was coming down the mail for them. But it was a good experience. I was there for four years and learned a tremendous amount. I was making myself ready for the next stage.
ES: You also mentioned you had a story related to coal mining.
FF: Yes, one of the big things going on in Wheeling when I was there was huge upheaval in the United Mine Workers Union. There was an insurgent group that was trying to essentially take over the union from the Jimmy Hoffa-type leadership mine workers had. District Five [correction by interviewee], I believe, was the district we were in — had an insurgent named Yablonski, I think, and he and his wife and one or two children were found murdered in their home in, I think it was Clarksville [correction by interviewee] Pennsylvania, which is sort of the line between Wheeling and Pittsburgh, which was about an hour or so. This was huge and it was a lot of strikes and stuff like that. I remember one night–I’m not necessarily proud of this–but one night, five or six of the biggest burliest guys I’ve ever seen came up to the newsroom. In those days, newsrooms were really accessible. Nowadays, you’ve usually got a guard downstairs to feed people out but in those days anybody could walk in and almost always did. These guys come into the newsroom and want to know where this reporter is who had been covering the coverage and all that stuff. I think that to a man and woman everyone in the newsroom, just kind of shrank back and pointed to poor John–I think his name was John Waider–and there he is and not knowing what was ever going to happen to Johnny. It turned out these guys were friendly and happy. They were there to support him and give him ideas. Just for that moment, we didn’t know what was going to happen in the newsroom that night. In some respects, something that–I don’t want to be stereotypical and say, “that’s West Virginia” newspapering in those days versus New York newspapering–but I never saw anything like that happen any place else where they came in strong like that.
It illustrated that if you’re on the wrong side, you could have some problems. No question about it. I’ve covered strikes–General Electric Company strikes. General Electric Company was big in Schenectady at the time. It was four thousand production workers and almost an equal amount of white-collar workers. On the first day of the strike, it was always this convergence. Being in the middle of that–watching police officers, police officials being knocked around–gave me some real scary moments. Nothing even really happened to me, but I’m not comfortable around large amounts of humanity.
ES: That makes sense. In regard to the business of journalism, what were the greatest challenges that these newspapers faced?
FF: A blanket statement would be “keeping up with the times.” To illustrate that in a small way–but I think it covers a lot of other things–when I joined this newspaper in Schenectady in 1961, we were not allowed to mention, let alone publish, the schedules of the radio and TV stations in town. They were considered the competition. Looking back at it, we’re there to serve readers. Readers want to see TV schedules and radio schedules. We would not because they were the competitors. We didn’t know how to handle them. We didn’t know–I’ve said several times–we really didn’t know how to deal with technology. Histories have been written about technologies, and a friend of mine, Roger Fiddler, who was a big thinker for Knight Ridder newspapers, wrote a book and in it, he projected that it takes almost twenty to thirty years before a new technology finds where it’s going to be. I heard it on the radio this morning–people come up with a solution and then start looking around for problems to apply it to. In many of these technologies, the first instinct is to make it do what you’ve always been doing–better, faster, cheaper, whatever. It’s only when it’s been around for a while when you realize what the potential really is, and it’s not to do the old things the same way, but to do something else another way. I think the industry has always had a problem with that. It’s probably not unique to the industry, but it’s one of those things.
Socially, I think that it’s had a real challenge–and I’m thinking now in statewide perspective–living up to its promises, living up to its own perceptions of itself. I’m thinking there in terms of the horrific violations of everything that we would consider important in journalism now in terms of being fair to everybody, giving voice to the voiceless. Going back to Brown versus Board of Education in the early ’60s and what was called massive resistance that was promoted by the newspapers. James Kilpatrick, the editor of the Richmond News Leader [correction by interviewee] organized editors across the South to essentially fight to preserve Jim Crow and were very successful at it in places and incited riots against blacks. Shocking stuff, by our standards. But again another example on a social level of being unable to deal with the times as they changed. Certainly there are gender issues in the newsrooms in terms of quality of job opportunities, quality of pay, and some papers have done and handled this beautifully, done the right thing at the right time. Others have just stayed in a very conservative crouch, and you know probably–I’m not current on this information–but probably even today there are places where they are gender unequal, pay unequal. So those are some of the challenges that newspapers have had and the industry have had. In my opinion, they can be summed up in this idea of just not being able to adapt and change very quickly to the times.
ES: Absolutely. So finishing up, I want to ask you about your most recent ventures. Firstly, how did you find out about the Freedom Forum Fellowship at UNC?
FF: [laughs] Another long and funny story–I’ll try and keep it short. While I was an editor in Rochester, I had been an adjunct professor at several schools in New York, principally the University of Rochester. I started teaching down there in 1986, and it got to the point where it was giving me a full load, as far as teaching was concerned, except I was having to chase all around Monroe County to do it, and I would be teaching three courses a semester or term. During that time also, I got interested in knowing or thinking about what it is we do as journalists and as communicators. I got interested in looking for a master’s degree. Now remember, when I got of Cornell in ’65, higher education for journalists was scoffed at. Nobody thought there was any purpose at all, so I just went right into the job and kept on going. But by 1980s–late ‘80s–the idea of a master’s degree sounded interesting, but I didn’t want to go to Syracuse, which was the nearest big journalism school, only to learn how to lay out a page or edit a story. I had done plenty of those things, thank you very much. I had discovered there was a small school six miles away, a state university named Brockport, and it had a communications department which was really a hotbed of rhetoric and rhetorical theory, and it was a little pocket, sort of an anachronism sort of left over from the ‘60s. Here were these big guns, who were all up on rhetoric. But I got interested in that, went through the program, did all the coursework. At this point I started to think, well gee whiz, a doctorate might be interesting to do, with no real idea of using it as a full time step. It was just sort of a self-actualization. At about the time I had set aside any of the vacation time I had to allow for the month of January 1995 that I’d write my master’s thesis, I got–I think it was American Journalism Review–I got a stuffer in it or some sort of flap that talked about this new program that was being envisioned by an outfit called the Freedom Forum, which was the former Gannett Foundation and splintered away from Gannett, renamed itself the Freedom Forum. The head of it at that time was Al Neuharth, best known publisher, editor and CEO of Gannett in his day. It was to be a partnership with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The plan was to take mid-career journalists with national reputations and an interest in teaching and put them through a Ph.D. program that would be really compressed, really high powered–twenty-seven months was the plan at the time–and out of that at the other end they would have doctorates and be accepted and able to go into the academy and essentially bring real-world experience to the classrooms.
There was also the expectation at the time–a study had been done–that said that all of these people in the academy who had been the founders and the greats are all at retirement age. So there would be this great retiring off of people, and there will be a real need for people coming in. That, by the way, never happened. They never retired. We still have some people teaching here who were in that cohort. This flier looked interesting, and as I said, I was sort of pre-disposed to a doctorate and my kids were now in college so I had the freedom to do it. My wife was a nurse and we worked opposite shifts and so we didn’t see each other. We left notes at the table. I left her a note with the brochure saying, “What do you think?” The next morning, I came down and there was a note saying, “Great, go for it.” We didn’t know until I got accepted to the program that she had never read the bulletin, had no idea what she was getting herself into. [laughs] She thought, at best, that I might take a semester somewhere and then come back and do whatever it was that I was doing. She was shell struck to discover that this was the end of life as she knew it. But that’s how I got here. I didn’t feel I fit the profile, but in New York state, the state lottery had a slogan, “Hey, you never know.” So I said, “Hey, you never know,” and went for it and got accepted and was here.
FF: Went to Ohio University as a visiting professor for three [correction by interviewee] years and then came back full time in 2000.
ES: That’s great. So in writing for some of your works related to Frederick Douglass, you’ve become an expert in nineteenth century journalism and the black press. What inspired you to investigate this subject?
FF: Well, my answers to Douglass stems from the fact that when I first got to Rochester in 1976, I had a little apartment, and I would walk to work. As I would walk to work by this one building–there was this big shiny brass plaque that said, “This is the site where Frederick Douglass’s newspaper the North Star had been published.” I knew about Douglass, but I didn’t really think very much of it until I got into that graduate program. The very first class was a research methods class, and the very first assignment was to come up with a research question or topic and a twenty-five-item bibliography to support it. I cast around, and I said, “Well, you know, Douglass is interesting to me, but who was he writing for–and remember, this was a rhetoric program, so I remember thinking I may be interested in this rhetoric. So I said, “I’d like to know more about Frederick Douglass and who was the audience. In one respect you can think he’s preaching to the choir, so why the big deal. That was the beginning of it. In the course of that, I’ve written a number of articles about Douglass and then got very interested in a woman named Julia Griffiths, who was white, British. He had met her in 1845 when he was in Britain. She came over and when he was kind of floundering in 1849 and stayed with him in Rochester until 1855, helping him to put his newspaper out and editing it for him, doing his finances–fascinating. That’s an almost never-ending research project right there.
ES: I bet.
FF: It’s been great fun. It’s taken me to England. It’s taken me around the country doing research, making presentations.
ES: Well, I wish I could ask you more about that, but we are out of time.
FF: I could talk for another three hours about that.
ES: I’m sure we could sit here all night. Thank you so much, Dr. Fee, for your time and coming here. Thank you again.
FF: My pleasure.
END OF INTERVIEW