The days of the big scoop

Published 10:27 am Saturday, October 25, 2014

by Frank Roberts

I enjoy those newspaper movies from the ’30s and 40s. The reporters are packed in the newsroom, just about all the characters are bustling. Copyboys run from desk to desk — dropping papers off, picking papers up. You see reporters arguing with editors, you see everybody puffing away. The phones are always ringing.

And, there are scenes in police stations, the reporters playing cards while they wait for “The Scoop.” The cops are saying, “No comment — we don’t know anything yet” in between officers offering updates and the scenes with the men in blue talking in whispers about those “news guys.”

Some of my favorite scenes show hatted reporters, the headgear showing little cards that read “Press.” I would have felt stupid(er) looking like that. Anyway, I never wore hats.

And there are the scenes showing trucks dropping off bundles of newspapers, and customers grabbing them up to read the latest. Reporters are usually brash loudmouths, often insisting they be allowed to cross barriers to run into a burning building to get firsthand info about the fire.

The kids selling the newspapers would get in their potential customer’s faces as they shout out the big news stories. Sometimes, they would get a tip and tell the guy, “Gee, thanks, mister.”

On screen, in those days, typewriters clacked, reporters were told, “The boss wants you — RIGHT AWAY.” And, speaking of the boss, there were often scenes with the news guy telling the head guy he deserved a raise, and if he didn’t get it, he was going to work for the paper across the street.

Colorful stuff, and about 2 percent accurate. But there was a parallel to real life. That had to do with household heads sitting in their favorite easy chair, devouring the printed word, and even talking about the news of the day. (You seldom saw the wife reading the paper).

Except for radio, those papers were “it” as far as information about the world was concerned.

When I started writing, it was on a typewriter. Then it was the electric typewriter, and then came the computer.

My first task with the Virginian-Pilot was covering northeastern North Carolina and sending my own pictures to Norfolk by Greyhound. Often, they were not taken off the bus in Norfolk (the station was right across the street from the office), and they wound up in Baltimore.

Before joining The Pilot, I spent about three years with the Jacksonville (N.C.) Daily News. The editor who hired me was fired the day I started. The reason? One drink too many.

A lot of my time there was spent covering Marines at Camp Lejeune. Their activities were pretty rigid. I was glad I had opted for the Army and the Signal Corps when I was 17. Rugged, I wasn’t.

My work was never dull and, in Hampton Roads was more exciting and more demanding. I concentrated on feature writing, a happy task that took me around Suffolk, to Franklin, Smithfield, and elsewhere.

The head man at The Pilot, Frank Batten Sr., was, as anyone who worked under him will attest, an outstanding newspaperman who loved the business, his staff, and the final product.

He knew everybody by name and reputation. He was never dictatorial; often, he had get-togethers with one and all, and he always encouraged each one of us.

I retired after 30 years, continued with my interviews and reviews for another 10. (I still do online CD reviews).

I began my careers deejaying and as a teevee newscaster and, after retiring from the newspaper, I returned to disc-jockey work for 10 years. I still have a website. Of course, I write for this very fine newspaper as a correspondent (that’s a French word meaning “no pay”). No, I’m not bucking for a buck, I just enjoy doing what I love best.

I read recently that my old alma mater is cutting its news staff, drastically, following in the sad footsteps of the New York Times, USA Today and others.

As Duke Ellington once wrote, “Things ain’t what they used to be.”

During a 60-year career spanning newspapers, radio and television, Frank Roberts has been there and done that. Today, he’s doing it in retirement from North Carolina, but he continues to keep an eye set on Western Tidewater and an ear cocked on country music. Email him at