My One Big “Stop the Presses” Story

 

STOP THE PRESSES!

It’s a cliché of ‘40s newspaper movies and early TV shows, right? Nobody ever actually yelled “Stop the Presses!”

Well, yes, I know of at least one time….

It was the summer of 1967 and I was home in Evansville, Indiana, between getting my degree in physics and starting graduate school in English (don’t ask). I was wandering around downtown, thinking that I probably should get a job, and completely on a whim I went into the offices of The Evansville Press to ask about employment.

For reasons I will never understand, City Editor Bill Burleigh hired me on the spot as a reporter, covering the police beat. Which made this the most action-packed and life-changing summer of my youth.

My very first assignment was to track down a railroad yard watchman who’d been on duty when two youngsters were killed by a moving train car; the man had since disappeared. I guess Bill wanted to find out right away whether he’d made a mistake.

I found the missing guy, interviewed him, and wrote a story that got him fired, whereupon he called me up and threatened to kill me. It was a fantastic introduction to professional journalism—and was in fact not the only death threat I got that summer.

Then there was the time the entire police force refused to speak to me because I did a story they didn’t want me to do.  Every day for more than a week, when I walked into the lobby of the police station every open door and counter window would slam shut.

But those aren’t the stories I want to tell here.

I’m thinking of the time I walked into that lobby, very late on a summer afternoon, my last stop of the day (I thought), and found myself in the midst of chaos. Cops running for their cars, yelling back and forth, radios blaring…. I dodged my way through to the desk sergeant and asked what the hell was happening.

There’s a bank robbery in progress, he said, and I scampered for the nearest phone.

The time was 4:35. That’s significant because The Evansville Press was an evening paper that ran five editions every weekday and the last, the Late Edition, started its run at 4:30. The presses, which were huge and heavy and loud, were on the first floor of the Press building and the whole structure would shake when they were running. Yes, just exactly like in the damned movies.

I called it in to the city desk nevertheless, of course, and I actually heard Bill Burleigh turn away from the phone and yell the magic words: “STOP THE PRESSES!”

He told me to get my ass out front of the police station where a photographer would pick me up on the way to the bank. It took me probably less than a minute to get to the sidewalk and the photographer’s car was coming around the corner, literally on two wheels, as I got there. He threw open the passenger as he slowed down and I jumped in while the car was still moving; he floored it again.

And I gotta say, I’m pretty sure that right there was the adrenaline highpoint of my life. Maybe second to the time I fell off a fifty-foot cliff, but still….

We got to the bank within minutes, arriving for the immediate aftermath of the robbery. Three armed men had just fled. The bank and the surrounding neighborhood were crawling with cops. The photographer and I, being press, were permitted through the police lines and into the bank. He started taking pictures and I started interviewing people—the bank manager, the teller who had been robbed, a few of the witnesses, covering as much as I could as quickly as I could.

I grabbed a phone from one of the assistant manager’s desks to tell Burleigh that we had the story and the pictures and we were heading in. He transferred me to a re-write person so I could dictate the first few paragraphs of what would be the new front page story. I would have to write the rest, as fast as I possibly could, while the photographer was developing his shots back at the office. Those presses were sitting there, quietly waiting for new type to be set and a front page to be re-formatted. Every minute that passed made the Late Edition even later.

The second we were back in the office the photographer ran for the darkroom and I for my desk. I sat down, rolled a sheet of paper into my typewriter, glanced at my notes, and started typing.

Never before or since have I written anything under such pressure. I did three pages of breaking news with Burleigh standing at my side, literally holding onto the top of the sheet of paper I was typing on so that he could rip it out of the typewriter the second I finished the last line and head to the typesetting room with it. I would nominate these few minutes as probably third on the lifetime adrenaline-high list.

We got it done and it was a spectacular front page that hit the street so quickly it scooped even the local radio station.

Then we all went out for a drink. Just like in the damned movies.

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