Take-no-prisoners editor remembered
My kind of journalism
Last hurrah of 'newsman's newsman' was a strong one
He wasn't a real big guy, but sometimes giants come in a smaller size. I still remember his gravelly voice, the kind you can get only after so many cigarettes and so many emptied bottles. And when in full rhetorical flight, drunken longshoremen and sailors may ask him to tone down his language.
I can still hear him cussing me out, but for him to do that indicated that he thought I was worth the trouble. He believed in me, and admittedly I'm one of those people who has trouble believing in himself. I did some of my best work under his watch. I worked my head off for that man. Part of it was I was scared spitless of him. Also because I loved working for him.
Verne Peyser was a newsman's newsman. He was proud of his lengthy career in journalism, which spanned more than 45 years. Despite dropping out of school in the seventh grade, he'd talked to presidents and broken in at least one Pulitzer Prize winner. He was nominated twice for it himself.
Newspaper work was his life. He was born into it; his father was managing editor of newspapers in Two Rivers and Manitowoc, Wisconsin. Verne swore the last movie he saw was "Gone With The Wind," in a movie house when he was a youngster. He never got to see Rhett toss off his famous parting shot; Verne was paged during the performance and told he was needed in the newsroom. Something about Japanese planes bombing Pearl Harbor.
He died 10 years ago, of brain cancer at age 67, five years after closing out his career. Along the way he worked in places like Omaha, Phoenix, Council Bluffs (Iowa), Livingston (Montana), Palm Springs, and Ojai, California. Ojai? The town made famous by the Bionic Woman? A new-agey kind of town, home to many vegetarians -- in fact, the townsfolk staged a protest when a McDonalds opened in town some years ago. Somehow, the carnivorous, chain-smoking Peyser fit in there, too.
I worked for him in Bullhead City, Arizona, with a newspaper called The Booster. It was originally a quick-and-dirty news wrap around a shopper, but for some reason the owners (Brehm Communications) envisioned making a real newspaper out of it. So, they called a real newspaperman to run it.
Verne had his share of baggage. Earlier in his career he had a drinking problem -- an article he wrote about taking "the cure" earned him an award. Plus, since his days with the Arizona Republic, his career was inexorably intertwined with that of Danforth "Duke" Tully, the legendary publisher. Tully had credentials as an air force pilot in Korea and Vietnam, and threw his influence behind a young Congressional candidate named John McCain. Turns out Tully's war record was bogus; he'd never served, and he was forced to leave the Republic and eke out a living with smaller and smaller papers. Even with his warts, Tully was regarded as one hell of a newspaperman. Peyser was definitely a Tully man, and ended up retiring as metro editor and following Duke in his wanderings. "I hear my Duke calling me," Peyser would say in his more frustrated moments at the Booster.
But Peyser assembled a strong, experienced news crew at The Booster. Graybeards, he called us. There was Greg Bucci, who had at least 25 years in the business (and my former managing editor at the Fontana Herald-News in California). David Molina, a 30-year veteran of newspapers and freelance work. And me, the young pup of the bunch, with nearly 10 years in the business.
But we at The Booster took no prisoners. Our circulation increased, and we were being taken seriously. We became a daily and became the Mohave County Daily News. Bullhead City had some strange politics back then. Forget reelection; a city council member was lucky to make it through his term without being recalled. In its first 10 years Bullhead ran through 12 or 13 city managers, but who's counting? The council even fired one who was filling in as manager on a volunteer basis. Voters had approved a proposition saying no taxes be increased or new ones implemented without a general election, and the law -- which passed by something like an 80-20 majority and was soon nuked in court. Admittedly, the law was poorly written. That's the kind of town where we worked. I understand not much has changed; there's still a lot of what the bull leaves behind at City Hall.
I wrote some stories on how the City Council managed to circumvent state open-meeting laws and won an award from the state Associated Press -- Verne nominated it behind my back, and admittedly was more impressed about it than I was. I didn't bother to go to the awards ceremony -- Verne went in my stead. Later, another of our reporters, Janne Hanrahan, earned Story Of The Year honors by the Arizona AP for her coverage of the Ward Valley nuclear waste fiasco. We were all like that. Somebody derisively called us a bunch of muckrakers, and Verne wrote a column saying that is indeed high praise. Thoroughly Peyser-ized, we kicked ass and collected names.
The Booster/Mohave Valley News was Verne's last hurrah, as he retired after leaving that job.
Another Peyser-ized reporter was Paul Henderson, who worked at two newspapers under Verne. In the early 1960s they worked together with the Council Bluffs (Iowa) Daily Nonpareil, and the two later worked at the Omaha World-Herald. Henderson eventually left the Midwest, and hooked on with the Seattle Times as a crime reporter. While there, Henderson investigated the rape conviction of Steve Titus and was able to prove his innocence. The conviction was overturned, another man confessed to the rape, and Henderson earned the 1982 Pulitzer for local investigative specialized reporting.
In some ways, Verne spoiled me for "legitimate" newspaper work. He never minded stirring up hornets' nests, and I was the same way. I've always had the most fun working for small newspapers that could barely afford to pay the help. There was one newspaper where I had to run like hell to the bank, cash my paycheck, then take the cash to my bank to deposit it. A real shaky operation, but I got to do my kind of reporting. Or at least no one stopped me. As far as one of those big-name newspapers where I'm supposed to generate toothless copy, I don't think I can do it and keep a straight face. I'd seriously have to get blitzed every Friday night at the thought of what I'm doing to the readers. After a reporting/editing job with a weekly in Indiana, I knew the magic had left. Newspaper work ceased to be fun, and it was time for me to leave. Somewhere along the line, real news reporting gave way to fluff. I didn't know it at the time, but Verne passed away almost exactly one year after I left the business. Journalism will never be the same again, for me or for any intelligent readers.
Further reading: The linked article was published by the Phoenix New Times in January 1992. Peyser is one of the people spotlighted, but the entire piece is excellent. It really gives a glimpse into what kind of town Bullhead City was back then.
Also: An account written in 2002 by another Peyser-ized reporter in Ojai.
There's more: I found this linked article after I wrote and posted this. It's a column by Greg Bucci, who remembers what newsrooms were like before computers completely took the joint over. What's scary is I remember these days, too.