Part II: Other Stories to Tell

4. Ray De Crane Tells of His Early Years at the Press – Starting at Age 10 – and How He Learned the Ropes as a Reporter on the Police Beat

It seems to me that I had been working at The Press almost all my working life. My introduction to the newspaper business came in 1924 when I was only 10 years old. I bought my first newspaper route from a boy who was giving it up after many years of delivering papers. I suppose it was the going price at that time but I paid the departing carrier five cents for each of the customers on his route. It took me a couple of weeks to pay off my debt to my mother, but after that I was a young entrepreneur.

By signing up new customers to win prizes in frequent circulation contests and by aggressively signing up people moving into the neighborhood I expanded my route to 110 customers. My route man who delivered the papers to me told me I had the second or third biggest route in the City of Cleveland. He didn’t know but part of my business. In addition to the 110 Press customers I also delivered 50 Waechter und Anzeiger papers to my German- reading cutomers.

And that was just my afternoon business. In the morning I delivered the Plain Dealer on the same street where I had my Press route and accounted for another 100 papers. When I finished my route about 6 a.m. I went over to Berea Road and Madison Avenue where another bundle of Plain Dealers was waiting for me.

There was a street car stop at the intersection and when the car Stopped, several passengers would raise a window and pass out coins tome, after which I would hand them a newspaper.

My many business activities continued following the stock market crash of 1929 and the depression years of the early 1930s. For part of that period I was bringing home more money to my Mom than my Dad was earning as a machinist. When I graduated from high school in 1932, The Press wanted to break up my over-size route into three smaller routes. I agreed on one condition — The Press give me a full-time job in the circulation department. They agreed and I sold off all my routes.

When summer ended I started my freshman year at John Carroll University in Cleveland. Again I negotiated a deal with The Press and the circulation manager agreed to let me work a three-hour night shift while I was in school. I entered John Carroll, taking a pre-med course, thinking that I was going to be either a doctor or a newspaperman.

The next summer, as I finished my freshman year in college, I returned to The Press again to work full-time in the circulation department. I may have been a good businessman, but realist I was not. This was prior to the days of grants and student loans from the Government. In appraising my situation I was forced to admit that it was impractical for me to expect my family to pay my tuition for another three years of college, to say nothing of the additional years to become a doctor.

I started to college thinking I would be either a doctor or a newspaperman. I decided on journalism as a career.

I told the circulation manager of my decision and asked him if he would help me get into the editorial department. He immediately took me up to Mr. Seltzer’s office. Upon hearing my story, the editor said I would start working the next day as a copy boy.

After a year’s service as a copy boy, I was transferred to the library where newspaper clippings and photographs are filed away for future reference. In newspaper parlance the library is known as the morgue. I hated the tedious work in the morgue. My big day after almost a year there came when Norman Shaw, then city editor, came to me and asked if I would like to start work the next day as a police reporter. I was overjoyed.

At The Press, at least, work as a police reporter was the first step in becoming a full-fledged reporter.

In the press room at Central Police Station, there was a speaker on the wall that carried all police radio calls and all fire alarm signals. When the police radio dispatcher sent a detective car or a zone car to a reported robbery, or a shooting, and giving a location, the police reporter would instantly go to work.

Checking a “criss cross,” a telephone book which lists phone numbers by address rather than by name, the reporter would immediately call the scene and start to get the information even before the arrival of the police. When the radio call was a report of a bank robbery with the bank being named, different tactics were employed. The bank would be directly called and the person answering the phone would be asked if there had been a robbery. Most of the time the reporter would be told that it was a false alarm, that the alarm button had been accidentally set off.

Just to be on the safe side, the police reporter would then ask, “You don’t have a gun to your head as you give that answer, do you?” This was done because there was a chance the robber was still in the bank.

In the case of fire alarms — and every alarm in the city would be heard in the press room — the reporter would count the number of bells being sounded. There would be no introduction, no conversation, just the sounding of bells. It would go like this:

Four bells (hesitation), seven bells (hesitation), one-bell (hesitation), five bells. That’s 4715. The reporter would pull out a card file drawer listing by number the location of every fire alarm corner box in the city. The card for 4715, for example, would show E. 45th St. and Superior Ave. The card would also list the number and locations of the pieces of fire equipment which would respond.

The reporter would again go to work on the criss-cross and get phone numbers in the area. “There’s a fire call in your area,” he would say. “Do you see any fire equipment yet?” “Can you tell if it’s a working fire?” “What’s burning — house, garage, office building?”

In this way the reporter would obtain enough information to determine if he should alert the city editor, just leave the card out as a reminder to call the battalion chief when he returned to headquarters to get details on the fire, or upon learning that it was a false alarm just forget the incident and return the card to the file drawer.

Another type of fire alarm would command frenzied immediate attention. That alarm would come in like this: Slow tolling 1-2-3, pause 1-2-3, pause 1-2-3. Then the more rapid 4715 sound.

This is no ordinary fire, you would know. It’s a three-alarm fire. No working the criss-cross on this one. You immediately call the city desk and notify them of the three-alarm fire. Usually they will assign a reporter and photographer to go instantly to the fire scene.

Police reporters working the night shift have to operate differently and they, therefore, learn the ropes much faster. There is no one staffing the city desk at night. No one for the police reporter to call with a story, to have the city editor, or one of his assistants, turn the call over to a rewrite man to have the story prepared for the paper.

The night police reporter is on his own. He investigates the story himself, gathers all the information, and then writes the story. Not in the form in which it will appear in the paper but in the form of a “Memo to the city desk.”

In that way the first man on the city desk in the morning receives all the “memos” from the overnight police reporters and decides what is to be done with them. Some may be so trivial as to be discarded. Others may require more follow-up work before a story is to be written. Still other memos might be grouped together with other similar stories, such as putting several auto accident stories into a single story.

Of course, after a few months of writing “memos to the city editor,” the ambitious police reporter realizes that if wants to gain the attention of the city editor, he should try to write an occasional feature story or a news story as if it were being written for the paper.

Then, of course, what a great thrill it is for the young cub reporter if his story should appear in the paper exactly as he had written it, or at least with only minor changes. The only thing better would be if the city editor would put the reporter’s name on it. A by-line story for the young is truly to be envied.

In my days at The Press I worked through the ranks from police reporter, Criminal Courts reporter, Federal Court reporter, before being brought into the office as general assignment reporter, and then promoted to Labor Editor.

Then, when I was named assistant city editor and was assigned to the early morning shift starting at 6 a.m., I was the one awakened during the night by the police reporter telling me of a major fire, a murder, a spectacular accident, or other major event. It was then my responsibility to determine if I should awaken a reporter and photographer to send them out on the story. They, of course, would start to receive overtime pay. I would try to go back to sleep until my regular wake-up call at 4:30 a.m. But I would have the satisfaction of knowing that I would have a fresh major story to start the day’s activity.


Five Decades at the Press Copyright © by Ray De Crane. All Rights Reserved.

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