By JOHN DeMERS
Despite the dastardly potential for wordplay (in a world of dirty minds, starting with my own), my favorite compliment I ever get on my journalism is “Gee, you’re really fast.” And yes, I do hear that all the time, especially when I’m the first member of the local news media to weigh in – usefully, I hope – on a performance we’ve all seen together a few hours before. We can thank the disease I caught from Dr. Nick Plasterer for that, but more on him in a moment.
Even removed from “breaking news” (what beloved genius came up with “When news breaks, we fix it”?), there is value in being fast. There’s value when, in my vocabulary, there’s a reason for being fast. And there’s value, at least to me, when it’s just because I can. The main reason would be impact – to spread the word about an opera, ballet, play, reading or exhibition that may not run all that long, perhaps only another performance or two, and that I don’t want you to miss. Still, sometimes I run my review the morning after just because I can. And that’s where Dr. Nick comes in.
Nick Plasterer ran the editing and layout classes in my journalism school (LSU, if you must know – yeah, Geaux Tigers, though we were still literate enough to spell it “Go” in those days). And Plasterer graded all our assignments with a system that would baffle Einstein. His markings resembled a game of tic-tac-toe, with number grades for quality and separate number grades for speed. Somehow, though I don’t remember how and never understood it anyway, those numbers intersected to produce your grade on the assignment. The message was clear: You can’t just turn in good stuff. You have to turn in good stuff now!
In later years, every time I addressed this great journalistic truth with my own students, I channeled Nick Plasterer. I couldn’t do the intersecting grading thing, so I opted for a “colorful expression” thing instead. “I’d rather,” I’d tell each set of eager, idealistic young faces, “you turn in a serviceable, accurate, grammatical story on time than a work of sheer genius after the paper’s gone to press.” I tell my writers for Houston ArtsWeek the same thing today. Starting, of course, with myself.
Somewhere along the road, after working for two daily newspapers, I joined the wire service United Press International, immortalized as “UPI” until it proved less than immortal in federal bankruptcy court. And there the motto was even wilder: UPI had “a deadline every minute.” This was more than sales-force hyperbole. Every minute of every day, some newspaper on earth was going to press, some TV or radio newscast was going on the air live. If anyone was prepared to live the UPI life, it was this student of Dr. Nick Plasterer.
In the late ‘70s, I served as arts/entertainment/book editor of the Jackson Daily News, the afternoon daily in Mississippi’s capital. And that meant that six out of seven days each week, I wrote a column with my face on it. Amazing experience, that. One, just writing that much was a mixture of pleasure and pain. And two, as we all know, even fame in tiny doses is utterly addictive. (Once, after a particularly mean-spirited review of heartthrob Sean Cassidy titled “Backstage at the Teeny-Bopper Sex Show,” some surely young reader wrote me saying “I can tell by your picture that you know nothing about music.”) In Jackson, I usually went to performances and then straight back to the office to write my review. It sure beat writing it at 6 a.m.
Once or twice, though – and only once or twice – the need for speed came around to, um, bite me. One Friday afternoon I added a final item to my Monday arts column (our deadlines worked that way, with limited weekend staff, etc.) based on a press packet about some rock band’s upcoming show in Jackson. I’d heard of the band and they were coming to Our Town USA, so it made perfect sense to crib a few paragraphs and, you know, just get the ball rolling. This was fine until Monday, when the local performing arts center phoned to say they’d been bombarded with phone calls about a concert they had no record of.
And that, I learned, is because the press packet had been sent to me in Jackson MS by accident, instead of to my counterpart in Jackson MI, where the show actually was. In Michigan. I’ll never make a rash editorial decision on a Friday afternoon again. I hope.
Finally, sometimes being fast is an amazing, delicious thing. On the night Mikhail Baryshnikov danced in Jackson with a lavish champagne reception for VIPs (like me) at the Governor’s Mansion afterward, I actually wrote my review longhand in a drunken haze at my kitchen table before going to bed. Then I woke up at 6 and went to the office to type it into the system. The Daily News had a large chunk of that day’s Page One reserved for my review, hardly where my stuff usually ended up. But I did, and then they did, and then there it was.
I don’t remember what headline the copy desk put on my review, which ran beneath a terrific, action-blurred black-and-white photo of Baryshnikov dancing a tarantella complete with tambourine. But I’ll never forget the headline I myself imagined for it. In fact, I think of it often 30 years later, just for giggles: “John DeMers Says Baryshnikov a Good Dancer.”
Photo: The LSU School of Journalism, later renamed for Baton Rouge news media moguls, the Manship family.