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News-Reporting from the Field by Telegraph in Pre-World War II

By Nat Bodian

 

        The late 1930s, when I was active in newspaper reporting, was an era before the advent of the computer of fax.  The principle means of sending news stories to newspapers by field reporters was either by telephone or telegraph.

        Telephone stories usually were phoned in from a nearby telephone booth.  My first Page-One headline story in the Newark Ledger was telephoned in from a phone booth in Nutley.

        I had been covering the midget auto races at the Nutley Velodrome and the bankboard track had vertical wooden wire-bearing posts around the race track to keep the midget cars from going over the top of the track into the audience.

        A driver somehow got his head between two horizontal wires and was decapitated.  The car continued with the body while the helmeted head rolled down the track into the infield.

        I phoned the story in to Sid Dorfman and he wrote it. The Ledger headline read: "Nutley Driver Decapitated."  The event closed the track permanently and resulted in a ban of auto racing in Nutley.


Sending Stories by Telegraph

        Stories sent by telegraph utilized the services of two telegraph companies with offices in downtown Newark, Western Union and Postal Telegraph.

        For some sports events, we might arrange to have a telegraph operator on hand before the event began so that we could transmit our stories directly into the newspaper office.

        Reporters on field assignments might carry a portable typewriter with them and write the story on the spot as I did on occasion.

        Where reporting was done via telegraph, the reporter would hand his handwritten or typed copy to the telegraph operator who would send it, using a telegraph key and Morse code, to a receiving telegraph operator at the newspaper office.


Telegraph Use for Bears' Games

        I recall a unique coverage via Western Union of baseball involving the Newark Bears International League baseball team.

        My friend, Ed Weinstein, a telegrapher for Western Union, was so adept at both telegraphy and baseball, that, in the era of the Newark Bears baseball team in Newark, he would attend the Newark Bears out-of-town baseball games and telegraph the plays by Morse Code back to the Newark WNEW studio, where they would be handed to the Bears announcer, Earl Harper, who would read and enhance them as though he were actually present at the game.


Widest Press Use of Telegraph Operators

        My recollection of the widest use of Western Union telegraph operators was the night following the 1940 Presidential election, where I covered the Essex County returns for International News Service (INS) from the Essex County Courthouse/Hall of Records.

        All Essex County returns funneled into the press quarters set up for the occasion adjacent to the returns center in the Hall of Records building.

        For the more than a dozen reporters there, each was given a table with typewriter and had an assigned Western Union telegraph operator linking him directly to an operator at his newspaper.

        I was linked through my operator directly into INS in New York City, as INS did not have an office in the Newark area.  In bits and pieces, I handed my Western Union operator small bulletin dispatches, stretched over a 12-hour period, that Western Union billed to INS as 1,673 words.

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Who Won?

        INS had considered the Essex County vote as an important trend indicator, but, although the heavily suburban Republican vote gave the county to Wendell Willke, Franklin Roosevelt was winner of an unprecedented third term by a landslide.


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