"How I got started"

One last look back, before we move forward

Welcome USA TODAY readers, my loyal Substack community and new subscribers!

The USA TODAY years officially closed Monday on the highest of notes, with a Zoom goodbye party from staffers and a return of the corporate credit card. This will be the place to catch up on my latest tech analysis, reviews, photo tips and of course, sunrise and sunsets!

But first, as I promised in my final USA TODAY column, I would love to take the opportunity for one last ride down memory lane, with a look at my earliest years in journalism and at USA TODAY. We’ll return to the present next time, I promise.

A question I’ve received a lot lately. How did you get started? What journalism school did you go to?

I didn’t.

I took a few classes, and learned on the job. I explain all to my friend, YouTuber Jan Schrieber, in the above video. Please watch!

Thumbnail version: I moved to Los Angeles from San Francisco with the goal of doing it all. I wanted to act, direct, make movies, write TV shows and focus on photography, specifically, to be the next Norman Seeff. I wanted to be the guy taking amazing photos of bands for record covers.

But reality hit. My photography career was going nowhere fast and it was costing a fortune to produce new entries for the portfolio, as film, photo paper and chemicals were costly then.

So I make a snap decision: I’m going to be a writer instead. It’s less costly.

With my future wife Ruth, we both enroll in a journalism extension class at UCLA and hear of openings for “stringers” at the Glendale News-Press and Burbank Daily Review. That means a freelancer who writes often for a publications. Pay: 1 cent a word.

We both end up getting hired. I learned everything about how to turn around a story fast and come up with countless story ideas at the News-Press.

I move onto the Hollywood Reporter, one of the two great trade papers covering the entertainment industry. Ruth goes to Adweek, covering advertising and then Ad Age, the bible of the ad industry.

I eventually get a call from the executive producer of the “Entertainment Tonight” TV show. “How would you like to have your salary doubled,” is the first thing he says. “We need someone like you here.”

The job offer is a basic news reporter, off-air, which sounds great. Until I accept and start the job, working for a woman who takes an instant dislike to me because she didn’t hire me.

My job turns out to be this: writing questions for the reporters to ask when they do interviews. It’s a complete let down from where I came, and I was miserable.

Susan Spillman saves the day.

Susan worked with Ruth at Ad Age. When I run into her at an industry event, she mentions that the man she was dating at the time, Ben Brown, is the TV editor of the new USA TODAY and that they are looking for someone to cover TV.

I call Ben and pitch some free-lance ideas. He accepts. The first article: dictators are hot again. The networks are running multiple mini-series on despots.

And from there, we are off and running, with many more articles, culminating in me me getting hired and starting the new position, covering TV and movies, on July 9, 1984.

It was the first day of the Republican convention, for Reagan’s second term, and my task was to write the TV column and have it in by 12 noon.

I was using some antiquated contraption called an acoustic coupler. You put the phone into these two cups and wait an hour or so for the article to send. In this case, the coupler was connected to some form of primitive computer that I typed the column on.

It was a mess. Every other character had a capital letter. It LoOkEd something LiKe ThiS! As the days went on, I finally learned how to use it correctly.

And to think that just 16 years later, I would switch gears and become the tech guru.

But that’s a story for another day.

P.S.: (If you have a minute, please check out my USA TODAY exit interview with editor Michelle Maltais. Here’s where you can find the stories about the show biz years and my take on tech coverage. A great interview, and an incredible gift from a wonderfully talented editor. Thanks again Michelle!)

If you enjoyed this walk down memory lane, please let me know by clicking the HEART tab or just sending me a reply. I’m taking the next few days off to celebrate the end of an era, then it’s back to work. On the next chapter!

Thanks for watching, reading and listening!

Jeff

P.S. Thanks to Brian Stelter and CNN for the mention in the Reliable Sources newsletter, Lois Whitman and Steve Greenberg for having me on their “Laying on the beach,” podcast and Christine Blackburn for the return invite to the “Story Worthy” podcast.