The Cyberbrains

Research and contemplation in new media

The passing of a master

The man who launched my love affair with the audience died Saturday. As sad as I am, I’m glad that I can sing the praises of a very special man.

Clyde BentleyJerry Teague probably never thought of himself as a citizen journalism innovator. He wasn’t much on titles at all. He doesn’t get cited in dissertations and you won’t find him with a Google search — though three decades ago he used many of the techniques we now proclaim “new.” Like many of us today, he believed that journalism resides in neither textbook nor journalism school. And he amazed me like a master magician – only he pulled the daily rabbit out of the audience’s own desire rather than some gentleman’s fancy top hat.

Jerry was my first managing editor. Stout, red-faced and at times gruff, he might have been the model for television’s Lou Grant. When I arrived at the Record Searchlight in Redding, CA, in the spring of 1973, Teague was part of a newly imported management team trying to put the paper back together after a bitter strike. I was raw, cocksure and sloppy. But Jerry capitalized on my two major advantages: I was unabashedly enthusiastic and Redding was my hometown.

My mentor combined those assets with a trick that in time gave me my personal journalistic style. First he put me on the obituary desk, where I plumbed the history of Redding through the deeds of the dead. I wanted to write about the not-yet-dead, so he then let me tour nursing homes for forgotten stories about forgotten citizens. When my “octogenarian was a trapeze artist” stories began bouncing city council tomes from the front page, I knew I was on to something.

There was no interactivity or digital footwork in this process. In technology terms, it was an eon ago. In 1973, I typed my copy on an upright Underwood manual typewriter while sitting in crowded newsroom dimmed by a pall of cigarette smoke. Typed and rough-edited with a thick, chewed-up pencil, the story went to a horseshoe-shaped copy desk where it was edited via real cut-and-paste – the copy editor hacked the story apart with long-bladed scissors and then rearranged it with globs from a sticky gluepot. For the first year I was at the paper, the stories were retyped on a clanking Linotype. I got to see my first primitive newspaper computers only when the offset presses arrived.

I know about all that back shop stuff only because Jerry insisted that I lead frequent tours of Cub Scouts and third-graders. He said it would be good for me. Which it was. Some obnoxious kid invariably asked questions I couldn’t answer, forcing me to learn the inside of newspapering to keep from embarrassing myself.

Jerry left the daily paper when corporate publishers responded to rising costs and the incredible newsprint shortages of the mid 1970s by eliminating “grip and grin” photos, local “chat” columns and anything they deemed less-than-professional. He found a partner in a nearby rural town and launched an agricultural monthly and a small-town weekly and a country-style free weekly that went head-to-head with the Record Searchlight in the county seat itself.

And he hired me to help, God bless him.

When I arrived at my “new” cattlebarn-turned-office in 1976, I nervously asked him how the two of us could fill all those pages. He just smiled broadly through pipe-clenching teeth, scratched the top of his head and went for a haircut. He came back from Max’s Barber Shop with a half-dozen names of folks in the community who would write for us.

So fulltime mom Chris Regnart gave us one of the best recipe columns I’ve ever read. Commercial diver John Higley captured the attention of the men in the county with his right-from-the-woods outdoors column. Salesman Vern Speers documented the business gossip as only a fellow knocking on doors would know. And some big guy who said “10-4” when he dropped his copy in the basket was to our CB radio community what Technorati is to the blogosphere.

Today we call that citizen journalism. Back then, newsroom folks called it bush league weekly junk. Jerry didn’t really care what they called it. But he beamed with pride knowing his stories and those of his staff graced refrigerators of both the mighty and the humble in Northern California.

The newspaper industry wasn’t ready for Jerry Teague’s vision of journalism in the leisure-suited 1970s. Partnership conflicts, rising costs and a newsman’s lack of business acumen killed his guerilla journalism experiment. But the band of street fighters he assembled dispersed into the Forth Estate undaunted. We took a few professional bruises for our opinions, but today when I challenge the journalism-just-for-journalists paradigm I get more nods than scowls.

I’m sorry Jerry didn’t have one more chance to tell me how to set the profession on its ear. His philosophy, however, will live on not just through me, but through the sharp young minds I attempt to influence at the Missouri School of Journalism.

Good bye, Teaguer. It may be “30” for you, but not your legacy. It’s a nation of bloggers, Flickr shooters and citizen journalists now. We will have your next edition up in a heartbeat.

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May 8, 2007 - Posted by | Clyde Bentley

2 Comments »

  1. Thank you very much for your article. I’m Jerry’s eldest niece on his wife Dorothy’s side. I was honored to be amongst those in attendance for the celebration of life. He was an extraordinary individual indeed, the likes of which I don’t ever expect to meet again. Until we meet again, Dash 30 Dash, Uncle Jer! Love bunches~ Kat

    Comment by Kathy Caldwell | May 14, 2007 | Reply

  2. Comment by Kathy Caldwell | May 17, 2007 | Reply


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