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New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin's new book collects his reporting on the media

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The news about news, about the business of journalism, is filled with layoffs, buyouts and bankruptcies. The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Sports Illustrated, Time, National Geographic, The Wall Street Journal - we could go on. What a time for Calvin Trillin, the fabled author, humorist and New Yorker writer, to come out with a collection of some of his reporting on reporters over the years - crime beat chroniclers, eccentric editors, word lyricists, columnists and more. His new collection, "The Lede" - L-E-D-E, that expression in journalism for an opening paragraph - "Dispatches From A Life In The Press." Calvin Trillin joins us now from New York. Mr. Trillin, thanks so much for being with us.

CALVIN TRILLIN: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: I learned in this collection that we share one practical skill, and it - I - speaking for myself, it's the only practical skill I have. I can't even drive a car. And that's typing.

TRILLIN: Yes, I'm a wizard at the typewriter. I make a lot of mistakes, but I type very quickly. That's because my father - in Kansas City, where I grew up, when the schools ended rather early one year because they ran out of money, he sent me and my sister to secretarial school. I used to think of my father's aspirations for me as he wanted me to be president of the United States and that I not become a ward of the county. But neither one of those required typing, so I like to think maybe he was pushing me toward journalism.

SIMON: Yeah. Wonderful profile in this collection of Edna Buchanan, the longtime police beat reporter in Miami. Maybe her best-known book is "The Corpse Had A Familiar Face." What made her a great crime reporter?

TRILLIN: She was relentless. She was asking questions after you thought the conversation was over. And she talked to me once about calling the next of kin of somebody who had just been murdered. And if somebody accused her of being just a ghoul and a vulture for calling at such a time and hung up on her, she counted to 60, and then she called again. She figured that by that time, somebody might have said, you should have talked to that reporter, or maybe somebody else would answer the phone who was more talkative.

SIMON: You also have a long, good section on R.W. "Johnny" Apple of The New York Times, respected and feared political reporter for years, had been a war correspondent in Vietnam. He eventually became best known in his later years for inventing - would it be fair to call it the most envied beat in journalism?

TRILLIN: I think that would be fair. He also - in addition to the envied beat, he had an envied expense account.

SIMON: Yeah. Well, I mean, it struck me, of course, I mean, you were - have been famous also for writing about food, but it's often Kansas City barbecue places or Texas barbecue places. Johnny Apple ranged around the world, writing about food and often not in humble barbecue places.

TRILLIN: No. He entered the places - I think that when people talked about Apple when he entered one of those restaurants, the verb they usually used was he swept in. He wasn't one of those shy food people who don't want you to know that they're there.

SIMON: And what do you think we can learn from Johnny Apple in journalism today?

TRILLIN: Well, it's a different business, of course, and Johnny, in a way, was at sort of beginning of the new business because in the old days, people thought of newspaper reporters as guys with a bottle of bourbon in the lower right-hand drawer and a sort of a greasy hat and a notebook. And then sooner or later, journalists got to be people who had, like Johnny, gone to Princeton, although I have to say, he never graduated. He was the editor of the paper, and he thought that being the editor of the paper was in lieu of going to class or writing papers or anything like that.

SIMON: What do you think about journalism these days?

TRILLIN: Well, it's a different game. I think about how many reporters say, I don't know, the Baltimore Sun or The Washington Post has at City Hall, and there's a big difference. And on the other hand, there are a lot of people with various ways of communicating that we didn't used to have. I don't know how I would have felt about it when I was first starting out, when I worked for Time magazine in the South. Also, it's sort of turned reporters into wire service reporters 'cause it could be in the digital at any time, etc., etc. So I'm not sure it would have been as appealing to me as it was. On the other hand, I'm not sure that it would have been appealing to me if there hadn't been a subject that dominated what I was writing about. In my case, it was the desegregation struggle in the South.

SIMON: Yeah, the civil rights movement.

TRILLIN: Yeah.

SIMON: You mentioned Johnny Apple going to Princeton, and, of course, you were at Yale. Should there be more journalists with greasy hats and bourbon in their drawers?

TRILLIN: Well, I hadn't thought...

SIMON: That sounds vaguely dirty. And bourbon in the bottom drawer of their desk.

TRILLIN: Their desk - that's right. I once published a book on travel. And there are various stories in it, and some reviewer said, apparently not knowing as much as Johnny Appel knew about expense accounts, that these trips were available only to someone like the author who's in the upper-middle class. And I called my sister in Kansas City and said, we finally made it, huh?

SIMON: (Laughter).

TRILLIN: I think when reporters get too full of themselves, for instance, it's something like the Gridiron Dinner when they invite celebrities and everything like that. Even though they had - have a tux on, they're really somewhere between the people who own the tux and the guy who's doing valet parking. Reporters - they're not a very classy bunch. They're often asked to leave places, and they interrupt people when the people are trying to do their job. So I think somewhere in the middle.

SIMON: Calvin Trillin - his new collection, "The Lede: Dispatches From A Life In The Press" - thank you so much for being with us.

TRILLIN: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.