First Rule of Journalism

By Jeffrey Page

It’s been a handful of decades since I had contact with Vic Ziegel but as I leafed through some papers over the weekend I came across his obituary and was transported back to my earliest days in a newspaper’s city room.

Vic – young in my recollection; 72 when he died – was my boss for a time at The New York Post, where he was an editor on the night sports desk in the years before Murdoch. He was the one who taught me the most important lesson in journalism: Get it right. The facts you present must be correct. The names of the people must be spelled correctly. The quotes you attribute to them must be correct. The words you choose to tell your story have to be correct. And when you have doubts, look it up, check it out, ask someone you trust. But never embarrass the paper and yourself through laziness.

A little background. I began work as a copyboy at The Post about a month after President Kennedy was murdered. I filled paste pots, sharpened pencils, restocked the carbon paper, took coffee and sandwich orders, and ran the reporters’ stories to the editors. Then I either took the stories back to the reporter for more work or out to the composing room where the stories would be set in type. Then I’d do it all over again.

It was boring as hell. When the chance came to be a temporary editorial assistant on the night sports desk while the regular guy was out, I leapt.

When Vic Ziegel was satisfied that I understood the rules, he gave me a chance to do something more productive for the day’s edition of The Post than take coffee orders.

One night he had me take dictation on the phone from a guy named Jerry DeNonno, who was the Post’s thoroughbred racing handicapper. Jerry’s job was to pick winners. My job was to make sure his picks got into print.

Vic said I would type the names of Jerry’s three best picks in each race at Aqueduct, and God help me if I got anything wrong because Jerry had a reputation to uphold. Get it right, I thought.

Jerry called in, was transferred to me, asked who I was, and sounded quite concerned about having a newcomer take his pari-mutuel wisdom. He went slowly. We went through the entire Aqueduct card. And then he told me to read it all back to him – race by race, horse by horse, spelling out the more unusual names. When I finished, he insisted I read it back to him again.

It was bad for Jerry when his picks ran out of the money, Vic told me, but it would be far worse – for me – if Jerry’s readers bet the wrong ponies because some dumb clerk screwed up the listing of his choices.

Later, Vic told me I would be taking dictation from Milton Gross, one of The Post’s most popular sports columnists. Milt, too, was not happy with someone he’d never spoken with before. But he dictated and I typed. Once, when I yawned, he asked petulantly if he was boring me. He was serious. In the length of a yawn – two seconds more or less? – I might miss one or two of his 800 words. When I had the column down, I had to read it back, word for word while noting every punctuation mark, every new paragraph.

Vic also assigned me to write some headlines. Nothing big, like the banner across the back page, but what were known as No. 1 Heads, which went on stories of one or two short paragraphs.

Something like: Cubs Top Cards, 3-1.

Vic assured me that people actually read these little out-of-town items, and that if I accidentally made the score 4-1 or 2-1, I’d be back sharpening pencils. For years I kept a small spiral notebook of those headlines.

Soon, the guy I replaced was back and I returned to paste pots and dull pencils. I stayed a year, asked for a tryout as a reporter, and was told to get a job out of town and then reapply.

As it happened I never went back to The Post and never again encountered Vic Ziegel. But you never forget the people who take a chance on you and point the way.

Jeffrey can be reached at


One Response to “First Rule of Journalism”

  1. Michael Says:

    I knew Vic when he was sports editor at the Daily News. Besides being a good writer and editor he had a fine sense of humor. Once in a writeup of a boxing match that included a judge named George Ladka, he wrote, “Judge George (Potato) Ladka scored it…” As for Milton Gross, my college roommate and I once wrote to him at the Post to complain about something he said about a basketball player named Art Heyman. We received a reply from him that began, “Art Heyman, which happens to live in the same town as I do…” Thanks for bringing back some great memories (including paste pots and carbon paper).

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