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  • Writer's pictureJefferson Graham

"How I got started"

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, here’s how I got there:

At age 20, I was attending community college and working as a clerk part-time at a used record store in Berkeley, California, amazed at the kind of money used records brought in.

So I decided to open up my own shop, and enlisted my co-worker Bruce Lyall to join me. We borrowed $500 from my father (maybe it was $5,000, I’m not sure) found a storefront in San Francisco’s North Beach section, and filled up bins with my records and that of my father, brother and anyone else who would sell them to us.

We opened up during the heavily trafficked North Beach festival, sold about half of our discs that day, but more importantly, had people lined up to sell their collections to us. That meant we had more records to replenish the store. We were able to pay my dad back within a few weeks. It was that successful.

Meanwhile, I was enrolled to start my third year of college at San Francisco State, but it didn’t last long. I was having too much fun at the store. We had ten employees working for us, and two locations, and sitting in a classroom was just too constricting.

So after 3 months, I just never returned.

I’m in good company, right? Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates and Jeff.

Cut to two and a half years later, I began to feel stifled behind a cash register, and cut a deal with my partner to buy me out. (Like USA TODAY just did all these years later!) My plan was to move to Los Angeles and pursue 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. A few weeks before the move, I met a young woman named Ruth in the store who was buying some James Taylor and Carly Simon records. We started talking, and two weeks later, we decided to take a road trip together, up and down the West. We ended up a month later in Los Angeles, eventually sharing a trailer home across the street from the Pacific Ocean. Just like Jim Rockford, for those of you old enough to get the reference.

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.

Ruth joins me on this new career path and we both enroll in a journalism extension class at UCLA.

Here we learn how to write leads and interview people. Really. I learn of a bulletin board at the community college in Northridge, California where jobs are listed. We take a drive and see 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.

I go to Glendale, Ruth to Burbank.

We start writing a lot. We both get hired full-time. 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 were 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.


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