My Brief Career In The Notebook Business

Aug 17, 2018

Think about it - what's the one indispensable tool of your job? The one tool without which you would barely be able to perform your duties?

A laptop computer? An iPhone or an Android? An iPad?

For journalists in recent years, it probably boils down to Google. Don't know when the Spanish Civil War began? Google it. What year was the film Casablanca released? Google it. Who won the 1967 World Series? Google it.

I had already worked as a reporter for decades before the all-knowing, all-powerful Google Machine or most of the other tools listed above existed.

When I was sent out on a story, I needed only two, possibly three things: a working ballpoint pen, a pencil as a backup and a reporter's notebook.

A reporter's notebook is still a must for me, even though, now that I am at WVXU, I also deal in sound and must know how to record and edit it.

But sticking a 4x8-inch, 70-page notebook – wire-bound at the top, with stiff cardboard front and back panels – in my back pants' pocket has been a part of my morning dressing routine since I was in college and writing for The Post, the campus newspaper at Ohio University.

I've never had too many big beefs with my employers in the news business, but I had one in the summer of 1976 with the management of the Painesville Telegraph.

It led me to take extreme measures and to turn me – quite unwillingly – into the owner and operator of a non-profit business in the newsroom of the Telegraph, a newspaper which, sadly, no longer exists. And, no, it was not my fault.

I liked the Telegraph, sitting near Lake Erie's shore, 22 miles from downtown Cleveland. Good people; good place to work. Got paid on Friday and we minions would immediately go to a fish restaurant at Fairport Harbor and chow down on fried perch, freshly caught in Lake Erie; a heap of fries and some of the tastiest coleslaw in North America. Washed down by a cold beer or two.

And it was a place where I accomplished something that may be unprecedented in America's private sector (I can't account for government service) – I fell asleep in the middle of a job interview and was actually hired on the spot. (You may recall a previous Tales From The Trail column on that event.)

The one thing that disturbed me greatly, though, was that the Painesville Telegraph did not supply its staff with reporter's notebooks.

This was unheard of -- even my college newspaper regularly ordered reporter's notebooks and kept a plentiful stock on hand.

But, no, not the Telegraph. They were paying kids right out of college like me dirt wages (I think I was hired in at $125 a week). And when one of us would raise the issue of the newspaper supplying us with notebooks, we were told to go to Walgreens or K-Mart or someplace and buy our own.

The problem with that was retail stores just didn't sell the 4x8-inch notebooks with the wire binding on top that slipped easily into a back pocket or a small handbag.

I was outraged by this and decided to take matters into my own hands.

Somehow I had managed to save up about $200. I knew that about 35 miles southwest of Painesville was the Cleveland suburb of Bedford Heights, home of the Portage Notebook Company.

Portage, I knew, made top quality notebooks, perfect for our purposes as reporters. In fact, we use Portage notebooks here at WVXU.

I usually worked a weekend day, so I often took Mondays off.

On one Monday morning, I got in my 1969 Mercury Cougar and went roaring down Interstate 271 with Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks album blaring on the eight-track tape player. 

I found the Portage plant and offices on Aurora Road in Bedford Heights, pulled into a visitor's spot and went inside to the front desk.

I explained to a very pleasant woman that I worked for the newspaper in Painesville and that I wanted to buy two gross of their fine reporter's notebooks to distribute to my colleagues.

I explained that I intended to sell them to my fellow reporters at cost and use the proceeds to come back and buy more.

Well, dear, she said, we really don't do retail sales here.

I said I understood that, but that I would be willing to set up a small account with the company. The nice lady went and found her supervisor.

It took considerable wheedling on my part -- I used every ounce of what charm I had. Finally, I convinced Mr. Supervisor to set up an account for me, and I walked out with two boxes of notebooks – two gross. I spent a total of $129.60.

The next morning, I showed up at my desk at the Telegraph with a handwritten sign attached to one of the boxes of notebooks: Real Reporter's Notebooks/45 Cents Each. No more than 10 at a time. Honor system./ Selling at cost. All proceeds will be invested in buying more notebooks. This is a non-profit operation. You're welcome.

The notebooks flew out of the box. There was a crowd around my desk at all times, day and night.

It took less than a week to sell the two gross.

True to my word, I took the money, put it in my local checking account and wrote a check for $129.60 to Portage Notebooks. (It would cost considerably more today, 42 years later.)

And then I got in the Cougar and re-stocked.

Again, the stock was wiped out within a week.

I was feeling pretty cocky; I had mastered this non-profit business and performed a public service for my colleagues.

Then, one day, the managing editor came over to my desk, red in the face.

Alright, buster, you win, he said, We're going to start buying reporter's notebooks.

This was pretty slick, buddy, but you are out of business. That money you have in the box – well, you give it to the Red Cross, the charity of your choice.

You've won this round, Wilkinson. There won't be a round two, capice?

Capice, boss.  

  Read more "Tales from the Trail" here.