PM, as Knox and most others in the game knew, had a short but complex history. Back in the 40's, the original newspaper of that name (short for Picture Magazine) prided itself on never, ever taking ads. This, the editors assured the public, allowed them to maintain a totally independent (which is to say, liberal) editorial stance. The paper supported FDR's Lend-Lease arrangement with the British from the start, and foresaw America's entry into WWII (though not Pearl Harbor). Its staff included a young Dr. Seuss during his brief but celebrated career as a poltical cartoonist. During the war, it managed to stay afloat, but as times changed, it struggled into the early 50s.
At the same moment, two other Gotham papers, the Press and the Mail were also near collapse. Each of these papers was more conventional (that is, moderate), and for a while the Press-Mail held it own. But when PM's own end was near, the board of the new paper saw a chance to beef up its standing. An unwieldly beast was born, combining most of the pressmen and drivers and other skilled labor of the Press-Mail with the best writers of all three papers and the editors of PM. The paper took PM as its name, though officially this was a combination of all three predecessor paper's names. It also drifted slightly to the left. And it even began an evening extra when needed at a time when the evening paper was fading.
To most in Gotham, the survival of PM was a marvel. It was neither the highbrow Required Reading that the Tribune was, nor the feisty muckrakers that the Globe, the Herald-Sun or the Gazette were. It was a suburban paper in the city, a tabloid with genteel manners, known for its columns rather than for its scoops. Knox knew its beat reporters, men and women who got the facts right but who got them a bit late. He could never be a beat reporter there. But to join the columninsts, to see his name with those Walt Villard and Andy Harcourt and Helen Gretham...that would be to his liking.
First, though, came Bert Teller. Teller had been a court reporter when Knox entered the field, and fought his way into Editorial. After stops as City Editor and Op-Ed Editor, he made it to Managing Editor, two steps from the top. Teller's reputation was that of a quiet man who expresses his anger simply by not talking much. He was probably the most respected editor outside of the gray heads of the Trib, and had been a runner-up for several perstigious awards more than once. Knox had met him several times, but they weren't friends. All the better, he supposed. Makes things more professional.
At 3:30 pm, Knox arrived for his interview. He was wearing his best suit, his best tie, and his best serious grin. Teller's assistant (they didn't have secretaries at PM) brought him in, and Teller, balding and small and a bit hangdog, was seated.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Knox. So, what's this about wanting to be a columinst?" Yup, that was Teller. To the point, and likely in a rush to get this done.
"Well, Mr. Teller, you know I'm been at the Globe my whole career, and it's a great paper and all. But I'm looking to move to new things. To a place where I can stop simply reporting and start making a difference."
"No offense, Allie, but I never saw you as the columnist type. I've read your crime stuff for years, and it's what it is. Good, sometimes great, but raw and fast and not a column." Allie...his old nickname in the newsroom. Odd how he'd stopped using it.
"And don't most reporters start that way? I think Andy Harcourt was a court reporter with you, right?"
"Yes, and just because you know our history is not a reason to think you're ready for this." That was harsh, if not unfair.
"But you still let me in.
"But I still let you in. Only because I know your work and because Superman's Girlfriend asked me a favor." Oh man, if Lois heard him call her that, she'd hit the roof. If that's how he shows respect... "You brought a sample?"
"Of course." Knox opened his well-worn (if rarely used) briefcase and handed Teller a folder. Teller started reading.
"You believe this?" he asked, startled.
"Would I say it if I didn't?"
"You know that the editorial page here has never supported Borg."
"I know that it's also known for being fair. And that your columnists are unconventional."
"So the whole thing is just a bit of political revenge and opportunism? That sounds far-fetched."
"And how long have you lived in Gotham, Bert?" Bert Teller smiled briefly and kept reading.
"It's better than I would have expected. I guess Taylor really does hold his guys to a standard after all. I don't fully agree with the premise, but you do make a case that Borg isn't getting a fair shake. Walt almost made a similar case, in fact, but her really thinks that we need a new mayor."
"So I gathered." Walt Villard was Knox' favorite, a former Washington correspondent who came home in the 70s and wrote a sharp retort to Ford's refusal to bail out Gotham. To be on the same page with him at all was a compliment. "He's been interesting to read these days. Even if he's ignored the Bat."
"Ah, the Bat. Your claim to fame. You know that as a matter of policy, we don't cover his actions unless there are reliable witnesses."
"So I couldn't write about him?"
"I never said that. We would just expect measured tones. We agree that he's real, and making an impact. But men who avoid the press deserve to be avoided sometimes." Knox din't really agree with that, but he sensed that Teller would allow Knox the same space as the other writers.
"I can do measured. You see that."
"Yes. That's clear." Teller pauses and read through the beginning of the column again. "Knox, I am going to be straight with you. Officially, PM is not in the market for a new columnist. In fact, we're probably making some cuts to the staff in the next four months. A Bat-free paper has almost as much trouble competing as an ad-free paper." Teller almost smiled at his remark. "But off the record..." He stopped and seemed to gather his thoughts.
"Walt is dying." That froze Knox in his tracks. He was silent for thirty seconds, and tried to imagine big old Walt, the hardest drinking, toughest talking man in the Gotham Press Club, dying.
"I didn't know."
"You still don't. Walt wants it kept quiet. Doesn't want any sympathy, and is still holding out hope of a liver transplant."
"Cancer?" Which, all things considered, would at least sound better to a reporter than liver damage from alcohol.
"Cancer. He was diagnosed three months ago. He'll probably live to see the spring, but not much more. If he stays the way he has, he's going to quit in two months."
"So I'm here too early." Knox looked and felt rotten. He didn't want to get the job this way.
"Yes, and no. We haven't decided what to do yet. There are people here who will want the post, and who would treat you like dirt if you got it instead. And the owners are thinking about just using a syndicated columnist.
"But I don't like to play it safe. And the idea of stealing a reporter from any competitor appeals to me. So I have an offer. One time, and with a big string attached."
"I'm all ears."
"We run this as a guest op-ed, with all the others. Next week. See how people react. Consider it a try-out."
It took only a second for Knox to get the twist. "I'd have to leave the Globe first."
"Yes." Teller was a bastard in suggesting this. It was a no-lose scenario for him. At worst, Knox would be out of his thinning hair, or the column would run but an outsider would take the blame for supporting that crook Borg. In a way, Knox had to admire this gambit.
"And how long would I have to decide?"
"Oh, I'd give you the weekend. We're nothing if not fair."
"No, of course not."
"Mister Knox, keep in mind that if we do this, it's not a guarantee of anything. It's one guest column, and it flops, you are done here and there both."
"Gee, I never realized that. Thanks, Bert." He smiles coldly.
"So you're saying 'no thanks' already."
"Oh, not at all. I came here to find a new job. I'm ready to leave the Globe. But I am not leaping in. You'll get an answer, but after the weekend. But you do promise that if I take the offer, this piece will run? No one's going to override your authority?"
"No. They let me pick and choose more often than you'd think." Teller returned a sharp, even colder smirk. "And I am running this as is. Lord knows why, but it reads as well as it could. I want to judge you on your merits, not mine."
Knox sat for a few seconds. "That I guess I should go?"
"Probably. But one more thing...not a word about Walt. If I ever hear that anyone outside his family and doctors and this office knows before he says it out loud himself, I will blame you. Understand?"
"Completely. I like him. And would never do anything to hurt him."
"Everyone likes him. Which might be why I could be willing to hire an outsider. If someone if going to fail to fill his shoes, better you than someone he groomed."
"You, Bert, are a very blunt man." Which Knox had heard for years.
"I can't afford not to be. It's a blunt world. Subtlety is for subtle people, and places. Not for Gotham."
"Subtlety? What's that?"
Twenty minutes later, Knox was in his apartment, sipping on a beer and filling out some paperwork for the co-op he was buying. He needed to think, but needed to let his mind go blank for a bit first. Paperwork could be a pain, but it was good for going blank. Because in three days, he would have to make the biggest decision of his career.
He would go to the Bar later, but first, he would make a few calls.
"Hello, Vicki, it's Knox. Have a few?"...