Paper Route: Finding My Way to Precision Journalism

Paper Route: Finding My Way to Precision Journalism

by Philip Meyer


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As author Philip Meyer sat in a college class listening to a professor lecture about systematic tools for measuring things like trust in government, a thought struck him: a journalist could do this!

He thought about the newsroom conversations he’d had about the possibility of reporting on some interesting social phenomena. The group always ended with a shrug and a lament that there was no way to measure it—but he began to wonder.

It was an epiphany for Meyer, who went on to report on the 1967 racial riots in Detroit and write the groundbreaking book Precision Journalism. While others were arguing that reporters should not use scientific methods to make conclusions of their own, Meyer was using computers and statistical software to elevate the standards of traditional journalism.

At age fifty, he switched gears and entered the world of academe, where he continues to stir the pot. In Paper Route, he recalls two interconnected careers and examines how journalism, quantitative methods, and original thinking led him to live the remarkable life that he’s still enjoying.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781462083121
Publisher: iUniverse, Incorporated
Publication date: 01/26/2012
Pages: 364
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.75(d)

Read an Excerpt

Paper Route

Finding My Way to Precision Journalism
By Philip Meyer

iUniverse, Inc.

Copyright © 2012 Philip Meyer
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4620-8312-1

Chapter One

The land

We moved often in the Depression years, and the two farms were the constant in our lives that kept us emotionally anchored. My parents were born in adjoining townships in Washington County, Kan., and they spent all but a few wartime months of their married life no more than one county away from their original family farms. The siblings on both sides had grown and scattered, but each family left a bachelor brother who kept the original farm operating both for his own support and as a resource and refuge for the extended family.

The Meyer farm, in Strawberry Township, was the more prosperous. My Swiss-born grandfather Jacob Meyer acquired its first 120 acres from the original homesteader, Christian Wherley, in 1880, and expanded it by buying two adjoining farms, each 160 acres, the standard size set by the Homestead Act of 1862. Roads in the prairie states are neatly laid out in square-mile sections clearly visible on cross-country flights. Four 160-acre homesteads fit in a section. Twenty-five years after his original purchase, Jacob made the final payment on the third farm, and he owned, debt-fee, 440 contiguous acres of gently rolling fields and pasture with a creek running through the eastern portion. It was called Pete's Creek, Peats Creek, or Peach Creek, depending on whose map you used. The original Wherley house had just two rooms, a kitchen and a bedroom, but Jacob kept adding to it as his family grew to its full complement of eight children. Frank Meyer, born in 1886, a decade before my father, remembered the house as it was when he was a small child:

... a two-room homesteader's frame house; that is, two rooms on the ground floor and two above, which are still unfinished and used only for storage. I can still see the long shelves suspended on wires from the rafters, as a protection from mice. Among other things these shelves contained the year's supply of flour, which was milled from wheat grown on the farm and taken to a mill 17 miles away.

The south room on the ground floor is the kitchen, dining, and living room combined. The bedroom faces the north, with one window on the north wall and one on the east. I am sleeping in a crib facing the north window. I awaken sometime in the night and am aware of being very, very cold and that an icy, gusty wind is beating snow against the window panes and am conscious for the first time of a real Kansas blizzard.

My own childhood memory begins nearly five decades later, and it shows a relatively modern seven-room house with electricity and indoor plumbing. The power came from a bank of six-volt batteries stored in the milk house and charged by a one-cylinder gasoline engine. It was enough to light a single weak bulb in each room and power the radio. The bathroom, built by my father in his late bachelor days, contained a flush toilet and a tub whose water source was a well situated in a draw halfway between the house and barn. A windmill pumped the water to a storage tank in the barn loft, which provided enough elevation to create water pressure for the house. This water supplied the bathtub, the toilet and the kitchen sink. Drinking water came from a well next to the house. We used a hand pump to fill an oaken bucket that we kept on the kitchen counter with a dipper for drinking. Today, we call that kind of living "off the grid," but in rural Kansas of the early 20th century, the power grid had not yet been built.

Two stoves lined the north wall of the Meyer kitchen. The larger one burned wood for winter cooking and heating, and the small kerosene stove was used for preparing summer meals. A pail of dried corncobs was kept handy for kindling. There was a pass-through serving bar to the dining room with china cabinets above. A hand-cranked telephone and a foot-powered sewing machine decorated the far wall of the dining room, which opened to a spacious living room containing a pot-bellied wood stove, a piano, a library table stocked with Dr. Elliot's five-foot shelf of Harvard Classics, and a Morris chair whose reclining back adjusted with a rod that fit into grooves at the rear of its wooden arms. A hollow footstool contained playing cards and a cribbage board. The ground-floor bedroom had doors to both the living room and a short hallway leading to the, bathroom, kitchen, and the stairs to the second floor. The fourth and last-built bedroom was above the living room and was large enough to sleep four.

Jacob and Matilda Meyer had eight children in the 22 years from 1884 to 1906, and the house comfortably held them all. That was not the case with my mother's family. William and Zelda Mae Morrison had six children in nine years and raised them in a two-bedroom house a few miles to the east, in Linn Township. I'm not sure how they managed it. The two small bedrooms each had a double bed flush against an interior wall. There was a day bed suitable for one person in the living room, and the enclosed back porch contained a manual cream separator and an iron double bed.

The original owner of the land had built dirt-floored living space in below-ground rooms, accessible on the east side, and perhaps those were still habitable, although by the 1930s they were used only to keep food cool in the summer and to frighten small boys with tales of ghosts. A small bathroom with a tub was located off the kitchen, but water had to be carried to it from an indoor pitcher pump that retrieved captured rainwater from a cistern.

At night, the house was lit with a few kerosene lamps carried from room to room, and the toilet was an outhouse in the far backyard, beyond the chicken house. Life was harder there, especially in the winters when keeping warm and putting food on the table were constant concerns. In 1912, Mae's sixth and last child, my aunt Velma, was born, and my grandmother required an extended stay in the Topeka State Hospital, which provided custodial care for the mentally ill. Her sister, Carrie Lobaugh, moved in and took care of the baby in that period. My maternal grandfather, William Morrison, had a short temper and in 1921, when he tried to enforce discipline with a razor strap, his oldest son, 18-year-old Howard, ran down the road and disappeared. Both families had their mysteries to ponder, and for the Morrisons, it was Howard and his fate.

But I was always glad to visit either farm. My grandfather Morrison died in 1933, but my grandmother would flourish and live to see me graduate from college and marry. When I was small, her two bachelor sons Wilmer and Ernie ran the farm with vigor and good humor. Wilmer was primarily in charge of the home place while Ernie had his own farm to look after a few miles away. They both had musical talent and the Scots-Irish wit. Wilmer liked to perform daring physical feats. The family album includes a photo of him doing a handstand on top of the chimney that topped the Morrison farmhouse. Another shows him doing the same thing on a tractor seat. He evidently thought I was a wimpy kid, because he kept talking me into trying daring things such as climbing the silo, walking across Willow Creek while balanced on a bridge rail, riding an untrained horse. I somehow avoided injury.

Ernie was the storyteller, and he invented elaborate ghost stories based on a specific family of monsters that he called "Skagg-ags." A deserted house, of which there were many in Washington County, was "a Skagg-ag house." The fourth brother, Ellis, was a traveling salesman, and would drop by our house for philosophical discussions. One that sticks in my mind was about Lecomte du Nouy's 1947 book Human Destiny, which attempted to reconcile science and religion. Ellis's son and granddaughter would earn the first PhDs in the Morrison family.

On the Meyer place, the bachelor farmer who kept things going was Lester, nicknamed "Pappy." His Swiss-German stolidity masked a competent and caring nature. Both Wilmer and Pappy lived their entire lives on the farms where they were born.

The changing economics of farming worked in the bachelor farmers' favor. Mechanization let them scale up their operations, and, when the siblings departed, the land had fewer people to support. After the war, the Rural Electric Administration brought full electrical power to the prairie. But Washington County fell steadily in population, from nearly 22,000 at the start of the 20th century to 6,483 at its close. I can remember driving through Strawberry Township with my father while he pointed out the places, two or three in nearly every mile, where there had been a farmhouse when he was a boy and now was only field and pasture.

Chapter Two

World War I and its effects

One source of Jacob Meyer's early affluence was his skill at judging cattle. He made money by buying promising calves, feeding them and selling them after they had grown enough for their worth to become apparent to less skilled eyes. He knew that the economics of farming would change, and his children would need other means of earning a living, and so he invested far more in their education than was common for early 20th century farm families. The entry-level profession for that generation of country people was teaching, and Jacob and Matilda sent their sons and daughters to what was then called the Kansas State Normal College at Emporia. The name came from the French "école normale," a school to set standards or norms for education, and it was changed to Kansas State Teachers' College in 1923. (Today, it is Emporia State University.) Tuition was free to Kansas residents.

In 1913, five Meyer children went off to Emporia, and Jacob rented a house for them. Its youngest resident was my father, Elmer E. "Bige" Meyer. (The nickname came from one of the first words he ever spoke: an abbreviation of the Old Testament name belonging to a Strawberry Township neighbor, "Abijah.") Bige and his sister Mamie attended the Kansas State Normal High School. Their older siblings Fred, Walt and Ollie attended the college. The 1914 yearbook Sunflower lists Bige as high school junior and class treasurer. He was 17, and, with all that family support, his future was promising, but it would not turn out as planned. In Europe, the guns of August were about to speak.

Bige played football at Normal High, was graduated in the spring of 1915 and entered the college the following fall. He joined a local fraternity, Kappa Sigma Epsilon. For unknown reasons, he dropped out the second semester, perhaps to help with spring planting, but came back for the fall of 1916 while President Woodrow Wilson was running for re-election on the campaign slogan, "He kept us out of war." The spring of 1917 found Bige enrolled in business law, advanced stenography, penmanship methods, composition and rhetoric, and physical training practice.

The United States had only a small standing army on April 6, the day that Congress finally declared war on Germany, and mobilization in Kansas was primarily through the National Guard. Every one of the Kappa Sigma Epsilon brothers walked down to the Emporia guard headquarters to volunteer, and my father was inducted on April 10. His transcript shows that he received credit for that spring's courses except for physical training and composition and rhetoric. His other education was about to begin.

The Kansas and Missouri National Guard units were reorganized as their own Army division, the 35th, and went to Camp Doniphan, adjacent to Fort Sill near Lawton, Oklahoma, to be trained in artillery and trench warfare. There were 24.068 soldiers, more than 14,000 from Missouri and nearly 10,000 from Kansas. They were good men, but, when they got overseas, their officers made some tragic mistakes. What happened to them has been chronicled by Indiana University historian Robert H. Ferrell. A view from the ground is preserved in my father's letters home.

The first is from "somewhere in England."

June 5, 1918: After a long time, I have finally gotten overseas. We landed here in England yesterday and came to a real camp, getting here early this morning. I had a very good trip over. I had a good boat, quite speedy for a transport, and the weather was fine all the way. I got thru without getting seasick, but I am not in love with that form of riding. I have not caught up with the company yet, but getting closer all the time. We did not have any thrilling escapes from submarines on the way over but came through without much excitement.

I have not seen much of England yet, only what I saw from the train as we came up here last night, but as much as I have seen of it has been mighty pretty. It looks pretty crowded up though after coming from a place where we have so much room. The villages are close together and although the houses are all good they are all just alike and jammed up close together and right up against the street so there are no lawns. The farmhouses are all good and all had beautiful little gardens and lawns around them.

I don't think I would want much to farm here though as the little dinky fields would get on my nerves. Young men seem to be pretty scarce around, but I never saw so many kids in my life. It is a lot colder here than it is back in the states, and the days are mighty long. It doesn't get dark until about 10:30, and it gets light before 4 in the morning. I haven't any idea of how long we will be here or where we will go from here, but I suppose that we will go to some training camp before long. ...

When the Missouri-Kansas division reached France, its men spent some time with British troops in the Somme region, in the northwest corner of France, which had been the scene of a major battle two years earlier. That line had stabilized by then, and it was used to teach the American soldiers some of the elements of trench warfare. Then the division traveled to the eastern end of the country where the French were holding down the line in Alsace.

June 19, 1918: We have been moving pretty steadily ever since we left the States, only stopping a couple of times to rest. We are billeted now in a little French village and I have a mighty small idea as to where it is other than it is somewhere in France. We hiked here yesterday from the railroad. It took us about 8 hours to get here and come through about a dozen little villages every one of them just the same. The houses all look as though they were at least a dozen years old and the barn and house are all together and the streets are lined with manure piles. There are no people left here except a few old men and women and a few kids. The railroads in this country are wonders for slowness especially the troop trains. I was lucky in getting to ride second-class as about 3/4 of the men on the train rode in their combination boxcars and cattle cars. The cars are lot smaller than ours and nearly every boxcar has written up by the door 8 horses or 40 men. I am still following that company and sort of doubt whether I will ever catch up with them or not. I do not think that we will stay at this village long but expect that we will move up further. I don't know exactly, but as near as I can find out we are somewhere between 80 and 100 miles back of the trenches so of course we will probably go closer for training.

It is still much cooler here than it was in the States, and I can hardly see how stuff grows as well as it does. Garden tracts seem to do unusually well, and fruit looks good. A lot of the road that we came over yesterday has cherry trees on either side of the road and the cherries are most all ripe and a lot of them have been picked already. Strawberries are pretty thick here and they are mighty fine. Well, it is nearly time for chow so I better get my mess pan and get up to the kitchen. I will write again as soon as I get time.

When his unit reached Alsace, the assignment was to relieve French forces for duty in the more hard-pressed lines to the west. As Bige saw it:

When we took it over, the French and Germans had sort of mutual understanding that that was to be kept a quiet sector and were free in showing themselves and got along without any fighting. We livened it up a little as we were all raring to get our Germans, and we would crack down on whatever showed up like it might be Jerry and made a few short advances just to straighten out the line a little.

He spent his 22nd birthday there.

July 11, 1918: We just came back from the front and are resting up now and getting cleaned up a little. We were up there quite a while, and so far I haven't seen a German, but of course this happens to be a pretty quiet front that we are on. It wasn't half bad in the trenches, and it was really a lot better than I thought it would be. But it seems pretty good to get back and to get a bath and some clean clothes and a good long night's sleep. We get enough sleep when we are up on the line, but it is on the two or three hours at a time plan ...


Excerpted from Paper Route by Philip Meyer Copyright © 2012 by Philip Meyer. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. The land....................1
2. World War I and its effects....................7
3. My arrival and the long disruption....................25
4. The World War II Years....................39
5. High school journalism....................57
6. Off to college....................65
7. Becoming a newspaperman....................79
8. The Topeka Daily Capital....................91
9. The Silent Generation speaks....................101
10. Another war....................119
11. Up in the air, upside down....................133
12. Aboard the USS Pocono....................147
13. The Kansas desk....................153
14. Hark the sound....................167
15. Getting sand in our shoes....................177
16. Becoming an investigative reporter....................193
17. Washington D.C....................207
18. Escape to Harvard....................235
19. The Detroit riot....................259
20. A year with too much news....................269
21. "You're a sound man."....................285
22. Precision Journalism....................297
23. Executive suite....................317
24. The rest of the story....................335

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