CBS White House correspondent Lesley Stahl describing post-Watergate reporting:

"I spent a lot of time sitting on people's lawns," she told the Society of Professional Journalists' convention yesterday. "We got into a stakeout mentality. It was a whole different way of reporting. I remember with great pain being asked to stake out the late Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas' house at 5 in the morning so we could get pictures of him jogging. I woke up that morning, and it was hailing. I called the studio and said, 'Look, it's hailing, and he's 70 years old. He's not going jogging.' They said, 'Stahl, if you'd been around Washington awhile you'd know he's very athletic.' So we went out there and sat in the van . . . . At 7:30, we noticed there were still no lights on in the house. At 8:30 -- no lights. At 9:30, a limousine pulls up to the house, and Justice Douglas makes his way carefully from the house to the car and rolls his window down. 'Sir,' I said, 'I'm Lesley Stahl from CBS News. I've been here since 5 a.m. waiting to see you jog.' He looked at me and said, 'Are you crazy? I'm 70 years old, and it's hailing out.' "

A record 1,240 journalists and journalists-to-be are in town for the 72nd Annual Convention of the Society of Professional Journalists, Sigma Delta Chi, being held at the Hyatt Regency Hotel through tomorrow. On Wednesday, opening day, members squeezed like sardines into a champagne reception in the Senate Caucus Room in the Russell Building, hosted by Sens. Charles Mathias (R-Md.) and John Warner (R-Va.).

Many were students, the rest professionals from all over. "We don't get as many professionals as we'd like," said Howard Graves, the society's president. "I don't think they can get away. The ASNE American Society of Newspaper Editors , the ANPA American Newspaper Publishers Association . . . They can get away. The street reporter can't."

Yesterday morning, the group heard Katharine Graham, chairman of the board of The Washington Post Co., talk about the dangers of proposed modifications in the Freedom of Information Act and then listened to the keynote speech given by Stahl, "filling in for Bob Pierpoint who was filling in for Dan Rather who was scheduled to cover the shuttle launch," Graves told the crowd. Later were panel discussions. Talk ranged from the sobering (loss of press freedom and credibility) to the amusing.

Jim Irwin is 80 years old, and the convention's oldest delegate. His blue eyes are animated and bright and he loves to tell a story. He's a veteran of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison, the Chicago Herald-Examiner and The Denver Post, where he worked until 1930.

He's also a veteran of the Empire State Building. One Saturday in 1945 he was standing in an office -- by then, he had set up a corporate consulting firm -- on the 75th floor when he looked out of a window and saw through the fog that a twin-engine B25 bomber was headed for him. He hit the floor. The plane hit the floor above him. Next, he did the only logical thing -- he reached for the phone and called a news service.

"I called AP and said, 'A plane crashed into the Empire State Building and the top of the building's on fire.' They said, 'Thank you very much,' and hung up," Irwin said, sitting in a room off the convention floor where reporters typed out copy for the Sigma Delta Chi newspaper.

"Then I called UP and asked for my friend Earl Johnson. I said, 'I'm on the 75th floor of the Empire State Building and a twin-engine plane just hit the 76th and 77th floors. I'm completely singed, but get me a rewrite man and I'll dictate.' I heard Earl say, 'Get every copy boy in here -- fast!' He took it a paragraph at a time. It was Page 1 all over the world -- by James W. Irwin." His hand swept the air, spanning an imaginary byline. "It was my biggest story, and I wasn't even a journalist then."

"Before the passage of the FOIA Freedom of Information Act ," Katharine Graham told the group gathered in the ballroom at 8:30 a.m., "government agencies felt no matter what the request they could say 'no.' The act has changed this erroneous impression."

Graham said that no one would claim the act works "perfectly," but she added, "certainly if the act was being seriously misused, I think as citizens we would all be concerned."

Nonetheless, "the burden lies on those seeking to change it to show how it has failed," Graham said, noting later that "the case for a sweeping overhaul of the act simply hasn't been made . . .

"Every time a reporter walks into a government office and receives a document that might arbitrarily have been withheld, society has been served by the presumption of openness," she said.

"If the public knew and understood its stake in the First Amendment and freedom of the press, we wouldn't have an FOIA being closed down," said Jean Otto, editor of the op-ed page of The Milwaukee Journal and immediate past-president of the society. She and Howard Graves sat in the lobby restaurant of the Hyatt Regency sipping coffee at tables adorned with orange fabric flowers in plastic pots. "It looks like the press is out there on its own behalf. The press has got to reach out to the public and say, 'You and we are on the same side.' "

She's armed with grim statistics: "According to the latest Gallup poll, 67 percent of the population felt there should be more legal restrictions on the press. Now that's frightening."

"Jean," said Graves, "if the First Amendment were offered today . . ."

"Forget it," she finished, exhaling on her cigarette. "If any of the Bill of Rights were offered today, forget it."

More from Stahl, this time on staking out the president's summer retreat in Santa Barbara, Calif.:

"CBS found a wonderful mountain that looked down onto his ranch. We took photos of him horseback-riding, but when we saw the pictures, Reagan was one one-hundredth the size of my pinkie nail. They were unusable. So CBS sent in a camera they use for football games. Then Reagan came out the size of my pinkie nail. Still unusable. So they sent in the camera they used in the space shot . . . the pictures were great. Apparently, the president saw them on television, and he couldn't believe the pictures. I was told he had some friends over that night, and he said to his friends, 'I wonder what would happen if the next time I went horseback-riding, I got out right in the open, clutched my chest and lunged forward? What would CBS do?' "

A hypothetical case:

Reporter Alan Adams is investigating a public construction project that is two years behind schedule with huge cost overruns. He hears from knowledgeable sources that it's been taken over by organized crime and decides to investigate. He dons workman's clothes, a union pin and a hard hat and carries a pail of concrete. He wanders around the site for three days until a union foreman asks him what he's doing there. He says he's a graduate student looking into work habits. He's ordered off the site.

"I have no problems with the reporter walking into the site," said Carolyn Johnson, president of Women in Communications Inc. and a teacher at California State University, Fullerton. She was the educator on the panel of six other reporters and editors tackling the hypothetical before a packed room. "But I know that in informing the public, sometimes you have to take some avenues that are hard to swallow."

"You see no objection in pretending to be what you're not?" asked Washington attorney Irving Younger, the moderator.

"I have problems with the union pin, the concrete pail, the graduate student," said William Giles, executive editor of The Detroit News. "I have no problems with his going on the site."

Then come the questions from the audience: Suppose you actually sign up with the construction firm? Suppose the reporter simply doesn't answer the foreman? Is not identifying yourself as a reporter trickery?

"There are neat tricks, dirty tricks, cheap tricks," said Giles. "My main intention is to gather information . . . You say to what lengths will I go? Somewhere along the line you make that decision. If you're going to be so moral, so ethical and keep coming up empty-handed, you're not going to be in the newspaper business. You may have to go into television."

Guffaws. "I don't think you have to be unethical to stay in business," said Casey Bukro, Chicago Tribune environmental editor. "There are a lot of tough questions that we ask now. That's good."

Younger summed it up: "What lawyers so blithely call ethics are three different categories. First, what's right and what's wrong? . . . . Second, and more interesting, what are the rules of the game? . . . . Third, and equally important, is something I'd like to put this way: What kind of reporter do you want to be? What kind of lawyer do you want to be? Make it broader -- what kind of human being do you want to be?"

Sam Donaldson, ABC White House correspondent, proved to be a spirited auctioneer last night:

"Forty dollars! Forty dollars! Forty dollars!" he cajoled, pushing a printed program from the Spiro Agnew "Man of the Year" dinner held by the Maryland Press Club just before the former vice president resigned. More than 50 items were on the block at a benefit for the society's Legal Defense Fund.

"Seventy-five cents!" shouted one upstart in the audience.

"No!" cried Donaldson. "You're the kind of guy who would start World War III just to see the headlines." The program went for $50.

"A twin matching set of masks," said Donaldson, holding up two masks, the artwork of Alaskan natives. "Al Haig and Nixon . . . No, I'm not making fun of these masks. I want a serious bid. Think of it. Be the only kid in the block with these masks next Oct. 31. Do I hear $20 . . ."

Among the items: the front page of The Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Mike Wallace's 1956 Emmy and Dan Rather's old New York press pass. "Now you can go to fires, go to murders, just like Dan does every day," said Donaldson, hopping around the stage. (It went for $140.)

There was also an invitation to a White House press conference. "I don't know if I can sell this in good conscience," said Donaldson, "because it's not worth a damn. You get to ask the president a question: 'Mr. President, do you think we'll have nuclear war on the battlefields of Europe?' 'Well . . . I don't know . . . maybe so . . .' " said Donaldson in a wickedly good imitation of Reagan. (That went for $80.)

"You know the real story of this convention," said Fred Behringer of the Montgomery Newspapers in Ft. Washington, Pa., "is his getting journalists to bid this high."