The National Enquirer knocked on my door about six years ago when an editor called from the Lantana, Fla., headquarters to ask if I'd write a 10-paragraph story for $250. Plus $75 for a photo.
The editor sounded breathless. Ron Caylor was his name, and he explained he was trying out for his job and would I please get the story in one day before he was fired for nonperformance?
So I interviewed a Washington lawyer who thought most mental hospital patients were institutionalized against their will. (One nice thing about writing for the Enquirer - you don't search out other points of view; each story makes a simple point with no debate.) A couple of weeks later I interviewed and photographed an FDA nutritionist who said the average American's diet obviated the need for vitamin supplements. Then it was off to Harrisburg to learn the skinny on a toll-free complaint phone line Pennsylvania began for its residents.
Two of the three stories appeared, which is a good batting average in the Scrappy world of Enquirer writers. Of course they were severely rewritten in the tense, certain style of the tabloid, and phony bylines were attached, since I had requested that my name not be used. The checks arrived, and my stock rose considerably in the eyes of my apartment building desk clerk (the only person I knew who read the tabloid) when I told her of my new free-lance job; I no longer had to deposit $5 to borrow the spare key at the front desk.
The reporting may be mundane, the result may be homogenized and the pace may be rushed, but helping the Enquirer in its sprint for stories is a matter of bucks. Caylor let me know a mere story tip would result in a check. And the paper is no less aggressive now that it was in the early '70s. Recently an employee for one of Ralph Nader's web of organizations was offered $200 per usable story idea. I once appeared on Panorama with the Enquirer's gossip columnist. Dapper in a suit with a boutonniere, he described his fleet of legmen, corps of secretaries (one just to arrange his hectic international travel schedule). I reflected on the average reporter's back-up staff: children who answer the phone when Mommy or Daddy is covering the county sewer hearings.
The name of my first Enquirer contact, Ron Caylor, has risen steadily on the newspaper's masthead, though not everyone prospers. Drawn by the high salary, one ex-Washington Star editor went southward and spent his two-week tryout frantically calling friends asking for story ideas; the first 100 he had submitted were rejected. And to succeed, an editor had to get those assignments cooking in the field, back into the house for editing and onto the printed page. My old friend - whose plaintive voice each time he phoned from Lantana depressed me - happily works in another city now, his recollection of his weeks at the Enquirer resembling less a professional sojourn than, say, a bout with influenza.
I'll always remember Caylor's words after I'd proved myself under fire six years ago. He asked when I was going to get smart and double my salary by joining the Enquirer. I recalled the stories I'd heard of the publisher's mercurial editorial vision. I thought of the formula stories about the occult, health and government, the pressure to outbid someone else for information. And I thought of the desperation in Caylor's voice the first time he phoned me. I decided I was a hungry, young reporter, but not that hungry.
"You sure?" Caylor asked, before adding seductively: "Listen, let me tell you something. The mudfishing sure is great down here."