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Extra Slow

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Long before the internet, cable television, broadcast television or radio, breaking news broke only as fast as the most nimble typesetter could lay out a newspaper page.

When something big happened, newspapers put out special editions called extras. Early day Austin newspaper editor Edmunds Travis liked to claim he had a hand in putting out both the slowest and fastest extras in Texas newspaper history.

The slowest extra came one day in the early 1900s when Travis worked on the copy desk of the old San Antonio Light. A wire story came in from England saying that an archeological excavation had proven beyond doubt that Francis Bacon had slain William Shakespeare. Even at the time, most scholars thought the notion spurious, but in the Alamo City, Travis' boss became quick taken with the tale.

Travis had treated the report like a feature story, but after the managing editor saw it he had to change his page plan.

"Don't you realize that's the greatest story we've ever had," Travis said the ME exclaimed.

Travis replied that he didn't think so, but the boss ordered him to put a black, eight-column streamer across the front page to inform the Light's readers of a murder most foul - even if it happened in the Elizabethan era.

The outranked wire editor complied with the managing editor's directive about putting big type over the story. But that wasn't all the editor wanted.

"Directly he came back and said, 'Let's get out an extra on it.' I said, 'What? And he said it again."

Again, Travis did as he had been told.

Soon, the newspaper's presses rolled with the crank story displayed in the right-hand column of page one. "BACON MURDERS SHAKESPEARE" the headline blared.

Newsboys scurried out on the streets screaming, "Read about the big murder…Read about the big murder!"

Shakespeare died in 1616. "It took nearly 300 years to get out that extra," Travis laughed.

The speediest extra in his career came when Travis served as editor of the Austin Statesman. The Legislature had passed the "Greater University Bill," dealing with the expansion of the University of Texas campus to the east of its original 40 acres.

Gov. Pat Neff had said he would sign the bill into law on April 1, 1921.

Travis had a story about the signing pre-written, going into the background of the controversial bill and leaving space at the top of the story for the exact time the governor affixed his signature to the measure. Once that information was phoned in from the Capitol, the newspaper's presses would roll.

The editor had no reason to believe Neff would not sign the bill. In fact, he already had the headline saying so set in type. All he needed was the time.

In the Governor's office, a crowd of reporters stood around the executive's desk. Before Neff lay the bill. In his hand he held a fountain pen.

Neff picked up the pen, posed it over the document, and then set the pen back down.

"What do you think of the bill?" the governor asked one of the reporters.

"Oh, I think it's a good bill," the Statesman's Capitol reporter replied. "You ought to go ahead and sign it."

Neff raised his pen again.

"I don't know," he said, putting the writing instrument back down. "What do you think of this legislation?" he asked another statehouse reporter.

At that, the Statesman's representative slipped out and telephone Travis.

"He said he was pretty sure the Governor was going to sign the bill, but said he kept fooling around," Travis recalled. "Well, I got tired of waiting."

The editor changed the story to read merely that the Governor "had" signed the bill, deleting any mention of the exact moment the signature was affixed.

Travis issued the order to roll the presses and soon got notification that the starter, or first paper, had come off the press.

Back at the Capitol, Neff finally signed the bill.

Moments later, he and the reporters heard a loud commotion outside the opaque glass door of the Governor's office.

"What's that?" Neff had time to say before a newsboy burst into the room, hawking the Statesman's extra that the Governor had signed the UT bill.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" >

October 12, 2006 column

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