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Journalistic scraps pay big bucks

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Notes for sale! Get your notes! I got notes on napkins! Notes on matchbooks! Notes in official reporter notebooks! Copious! Illegible! Rain, chili- and coffee-smeared notes! Notes in pencil, notes in pen! I'll even sell my mental notes!

Why would I sell my precious notes? How can I let them go at rock-bottom prices like these? Have I lost my mind? Well, Reader - may I call you Reader? - perhaps I have.

What pushed me to the edge was news this summer that the notes of Watergate reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein went on display at the University of Texas' Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center - notes that the center paid $5 million for.

It's that last part that got me. Allow me to repeat that figure: $5 million. Allow me to put that figure in context: Yipes.

I was just getting over that, when it was announced last week that Norman Mailer, one of America's most famous writers and a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, had sold his archives - including photos, notes, rejected manuscripts and about 25,000 letters - to the same research center. For $2.5 million.

"The time has come to acknowledge Norman's profound accomplishment," said Glenn Horowitz, the agent who brokered the deal. "His papers need to be used by scholars."

Now I'm no Woodward, no Bernstein, and I'm certainly no Mailer - merely a once-idealistic, formerly young journalist who has taken at least as many messy notes as those guys, squirreled away nearly as much junk in my desk drawers and am every bit as eager to cash in, if at all possible, on the flotsam of a 30-year career.

Of course, the Ransom center, and many other university archives and research centers don't see this stuff as flotsam, or even jetsam. Instead, they are making huge payouts for the detritus of famous writers in the belief that having their stuff - even if it's stored away in dusty old boxes - somehow increases their institution's cachet.

Such collections of notes, outlines, manuscripts, drafts, page proofs, correspondence and journals provide "a tracery of an artist's creative process," says the Ransom center Web site. They enable scholars to gain an increased understanding of "the trajectory of the artist's imagination."

Mailer's memorabilia includes canceled checks, sales receipts, his dogs' identification tags, mail he received while committed to Bellevue Hospital for stabbing his wife, and "intellectual joustings" as The New York Times termed them, with Robert Lowell, Marshall McLuhan and Joan Didion. (Note to self: Do more intellectual jousting, but first get some intellectual armor.)

Together, it totaled 500 boxes of stuff, or 20,000 pounds. That's $100 a pound, or $4,000 a box.

I know what you're thinking, Reader: "This sounds like stuff that would normally just be thrown in the trash. This is like buying the shells of nuts, the peels of bananas, or car exhaust. Why on earth would I want writers' byproduct? And why, of all people's, yours?"

Well, if I might come in and sit down a second, Reader, I'll tell you why. And might I say you have a lovely home? Are those pictures of your children? They are absolutely adorable.

A writer's notes, a hasty outline, a rough draft, even a hazy half-thought scrawled on a cocktail napkin - these are the building blocks with which we writers construct a story.

True, they are - like sawdust and spent nuclear reactor fuel - a byproduct; yet, like some of those, they can be put to use again, and not just by us.

Some foolish reporters immediately dispose of their notes once an article is published. Others keep them in the event they might come in handy again, which, to be honest, is only 0.8 percent of the time.

Despite that, being writers - with egos big enough to think that anything vaguely related to what we do is far too important to ever throw away - we tend to hang on to it.

This is a theory, but I would posit that the bigger a writer's ego, the more stuff he saves. Mailer had 10 tons, much of it, I'd guess, him positing. (Note to self: Do more positing.)

The technique

I don't have that much, mainly because there is nowhere to put it. My technique has been to toss out my least-vital files when my desk drawers get too full to hold new ones. Some I recently disposed of - before realizing their market value - included those about a man who makes serial killer action figures, a man who had eaten out every night for 21 years and a woman who wants her cremated ashes to spend eternity in a Tasmanian devil cookie jar.

Sure, one can look up those stories in computer archives, but what of the indecipherable notes on which they were based? Gone forever, leaving a void in our nation's historical record.

And it's not just my notes that future generations will want to see. What of my writing utensils, my grocery lists, my fan mail, my hate mail, my belly-button lint?

Don't laugh.

In 1994, Stanford University's library purchased the archives of beat poet Allen Ginsburg - thousands of pages of literary manuscripts, private journals, correspondence, research and memorabilia that included his high school report card, a pair of old tennis shoes and trimmings from his beard.

He received about $1 million for the items - a price presumably negotiated by his agent since beat poets, as I'm sure you can dig, are not generally among your most financially adroit.

Ginsburg, in fact, was a frequent critic of greed and capitalism. He wrote the poem "Howl," as well as one called "Velocity of Money," which contains these lines:

"buy and sell your grandmother, eat up old age homes,

Peddle babies on the street ...

Everybody running after the rising dollar ... ."

Ginsburg, who graduated from Columbia University in New York, used the money Stanford University gave him to buy a loft on New York's Lower East Side, where he died in 1996.

Susan Sontag

Author, critic, intellectual and activist Susan Sontag also peddled her papers, selling drafts of her novels, film scripts and correspondence to the UCLA Library for $1.1 million in 2003.

"Money isn't the main consideration," she told the Los Angeles Times, "but ... this is something that will support me for a couple of years." Sontag died of leukemia in 2004.

Since his suicide in February, little has been said about Hunter Thompson's papers (not the Buglers, but those of the nonrolling variety). It's a safe bet, given his grandiose self-view, there is a huge Gonzo archive stashed somewhere, just waiting for the best offer.

Mailer had long been hoping to rake in at least $2 million for his papers and was being represented in that quest by Andrew Wylie, the agent who helped Ginsburg and Sontag get million-dollar payouts for stuff they - and quite wisely, it turns out - didn't throw away.

So Reader, how about it? Are you looking for something more eclectic? How about some "quotes out of context?" Our inventory of quotes out of context has never been higher! For a limited time only, buy one quote out of context and get a second quote, also out of context, free. (Context available at a nominal charge.)

Or maybe a knickknack from my desk drawers is more up your alley. We have salt packets, plastic forks, business cards, phantom phone numbers, mystery cassette tapes, corroded coffee mugs, ethics and sexual harassment policies in mint condition. Speaking of mints, we've got faded M & M's and stray Altoids, as well as Pepcid, Tylenol and other brand-name medications. Let us put together a custom gift basket!!!

As a man of letters (11 in my last name alone), I find the trend of writers selling, as opposed to donating, their collected stuff disturbing. As a journalist, I was especially dismayed when Woodward and Bernstein sold their notes.

Journalistic idols

Like most journalists of my generation, like most of those who have gone to journalism schools since - I idolized (even before they were portrayed in film by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman) the two Washington Post reporters who brought down the Nixon administration.

They represented all that appealed to me about the career - the chance to have an impact, make the world better, expose corruption, comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable, stuff like that. So seemingly noble was the pursuit that we didn't mind the long hours and, as a rule, crappy pay.

When Woodward and Bernstein hit pay dirt with a book deal, we didn't object; more power to them, we thought. When they sealed a movie deal, that was fine. When they cashed in on another book and another movie, that was OK, too.

But charging a university research center $5 million? For notes?

It's like learning that Superman - perhaps while in the guise of Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper - quietly spent his evenings at an adding machine, tallying bills to send to those he had rescued.

Wouldn't a classier gesture - assuming that neither man is at financial rock bottom - have been to donate the notes, perhaps to Yale, which Woodward graduated from, or the University of Maryland, from which Bernstein dropped out?

Instead they went for the big bucks, leaving themselves open to comparisons like this one:

Woodward and Bernstein turned over 74 boxes, six oversized boxes, three oversized folders, three galley folders and 21 bound volumes to the Harry Ransom Research Center in exchange for $5 million.

Charles W. Colson

Convicted Watergate crook Charles W. Colson, meanwhile, turned over 143 boxes of correspondence, memos, court transcripts and audio tapes to the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, all free of charge.

Colson, President Richard M. Nixon's special counsel, served seven months in prison after pleading guilty to obstructing justice in the Watergate-related Daniel Ellsberg case. (Ellsberg, you'll recall, got in trouble for donating papers that weren't his - the Pentagon Papers - to The New York Times.)

Woodward and Bernstein went on to write books. Colson went on to become a born-again Christian and establish the Prison Fellowship Ministries.

Holding out hope

Silly me. I was holding out hope that newspaper reporting remained one of the dwindling number of careers whose practitioners didn't place the buck above all else - even though they frequently work for companies that do, and I guess one shouldn't be surprised when that philosophy trickles down.

I was under the impression that maybe - if we looked outside the world of professional sports, politics, TV evangelism, finance, law, medicine and the movie and music industries-there still were some heroes who weren't greedy. I was mistaken.

But make no mistake about these LOW, LOW prices! We are OVERSTOCKED! And because of a lack of drawer space, we are able to offer substantial savings on Historic Reporting Memorabilia, accumulated over a 30-year career.

Press credentials? Yes, we have preowned press credentials! Just strap them on and wait for doors to open. Breeze right into Walter Mondale's next campaign speech. Perhaps you long for a more intimate souvenir of me? Hair from my head? No problem. But order now, as quantities are getting extremely limited.

Sleazy? Not at all. Sure, in the past famous writers and journalists have often graciously given their papers and other effects to universities and research institutes at no charge.

Charles Kuralt donated his papers to his alma mater, the University of North Carolina. Jim Squires, the Tennessee-raised former editor of the Chicago Tribune, gave his papers to Vanderbilt University. H.L. Mencken donated most of his books and papers to Enoch Pratt Free Library.

Walter Cronkite

Walter Cronkite accumulated many papers during his distinguished career with CBS. In 1988, seven years after he retired as anchorman, he gave his papers and career memorabilia to his alma mater, the University of Texas. He charged nothing.

Old fool.

Didja ever wonder where Andy Rooney's papers might be? His and Harry Reasoner's are at the same place - the University of Texas Center for American History, which is distinct from the more well-heeled Ransom center and doesn't dole out cash for old stuff.

"We, as a practice, don't do that," said Don E. Carleton, center director. "We solicit gifts. We don't buy collections. Everything we have is a donation.

"To be fair, I can understand why an individual might be in a situation where they need the money, and I'm not going to go, 'Shame on you, you should have given the stuff away when someone was offering you a lot of money for it.'"

News Media Archives

With material donated by Cronkite and 57 others, the center was able to establish its News Media Archives - an impressive collection, though, as archives go, it is eclipsed by the Ransom center across campus.

With a $15 million endowment, much of it coming from oil investments, the Ransom center contains more than 30 million manuscripts, one of five original Gutenberg Bibles and the personal archives of, among others, Russell Banks, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Jorge Luis Borges, Anthony Burgess and John Fowles.

Most of them have been purchased. In fact, since 1969, when a tax break for such archival donations was eliminated (there have been several attempts to restore it), donated collections have become increasingly rare. With the write-off gone, more writers want not just eternal storage space for their stuff, but some upfront money as well.

We're not asking $2.5 million. We're not seeking six figures. Our inventory can be yours for $99,999, or, under our flex-pay plan, three easy payments of $33,333.

These notes and other memorabilia - from things-to-do lists to old pink while-you-were-out messages - are DESTINED to only INCREASE in value! Act now and you can receive my personal cholesterol numbers, scrawled on a greasy McDonald's bag.

If it sounds like there is underlying jealousy at work here, that is only because there is underlying jealousy at work here.

I'm not anti-archive; I'm all for hanging on to the past, no matter how tiny the pieces of it may be. And I'm all for current and future senior citizens being able to cash in on their stuff, particularly in light of the future of Social Security.

Chewed gum

What troubles me is that, in a society in which everything - even Britney Spears' chewed gum - is for sale, my garbage is still, well, garbage.

It does not seem right that two writers spend their lives working equally hard, only to have one get millions of dollars from an archive for their stuff while the other is forced to spend lonely nights at home eating cereal and scrapbooking.

True, Norman Mailer has written nearly 40 books, and I have to this date produced none. But I've gotten a few award plaques (look for them soon on eBay) in my newspaper career, and who knows what new literary heights I might reach in my 60s, 70s and 80s?

As an optimist, I plan to begin at once categorizing for future generations my notes, whiskers, old footwear and all my clippings - be they newspaper, beard or toenail.

Friends, this is a chance to get in on the ground floor. This is your chance to invest in the nonpublished rubbish of writers, a market that may turn out to be more lucrative than the publishing industry.

Don't miss out. Many lesser-known writers are out there. Act now. Operators - smooth ones - are standing by.

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