Monday, April 10, 2006

A newsman, Ted.

Still thinking about the loss of certain sights and sounds and smells that has come with our advance into the push button world of post-industrial America.

Among the places where the losses may be felt keenest are newsrooms.

Ask any journalists who started their careers in the days when everybody smoked and every story was banged out on a typewriter and who now tiptoe through a "workplace" that is smoke-free and glows blue to whisper timidly to a copyeditor about the mangled mess that copyeditor has made out of their story, in which sort of place they'd rather hang their snapbrim hats.

I've heard it argued---over beers. A lot of beers. Maybe too many beers.---that the decline in journalism is due to the cleaning up and computerized quieting down of newsrooms. Overnight, my sozzled sources have said, newspapers became safe havens for neurotic ex-English majors without the gumption to become real writers or the grades to go to law school and the world of journalism went to hell in a handbasket.

Once upon a time there were giants in the world, men and women who couldn't think without a cigarette dangling from the corners of their mouths, who pounded out their stories on IBM Selectrics, and shouted back and forth to each other to be heard over the racket, using language you wouldn't expect to hear outside the hold of a tramp steamer during a typhoon.

Reporters drank their lunches in those days, sometimes right at their desks.

How many Pulitzers were won by stories written by hungover reporters tearing their already splitting heads apart with hacking smoker's coughs as they pounded away at their typewriters with uncertain fingers trembling with the DTs?

Nowdays, reporters go to the gym over lunch and eat salads and make prissy sour faces and wave their hands in the air when any one within a five mile radius lights up for a smoke.

My sources are bitter people.

I love newspaper people. I admire them no end. I'm not talking about the celebrity journalists down in Washington. Those people stopped being journalists a long time ago. They carry press passes and notebooks and go through the motions of being reporters. They list their places of employment as newspapers, but they really work for themselves and they are in the business of self-aggrandizement. Their occupation is being a celebrity and their job is to please an audience made up of other celebrity journalists. But they are a minority. An annoyingly highly visible and influential minority. But a minority.

The vast majority of newspaper reporters aren't interested in appearing on television and they don't want "access," except for the kind of access you get with the fire chief at the scene of a three-alarm fire.

I've been in newsrooms that were so raucous and profane, despite the absence of cigarette smoke and typewriters, that it wouldn't have been surprising to see Cary Grant rush in chasing after Roz Russell, urging her to forget Ralph Bellamy and hurry down to the prison to cover the execution.

And I've been in newsrooms that were quieter and more sedate, as civil and as dull, in fact, as the accounting department at a major insurance company during an audit.

Both places were home to some very fine newsmen and newswomen.

I am very sorry to be living through the decline and fall of the newspaper business, for their sake, as well as for my own as a life-long avid reader of newspapers.

Nancy Nall, one of the finer of those fine newspaper people I've known and loved---like a sister, wiseguy!---wrote a post last week eulogizing another sort of newspaper person going the way of the town crier and the broadsheet, the small town newspaper editor.

Jim Barbieri, the long time editor of the Bluffton Banner in Bluffton, Indiana.

It's hard to say just what kind of journalist Barbieri was. What you can say about him, what Nance does say about him, is that he was...well...unique.

Nance's, and the blonde's, former colleague, Bob Caylor, who got his start working for Barbieri, also has an appreciation of a defiantly American character.


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