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American Journalism Review
Clean & Sober or True Grit  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   July/August 1992

Clean & Sober or True Grit   

Once smoke-filled and coffee-stained, many newsrooms have become tidier and healthier places to work. Some reporters love their new workplaces; others say a cleaner desk doesn't necessarily mean cleaner copy.

By Chris Kent
Chris Kent, a San Francisco-based freelancer.      

The classic play, "The Front Page," featured a fitting backdrop for the rogue reporters who populated the Chicago Criminal Court press room in the 1920s: "It is a bare, disordered room, peopled by newspapermen in need of shaves, pants pressing and small change... [An elegant desk] is the repository for soiled linen, old sandwiches, empty bottles... Two tables serve as telephone desks, gaming boards and in a pinch, as lits d'amour ."

That imagery came to life for reporters who joined the North Jersey Herald & News in Passaic during the mid-1980s. The paper's newsroom was the embodiment of grit: World War II-era desks, sticky with decades of carbon ink, jammed together in fours; stacks of newspapers and other flotsam slopping from one desk to another; sputtering fluorescent lights vainly battling cigarette haze. Newsgathering years before had overtaken neatness; one reporter even raised fruit flies in a jar filled with mashed bananas without a peep of protest from co-workers. "It was my first newsroom – it was old and battered, but it was kind of homey," recalls Steven Walker, now a reporter at the Newark Star-Ledger.

A common gripe elsewhere, of course, is that they don't make newsrooms like they used to. Nostalgic veterans complain that corporate managers have hosed down the fiery newsgathering posts of the past – and subsequently stifled the creativity and revelry that flourished there. "Coming into the newsroom used to be like going into your room at home," says Richard Manning, a former reporter for the Missoulian in Montana. "They used to be the most fun places in the world." Chicago novelist and former newspaper reporter Bill Granger recalls the story of a visitor to the now-defunct Chicago Daily News in the late 1950s who, upon asking for an ashtray, was told, "You're standing in it."

Nowadays, a newspaper hire could be forgiven for thinking he or she had just walked into the offices of an insurance company, with its orderly cubicles and spotless carpeting. Largely at the request of editors and reporters, freighter-sized desks have been replaced by ergonomic "work stations" (designed to ease back, neck and arm strain), and clattering typewriters and wire machines have given way to soundless computers. Equipment has been purchased to prevent repetitive strain injuries, and lingering clouds of tobacco smoke have all but disappeared.

But while some journalists pine for the old days, many others praise the modern newsroom as a healthier and more productive place to work. "The way a newsroom looks these days is a result of people not wanting to work in that environment," says Al Larkin, managing editor for administration at the Boston Globe. If a reporter had asked for a new chair in the old days because his or her back hurt, "someone would have told you to sit down and shut up," he says.

Roger Fidler, director of new media development for Knight-Ridder who is writing a book about news technology, says such changes are largely the result of the introduction of computers. Their debut in the early 1970s brought cables strung along floors and ceilings (which were raised or lowered to make room) and lighting systems and air conditioners to keep the machines humming.

"The remodeling was [initially] done to accommodate computers, not people," says Fidler, who visited the Pasadena Star-News in the early 1980s just as the paper was installing one of the first electronic pagination systems. Reporters and editors were learning to use the system while sitting in wooden swivel chairs that had missing wheels and couldn't be adjusted. "Maintaining the comfort level of the newsroom has forced companies to spend more money on furniture and ergonomics," Fidler says. "Once they did that, they tended to start enforcing rules on things like newsroom neatness."

When New Jersey's Asbury Park Press moved in 1985 from a decrepit, cramped newsroom to new high-tech digs, for example, management decided a cluttered newsroom wasn't appropriate for the paper's new image. Reporters were told to clear their desks each evening and were issued coffee mugs with lids to prevent spills on the furniture. Employees were forbidden from bringing in plants, which are supplied by a landscaping service. Restrictions were placed on the number of photographs that staff could display in their cubicles; one snapshot of the kids was deemed sufficient.

The family-owned paper appears more relaxed these days about enforcing such rules, which have been largely ignored anyway. "I haven't seen a lid on a coffee cup in the newsroom in four years," says columnist Steve Giegerich. Senior Managing Editor Ray Tuers, assigned to impose order, bemoans the unwillingness of his staff to color within the lines. "I'm just getting ready to start my annual cleaning, and I'm sure it will be an abysmal failure as usual," a cheerful but resigned Tuers says. "I don't know why reporters like to live in squalor. My desk is always neat."

Tuers argues that newsroom sweeps protect both the staff and a company's investment. "It's not fair to say that the newsroom is antiseptic, that it's been taken over by the blue suits – that's bull. The point is that this is a healthier, cleaner place to work."

Managers are quick to point out that many newsroom changes, such as the plethora of no-smoking signs, have come at the behest of reporters – reporters such as Orange County Register columnist Diana Griego Erwin. "Some people will say that no smoking takes the atmosphere out of a newsroom," she says. "But I once sat next to a smoker at the Denver Post, and I was pregnant at the time."

At the Boston Globe, Larkin says the newsroom staff had complained during several newsroom redesigns "that this corner is too dark, or that they can hear the person next to them talking on the phone and they can't concentrate. It's ironic that many of the things they are complaining about are the last vestiges of the old newsroom."

"Wasn't the 'Front Page' newsroom a sexist, racist place with terrible working conditions?" says reporter James V. Grimaldi of the Register. "I like having my own computer and my voice mail."

Slobs or Rebels?

Why can't reporters and editors keep it clean? Are they inherently sloppy, or is it that they see newsroom disarray as the equivalent of giving management the finger? Probably both, says Elliot Jaspin, who traveled to newsrooms across the country as director of the Missouri Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting.

"Reporters are just incredibly messy people," explains Jaspin, who left the institute last month to join Cox Newspapers. "They like to exhibit things like a rock that was thrown at them, or a piece of an airplane, and they put these things on display like trophies." He recalls a former Providence Journal reporter – "the best writer I've ever known" – who arranged a poison mushroom collection on his desk. "He didn't think anything unusual was going on – that was just his view of the world."

Besides, odd decor frees reporters' minds to write, says Don Fry, an associate at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. "Where people are allowed to nest, that's where they feel most creative," he says. Indeed, there are those who consider a messy desk a sign that they're on top of things. Reporter Hilary Stout of the Wall Street Journal says she wasn't offended when Washington Bureau Chief Al Hunt asked her recently to get organized. "There's always been some good-natured ribbing about the state of my desk – it's a real disaster area," she explains. Says Hunt, "We asked her to clean her desk because we thought there might be some people trapped alive in it."

Many reporters regard mandatory cleanliness as a sign that management doesn't understand the pressures they work under. "I cover the courts, and it's a busy beat," says Barbara Walsh of the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. "By the end of the day my desk is covered with paperwork."

That the minions regard newsroom cleanliness as a corporate conspiracy doesn't surprise most managers. "Reporters are good at questioning authority," says Jim DeGraci, assistant managing editor at the Sun-Sentinel. "That's what we hire them for." David Eisen, director of research for the Newspaper Guild, jokes, "What don't reporters complain about?"

Even conceding their tendency to complain, many reporters question whether efforts to create user-friendly newsrooms have gone too far. "We have name plates on our cubicles that some reporters like to turn upside down," says Sun-Sentinel reporter Seth Borenstein. "The desk police will turn them right side up. It makes you wonder." A sculpture created with stacks of pennies on the edge of a cubicle was ordered dismantled; reporters are stealthily building it again, penny by penny.

With cutbacks and layoffs plaguing the industry, many newspaper journalists argue that big money shouldn't be spent remodeling the den. The San Francisco Examiner completed a slick refurbishment last year featuring a gray and red color scheme, gray faux-marble pillars and a bank of 20 televisions. Shortly thereafter, the newspaper announced a 10 percent cut in editorial staffers and asked all to consider buyouts.

"We thought [spending money for a redesign] was pretty stupid," says reporter Larry D. Hatfield. The remodeling also brought the inevitable clean-desk rules, he says. "We were told that nothing could stick out over the tops of our cubicles and that we couldn't put anything on the walls." Needless to say, the rules proved unenforceable.

Assuming creativity comes from within, what harm can neatness cause? Put us in a cushy environment, reporters respond, and we lose our edge. "We've long professed that if we ever did get carpeting in the newsroom, we'd bring in a truckload of coffee and dump it," says Jim Naughton, executive editor of the chaotic Philadelphia Inquirer newsroom.

The Next Generation

The people who occupy newsrooms in the post-Watergate age are vastly different from the lesser-educated, working-class scribes of the past – a change that some say explains the sedate atmosphere of today's workplace. But even a green reporter imbued with the "Front Page" spirit may feel pressure to fall in line when working in a strict environment, says Seattle Times Copy Editor Emmett Murray. "When you come into a business you want nothing more than to fit in, to be a chameleon. You come in all bright-eyed, and in a few years you're like an undertaker."

That fate doesn't befall everyone, though. Back at the North Jersey Herald & News, the atmosphere still reminds some visitors of a hectic, haphazard 1950s newsroom – with a few minor changes. Smoking is no longer permitted, and several computers have been purchased, although they sit on desks older than some of the reporters. "We've gotten a couple of new chairs here and there, and I did hear there's going to be some money spent on redecorating and maybe some carpeting," says Features Editor Michael Starr. Starr says the staff generally seems to like the place: "If you took out the computers, this place would probably look pretty much the same as it did 20 years ago." l



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