A Eulogy for Old-School Newsrooms  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   December/January 2010

A Eulogy for Old-School Newsrooms   

They were loud, chaotic and politically incorrect. They weren’t very diverse. But they sure were full of journalistic passion--and fun.

By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     

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You stepped into your first newsroom, and some tectonic plate of destiny shifted. You slid into a new dimension, like Harry Potter at Platform 9 3/4, rematerializing in a parallel realm, previously unimaginable, then life-altering.

Enchanted maybe, but gritty too. Newsrooms in their heyday were bundles of contradiction: palaces of power and temples of tomfoolery, swaggering with certitude yet endearingly insecure, cynical but inextinguishably idealistic. They were loud, cocky and randy. They radiated energy at a near sexual level. Typewriters clattered, teletypes rang, scanners crackled. Reporters hectored sources over rotary phones with hopelessly twisted cords. Editors yelled. Whiskey bottles leaked from desk drawers as cigarette butts smoldered in trash cans.

Everything happened at hurry-up pace. Pranks let off steam: filling the editor's bathroom with frogs, calling the city desk to impersonate some bigwig, smuggling in a stripper for a colleague's birthday.

You felt the "glorious smugness," as one journalist puts it, of people united in a mission, underpinned by an earnest faith that the work mattered, and you knew it, and the public knew it, too.

Step into today's newsrooms, and vestiges of this spirit linger and sometimes flourish. But something quintessential has waned. Over the last generation or so, newsrooms have taken on a self-conscious meekness, increasingly bleached and domesticated by a battery of challenges.

Chances are they already are recrafting new personalities to serve new audiences in new ways. But now seems a good moment to offer some blend of farewell, salute, lament and good riddance to those grand and goofy newsrooms of the past, their season gone but their legacy unforgettable.

Working there was "the most fun a person could have," recalls columnist and author Bob Greene, whose new book, "Late Edition: A Love Story," celebrates his first paper, the Columbus, Ohio, Citizen-Journal of 1964. "It was the opposite of grimness. It was the opposite of gray. It was the opposite of gloomy," says Greene, who went on to write columns for 31 years at the Chicago Sun-Times and Tribune. "It was a bunch of people I don't think would be offended if you called them 'misfits.' Because it was made for them. It was a place of noise and laughter and looseness. To use the most basic word, it was fun."

"There was so much passion. It was tangible, palpable and visible," says Jacqui Banaszynski, a Pulitzer-winning reporter who worked in newsrooms from Janesville, Wisconsin, to Duluth, St. Paul and Seattle. "The joke was always, 'I tried to date civilians and it didn't work.' The civilians didn't understand that when a story broke, you were going to leave the theater, you weren't going to make it home to dinner. That translated into a lot of steaminess: We're all in this together, and we only have each other."

Along with the intensity came a rumpus-room collegiality backed up by hard work, all-pro skill and barely disguised altruism.

"Newsrooms always felt like an episode from the old 'M*A*S*H' television show, a group of passionate people doing difficult jobs under pretty impossible circumstances, and the only way they survived was doing it a little bit wacky," Banaszynski says."Now newsrooms feel to me like heavily edited copy. They're neater, tighter and more efficient. They just don't have as much voice and flair."

She cites an occasion at the Register-Guard in Eugene, Oregon, where, in a fit of "haven't-had-enough-sleep goofiness," staff members took down the walls of an assistant managing editor's office, leaving only the door and desk. In those times, you just hoped no inspectors came around to check for fire hazards or confiscate the razor-sharp spikes editors jammed copy onto. Once or twice a year, somebody important enough visited that you made a halfhearted effort to trim the wobbly piles of paper on your desk.

Bill Rose, whose four decades took him from the Delta Democrat Times in Greenville, Mississippi, to the Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post, describes today's newsrooms as "much more controlled and antiseptic and not nearly as much fun... They could easily be a sales office for some big company." Rose, now teaching at the University of Mississippi, remembers when a reporter sauntered through the office and a pistol fell from her purse, when someone lined the room with cups of vinegar to ridicule proposed urine testing, and when management tolerated "amazingly crazy" characters whose mutterings unnerved even their colleagues.

When one editor returned from a stint at another paper, colleagues greeted him by filling his office with golf balls--in his typewriter, all over his desk, even in the light fixtures. "For days after," Rose remembers, "he would be talking to someone and would open a drawer and golf balls would fall out.

"We played games. We dared to play games," says Rose, who was known for shooting rubber bands at his Miami colleagues. "I think there's less tolerance for characters now. There's just no room anymore to tolerate people who might make others mad. We just don't have time to handle those personalities."

To many journalists, the zaniness was connected both to stress relief and a devotion to the common good. You could get away with things partly because of the hard hours and low pay, and partly because of the eventual public service you provided.

Gil Thelen, with 44 years as reporter, editor and publisher from the Chicago Daily News to the Tampa Tribune, remembers the "combination of playfulness, camaraderie and seriousness of purpose."

"A part of our compensation was the fun--the highs that would come from a really good score in enterprise, the kind of celebration that would ensue... There was energy, a certain adventuresomeness about the day. What were we going to figure out that our readers would value?"

And you knew cool stuff before everyone else. Steve Duin, a columnist for Portland's Oregonian who started in sports 33 years ago, loved that part of it.

"You always had the sense you were six or eight hours ahead of the game," he says. "You knew what had happened. You had the behind-the-scenes storyline. And you got to go to sleep at night just reveling in the fact that you knew more than everybody else, and when they woke up in the morning, they would be reading what you wrote. Now you feel like you're hours, days, years behind the curve."

The "glorious smugness," as Duin terms it, meant "often being full of ourselves--but for the right reasons. We were holding people accountable." You could "drop everything and go cover anything... There was never any thought as to what it cost. Very few things slowed down your pursuit of the ring of truth. We could go chasing people down and bringing them to justice, and we could do that unconstrained. God, it was fun. And I don't think any of us anticipated that it would end as soon as it has."

As newsrooms sobered up, in more ways than one, some of what Banaszynski calls "the sense of possibility" faded.

"There is a feeling in newsrooms these days," she observes, "that the worth of what we do is being questioned and challenged by the public...When we used to sit in the city council or with a mother who had just lost her child, we really believed it mattered. That sense of pure purpose and passion has been diluted a little bit. Or more than a little bit."

The "pee-on-the-carpet" rowdiness and pranks, she believes, fueled passion and helped develop "hotbeds of creative thinking."

Perhaps the prince of pranks was Jim Naughton, who in nearly 50 years moved from the Painesville, Ohio, Telegraph through the New York Times and Philadelphia Inquirer to the presidency of the Poynter Institute. "People who are always under pressure don't need bosses with whips," says Naughton, who once helped sneak a live camel into the Inquirer building. "They need bosses who understand the value of the collaborative spirit in a newsroom." That spirit drew "people who cared very much about what they did and its influence and impact on the life of the community."

At the same time, Naughton says, "Journalists tend to be insecure... We feel sinfully lucky to be doing this and think that at some point people are going to catch on and throw us out. So we drive ourselves to be better than we think we're capable of."

Speaking of driving, consider the caper of Naughton and the columnist he tried to recruit in the 1980s with a baby blue '67 Mustang.

As Naughton tells it, he decided to hire the writer Rheta Grimsley Johnson by driving the vintage vehicle to her Iuka, Mississippi, home and parking it in her driveway, with a note suggesting she drive it back to the new job he dangled in Philadelphia.

But before he could execute his plan, members of his own newsroom--"with the approval and connivance" of police--stole the car from Naughton. They didn't return it for months, until after his 50th birthday party.

After all that, Naughton did drive the car to Iuka and leave it for Johnson. Unfortunately, as he tells the story, she kept the Mustang ("eventually she sent me a check") but declined the job.

Johnson, now living again in Iuka and a columnist for King Features, confirms that an impressive amount of Naughton's tale is true, although she does note that he almost blew the whole thing by parking the car at the wrong house. And she says she sent him the repayment check as soon as she could.

She was flattered ("It was like being rushed for a sorority at Auburn") but also taken aback because when she tried to register her new car, it was still listed as stolen from the prank by Naughton's staff.

Naughton and Johnson also agree that neither the elaborate and expensive recruitment nor the high jinks associated with it would likely happen today. "I miss that irreverence, but I think it's gone somehow, the black humor we did to deal with the job," Johnson says. "The old hip-flask, green-eyeshade journalism days are behind us.

"It was more interesting when you had all these roustabouts in the newsroom. It was like becoming a Baptist preacher. You had to get the calling... There was something about the theater of that scene that really made you want to compete and do well. When there was some drama--yelling, cussing, banging on the Atex machine--there was a lot of fun, and when you're having fun I think you do better, especially in something that's supposed to be creative."

Almost everyone acknowledges that lots of creativity and passion remain. "I still think the most interesting people on earth gravitate to journalism," Johnson says. Banaszynski, now the Knight Chair in Editing at the University of Missouri, finds "some of that personality still exists in most newsrooms, because of the kind of people they attract and the kind of work they do." But few deny newsrooms have been buttoning down for a generation, maybe more. You can blame it on, or credit it to, everything from the introduction of computers to professionalization in hiring to economic asperity to the possible calming influence as more women joined the staff.

"I think the crazy old newsroom left us at about the time I got into journalism in 1980," says Mary Schmich, who has spent nearly 25 years with the Chicago Tribune, the last 17 as a columnist. "When I entered, I heard all the old fogies talking about how wild and crazy and fun it used to be."

She still sees a few "spontaneous acts of humor." For instance, Schmich mentions one "folkloric" incident when the Tribune started live TV broadcasts from the newsroom and a reporter paraded before the camera brandishing "a huge phallic zucchini."

But over time, Schmich says, tamer newsrooms have led to fewer crude jokes, far less daytime drinking ("When people drink at lunch, a lot weirder things happen in the office during the afternoon") and maybe even a decline in "conspicuous hooking up" (though she thinks younger staffers are "out there having fun" in ways senior colleagues don't necessarily see).

Sam Graff spent some 30 years in newsrooms, 19 of them at New York's Daily News, and remembers when beer and mixers sold big in the cafeteria, people occasionally tossed objects through the seventh-floor windows and everything was "loud and very pleasant..not at all corporate."

"Hardly anybody had been to journalism school except the bosses, and everyone was a little more free and easy," Graff recalls. "Computers really quieted things down. And more women made everyone more polite."

But decorum also saps something from the room. "The old Daily News was the kind of place where if you won the lottery, you'd keep on working," Graff says. "All your friends were there. It was always interesting and lively. You knew what was going on. There were lots of crazy people--just crazy enough--and the unpredictability not only of news events but of your colleagues. All the ruckus and furor just stimulated the creative juices."

People also fraternized more. Every newspaper had a bar down the street, often a place the copy desk would alert just before deadline to extend last call. Now, everyone's likely to scatter after work. "We used to plan where we were going to drink," one colleague told Rheta Grimsley Johnson. "Now reporters rush home to water their ferns."

Will Sutton, whose career took him from New Orleans to Providence to Gary, Indiana, to Raleigh, fondly remembers the sense of community inside and outside the newsroom, and also how old-timers enjoyed befriending the rookies.

While some bonding was on the rowdy side, other times it was more literary. For instance, Sutton worked with one reporter who designated a "word of the day," which other writers then tried to slip into print. Other newsrooms had similar contests. Get "creamy white thighs" or "occult hand" into the paper, and you could win a day off.

Back then reporters commonly came from blue-collar backgrounds rather than college--"up from the streets, with a sense of the fabric and the rhythms of the community," as Gil Thelen puts it. Banaszynski worked alongside a longshoreman who labored on the Duluth docks, then came in and reported because "he knew everybody in town."

Peter Carlson, whose 25 years in newsrooms ran from the Boston Herald American to the Washington Post, recalls a colleague who "tried to get a job driving a train but couldn't, so he got a job in journalism instead."

When the Herald American eventually laid off Carlson, he recounts, he wrapped his tie around his head like a blindfold, declared "I only regret that I have but one life to give for my newsroom" and turned on a tape of the song "Take This Job and Shove It."

On his departure last year from the Washington Post (in a voluntary buyout), there were "no theatrics." As he explains, "There were more high spirits in the old days... You've lost that connection to the weird era."

Theatrics did reemerge briefly in the Post newsroom this fall, however, when several witnesses and news outlets reported that longtime feature editor Henry Allen punched writer Manuel Roig-Franzia after Allen sharply criticized a story Roig-Franzia cowrote and the writer responded with an obscenity. To many commentators, the incident was a rare outbreak of old-style newsroom passion. Post columnist Gene Weingarten wrote in an online chat: "The first thing I want to say is, hooray. Hooray that there is still enough passion left somewhere in a newsroom in America for violence to break out between colorful characters in disagreement over the quality of a story."

Like Carlson, many journalists look back fondly on the days of high spirits, though they don't necessarily miss the fighting. Bob Greene remembers particularly the laughter. It was, he writes in "Late Edition," "the laughter that comes with unconscious gratitude--with knowing reflexively, somewhere inside, how lucky you are to be allowed to work in a place like this. "You would hear it in that room every afternoon and every evening, as imperfect people put together an imperfect product chronicling the vagaries of an imperfect world...

"This was," Greene adds, "in every way that mattered, first love."

The gradual spread of computers, cubicles and carpet, among other things, reduced what Greene calls the "playground feel." But while it lasted, covering stories became group adventures. "When someone got off the phone--and you could hear them across the room--they'd jump up and tell the story to everybody," says Peter Carlson.

Michael Fuchs, now a government lawyer but for six years a reporter and editor at the Lynchburg, Virginia, News, says, "Everybody was pulling for each other. You wanted to hear what everybody was talking about in the interview, because you already knew what they were working on and you wanted to know how it was going."

He remembers the newsroom breaking into cheers one day when a reporter got a breakthrough interview by phone and started pumping her fist in the air. Of course, the openness also obliterated privacy. Once when his mother called to report on a sick relative, Fuchs says, the newsroom operator took the call, chatted with her awhile, then hollered to him across the newsroom with the medical details.

No doubt many reasons fed into subduing those old newsrooms, but financial pressures may have proved the clincher. Peter Carlson calls it "the sphincter-puckering fear of demise." Portland's Steve Duin says dryly, "We're all just hanging around waiting for the next swing of the axe."

Jim Naughton finds newsrooms increasingly "uptight and morose..for the obvious reason that companies have economically pinched the hell out of them. They have cut way back and piled new duties on."

Those cutbacks, combined with mission uncertainty and a rising fear of irrelevance, could humble most any operation. There are so few people left in his newsroom, one longtime reporter said recently, that they're too grateful for having jobs to act out as they once did.

Obviously, though, the old days shouldn't be blindly romanticized. Their demise represents progress as well as loss. "That sense of macho, white-male, we-know-what-the-answer-is...good riddance to that," Banaszynski says. "Thank God newsrooms aren't all blue-striped shirts and khaki pants anymore."

"We over-drank," seconds Naughton. "We smoked too much. A friend of mine just announced he had throat cancer, which I suspect is a byproduct of those days. And we were much less attentive than today's journalists are to the amount of time we spent with family."

"I remember those days fondly," says Will Sutton, "but what I care about way more are the fundamental skills and values of journalism--and that's something I don't want to see disappear like the teletype."

You also sense hope and resilience in the here-and-now. Many journalists, like the Tribune's Mary Schmich, still love their jobs and newsrooms.

"I get to write a column in the city of Chicago, an amazing place," she says. "I stay because I love my work, and I can't imagine where else I would find work that--despite the huge frustrations right now--would satisfy me like that." The Oregonian's Steve Duin remains inspired by the imperishable watchdog mentality. "There are amazing reporters at this paper who just don't want the bastards to get away with it," he says. "That's what has kept me in the building. We have hit the iceberg. The lifeboats are gone, and we are going to go down with the ship because we still love what we do and believe what we do is incredibly important."

Whatever their faults and virtues, it's hard to imagine old-style newsrooms returning.

"I suppose there is a chance that if, because of the economy, newspapers got bare-bones enough, we could go back to it," says Bob Greene. "But I don't think so. I don't think it's coming back."

So let us toast those old news roosts and the tribe of rapscallions and reformists they let loose on many a city. Shabby they might have been. Perfect they never were. But who would trade the days you spent there, sassing the boss, dissing the mayor and imperiously threatening to cancel the subscription of anyone who dared complain? All the while doing some of the best work of your life.

Think of it as something like leaving the home you grew up in or your first apartment. Its time has passed. Eagerly if warily, you head into the future. But just before you turn the corner, you look back one last time. And the old place and its rich memories seem pretty special.

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