Watching the Rocky Mountain News go under and the Chicago Sun-Times declare bankruptcy, I feel, like everyone else, that we’re witnessing the end of an era.
Most people lament the loss of reading culture and the attention span required to make it through a two-column story. But for me the real tragedy is the loss of the camaraderie that came with being a newspaper reporter.
I worked for four years with the Rockland Journal-News and the Bergen Record, two suburban papers that seemed to have a lock on a pair of lucrative markets right outside New York City. After all, it was Warren Buffet who said in the 1970s that there was no greater franchise in America than a daily newspaper. (That’s why he bought a big stake in the Washington Post.)
The other day I called up my old editor at the Record and asked what things were like. “Even for the papers that are surviving, it’s become unrecognizable,” he said. “There’s no more newsroom. They don’t even give you a desk. Instead, you’re called a ‘mo-jo’ — a mobile journalist. They hand you a laptop and you go cover meetings and wire in your story. Nobody comes back to the office, there’s no socializing. It’s the end of a way of life.”
I doubt if I ever would have remained a reporter for long if it wasn’t for the constant esprit of the newsroom. It was like no other job. We didn’t even start work until six o’clock in the evening. You would go to your meeting — a planning board, a town council — sit there for two hours trying not to fall asleep, rush down to interview the mayor when it was over, stop for coffee on the way back and arrive in the newsroom around 10 o’clock ready to write your story.
There was an illicit night-owl feeling to it all. We were just getting started while everybody else was going to bed. We had until 2 a.m. The crisis occurred when you realized there was a hole in your story and you had to wake the mayor up at 11:30 p.m. to ask him one last question. “You were at that meeting!” he would explode groggily over the phone. “Why didn’t you ask me then!?” You risked not getting another interview with him for a month, but trying to push an incomplete story past the copy desk was worse.
The main event, however, was the gossip. Almost everything I learned about local politics came from the scuttlebutt that flew back and forth across the desks. “You know that weekly shopper that’s running the headlines about how the mayor is stealing money from the treasury,” someone would say. “That’s the mayor’s brother that owns it. They haven’t spoken for twenty years.” Or, “You know that councilman’s wife, the one who always sits in the back of the room with her skirt hiked up? She’s been having an affair with the town attorney. I think they’re going to try to fire him at the next meeting. That’s going to be a good one!”
Then there was the idle humor.
“My town has got to be the malaprop capital of the world. The other night somebody stood up at the meeting and said, ‘Mr. Mayor, you really hit the nail on the shoe that time.'”
“Yeah, last week one guy said, ‘Nobody wants to take responsibility around here. Everybody wants to pass the bucket.'”
“They’re all immigrants. They’ve learned the language but they miss the idioms.”
“Yeah, last week I had somebody say, ‘It’s time we got down to brass roots.'”
Then everything would settle down and we would start to write. It didn’t always come easily. One septuagenarian, Bryn Mawr ’29, knew where all the bodies in the county were buried but she could never get it out of her typewriter. She would copy her notes longhand, then type them out single-spaced, before starting to write, while the copy editors fussed and fumed. Another young reporter, a devotee of Wilhelm Reich, had to sit in his car under an orgone blanket every night for inspiration. The editor usually had to go out and drag him to his typewriter. One feature writer with the instincts of a trade rat had papers piled so high on his desk that he hung signs on his desk saying “In” and “Out” so the editors could tell when he was around.
Then there was the sly comedian who would hunch over his typewriter every night lamenting, “I know exactly what I want to say in this story. I just can’t put it into words.”
There were also office romances. At the Record there were four regional editors and every one of them had girlfriends among the pool of scrubs that constituted “the regions.” Every time one of these ingénues headed for the copy desk, all eyes would follow. The one female copy editor — a bright redhead — also had a boyfriend in the regions. They got married.
Eventually the excitement would wear off. You’d grow weary of being up until 3 a.m. every morning, wondering if you’d make it home before the sun rose. I once read a story I’d written two months before and couldn’t remember a single thing about it. It was being like a fireman, jumping up off and running to some emergency every time the bell rang. You’d watch the old- timers pecking away with one finger because they’d never learned to touch-type and realize it was time to move on. Most of my fellow reporters ended up at the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Newsweek. I still see their names all the time.
Yet there was a romance to those all-night, lobster-shift adventures that’s never been replaced — the thrill of writing tomorrow’s headlines while the world slept.
One memorable occasion summed it all up for me. I was just finishing up my last police calls at 2 a.m. when a laconic policeman’s voice came on at the other end of the line.
“Any accidents or arrests,” I asked.
“No,” he said.
“Anything else worth reporting.”
“Well…there’s one thing here that might interest you.”
“What is it?” It was like pulling teeth.
“There’s a report here that at 1 a.m. this morning, as the district attorney was riding home after staying very late at his office, someone on an isolated road in the western end of the county fired a bullet into his car. The matter is under investigation.”
I slammed down the phone. The only person left in the office was a curmudgeonly old copy editor who wore sleeve garters, smoked a cigar and hadn’t cracked a smile in the two years I’d known him.
“Hold the front page,” I shouted to him. “Somebody just tried to kill the D.A.”
The copy editor’s face lit up with rapture. He dropped his cigar, jumped out of his chair, pumped his fist in the air and shouted, “Yippeeee!”
I miss those days.