Maureen Dowd’s column in the New York Times last weekend poured one out for the old-time newsroom:
I’m mystified when I hear that so many of our 20-something news assistants prefer to work from home. At that age, I would have had a hard time finding mentors or friends or boyfriends if I hadn’t been in the newsroom, and I never could have latched onto so many breaking stories if I hadn’t raised my hand and said, “I’ll go.”
Mary McGrory, the liberal lioness columnist, never would have gotten to know me at The Star, so I never would have gotten invitations from her years later like this one: “Let’s go see Yasir Arafat at the White House and go shopping!”
As Mayer recalled, when a big story broke at The Star: “You could see history happening. People would cluster over a reporter’s desk, pile into the boss’s office, and sometimes break into incredibly loud fights. There were weirdos in newsrooms, and fabulous role models occasionally, and the spirit of being part of a motley entourage. Now, it’s just you and the little cursor on your screen.”
Dowd’s column toasts a lot of the things that I loved about newsrooms: The weird quirkiness of working with a group of people just this side of the cantina scene from “Star Wars,” the post-work drink/cuss sessions, the adrenaline pulsing through the entire building when a major story was in the works.
All of these things were fun, although I often wonder if most of them would exist today in our sterile, HR-driven, “watch these videos on (fill in the topic of the day that people fear getting sued over) so we can say we told you not to do X” environment. A veteran reporter once told me about his time as a newsroom cub when he got to know the veteran cops reporter. The woman, a rarity at that time, used to bring a six-pack of Pabst to the police station to loosen the tongues the cops she knew. She also carried a two-shot Derringer in her purse.
(I’d be more skeptical, except the source is one of the best journalists I’ve ever met. I’m still not good enough to carry that guy’s typewriter. Oh, and at one point when I complained of a headache and asked if he had something to ease the pain, he directed me to one of his desk drawers, which contained a fifth of some rot-gut vodka.)
Although it’s easy to look at the past with rose-colored glasses, I’m sure the newsrooms from “back in the day” weren’t all that great for women, people of color, non-Christians and other folks along those lines. However, the concept of a newsroom, that central junction point for people and ideas to germinate, remains essential to journalism for a number of reasons:
SIMPLE CONNECTIONS: As much as the internet connects us, it also allows us to be isolated in ways not possible in the newsroom of old. Yes, we can look up much more information online than we could get from a grouchy old copy editor who memorized the AP style guide and still remembers who won the mayoral run-off election back in 1963.
That said, I know that when I was working on a story that crossed news and sports boundaries, for example, I could walk 10 feet across the room to one of the sports folks and ask a couple questions about how they would approach a specific aspect of the story. The same was true when one of them needed some help on a story that involved an aspect of crime.
When I needed more context for a photo for which I had to write a caption, I could duck back into the photo bubble and ask the shooter what caught their eye. When the shooter had some information that mattered to the captions, I often got a visit at my desk. (I could always tell when something was important to Joe Jackson, one of my favorite photo folks, because he’d quietly place his hand softly on my shoulder before saying, “When I was taking this shot, I was seeing/thinking/feeling…” It made my job much easier and it helped me to better understand what to look for in quality photos.)
Years later, as an adviser, I knew that if I was in the newsroom, the kids would ask me to look at a layout or check a headline. They’d also yell, “Hey, Vince, is (X) a real word?” and I could yell back, “Not unless the dictionary’s changed in the last 5 minutes.” I also knew that they wouldn’t bother to call my house or email me to get those answers if I hadn’t been there.
COLLECTIVE WISDOM: Again, not to harp on how technology has changed us, but knowledge and wisdom aren’t the same thing. By merely being around good people who were doing their jobs well, I was better able to improve my own craft.
As I mentioned in a previous post, my desk at the State Journal was jammed up against the one Pat Simms occupied, putting me in the perfect position to basically get smarter through osmosis. I could hear how she used strong questions to quash BS answers before they could get started. I listened to how she worked a source until she was sure she had the best version of whatever the story was from that person. I also learned how to turn a story around quickly, with limited time and even less flab.
Spending time near editors like Phil Glende and Teryl Franklin (to name only a few) gave me a sense of how to find holes in a story and how to fix them if the reporter couldn’t. I watched the copy desk clean the copy thoroughly and quickly by figuring out who could do what the best and making sure that person got that specific job. In a lot of ways, watching the pros operate in person was like watching an orchestra perform live. (Some days it looked like Cirque du Soleil being performed with chainsaws on an oil-slicked linoleum floor, to be fair.)
It’s not the same when it’s not live.
SOCIAL NORMS: One of the best journal articles I ever read for my doctoral program was Warren Breed’s 1955 study of social norming within a newsroom. Breed examined the ways in which knowledge and practice was shared among those in a newsroom and found that journalists tended to eschew formal documents or written policies. Instead, they shared information one to another as a way of training younger generations to behave as those before them had.
Reflecting on his seminal study more than 40 years later, Breed recalled how he was writing about a parade of some kind and an older journalist advised him to hype up the patriotism. The vet mentioned that he should start with something about the bands playing and the flags flying. Breed did as he had been advised and was later praised for his effort. A few years later, he found himself doling out similar advice to a novice writer, who also led his story with the image of flags waving and bands performing.
The idea can seem a little problematic in some ways, especially if you realize that this can really narrow the view of what makes for “news” or how to “do news right.” However, a lot of the norms that I picked up in the newsroom meant a lot in terms of imbuing me with some important lessons.
For example, it’s easy to blow off a deadline (or a demanding editor, who is steaming over your inability to make a deadline) if you’re in your home 50 miles from the editor in question. However, when I watched a person blow a deadline by five minutes and then saw that five minutes turn into 10 more at the editor’s desk and 15 more at the copy desk, I saw the chain reaction associated with that failure. In addition, I knew when an editor was circling my desk like a shark, I stepped on the gas pedal a little harder in banging out whatever I was working on.
Even more, a lot of social norms that matter more now than ever get passed down from our mentors in a one-on-one situation. I know that journalistic malfeasance has happened as long as journalism has been around, but I know that feeling a stronger collective “we” made any one person less likely to take the easy way out. I can’t imagine having to see Teryl every day if I had faked a source, got caught and had to live with it in that newsroom. A random editor halfway across the country that I never met? I’d like to think I’d be just as honest, but I can’t say for sure.
I learned from folks like George Hesselberg that we get stuff right all the time. That’s a value that came from his mentor and I’m sure it came from someone else all the way back into an even further bygone era. The norms we shared remain in my mind to this day as well as the bonds of friendship we still share today.
FAMILY: This may be a bit more Polly-Anna-ish and more like what Dowd was talking about, but I have to admit, newsrooms and the people I met in them became like a second family to me.
(We used to joke at the Daily Cardinal that we were a family, in that we all drank and hurt one another, but I digress… Besides, the godparents of my kid came from that newsroom, so it couldn’t have been all bad…)
I’ve yet to hear a student come back to campus for a “Reporting Class” reunion or a “J-412 Tenth Anniversary Celebration,” but they come back for student media events. They reconnect with people who chewed the same dirt as they did in the windowless bunker that the university provided as a newsroom, where the coffee pot always burned everything to a crisp and the carpet smelled like wet feet.
They also connect with others from previous generations who have been through the same kinds of things. Just having lived through that experience makes them kindred spirits.
To lose those connective threads seems so sad to me, and I’m not even a people person.