Letter to Romenesko
From STEVEN A. SMITH, former editor of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, WA, and now a clinical assistant professor of journalism at the University of Idaho: It is the news out of New Orleans last week (and news out of Denver re: no more copy editors, and so on) that prompts me to write you. I have been reminded of one of my old blog posts, from July 2008. I wrote “Still a Newspaperman” in the middle of a sleepless night after learning from my publisher that after years of cost-cuttting and staff reductions, I still would have to lay off one third of my remaining staff. I resigned two months later.
The post is just a bit of one-take nostalgic romanticism. I know too well that all so-called golden years had decidedly un-golden elements. Furthermore, I don’t make a habit of living in the past. I always tried, still try, to focus on the future. I am quite optimistic about the future of journalism and my journalism students. But there is no future for newspapers and it is not a sin against the new to mourn the old.
In any event, I thought I would send this bit of business (file attached) to you once again. At the time of the post, it generated about 2,000 comments, emails, phone calls and other responses, the most I ever received. Some liked the sentiment. Some were happy to see the old guard go.
The post apparently meant something to a few people then. It means something to me still.
I am still a newspaperman.
For some unexplainable reason, I am compelled to say that tonight.
Something is coming, some turn in the media universe, a turn in the future of my newspaper. A turn that will mean the end of me, of us. There will be reporters. Editors. Something called online producers and multimedia coordinators. Mojos. Slojos and Nojos. Bloggers, froggers and twitters.
But there won’t be newspapermen.
At 58, I am among the last of a dying breed.
And what a breed it was. An American archetype.
A newspaperman was a writer. An author. The true, first voice of history.
A newspaperman chronicled the life of his times on old Remingtons with faded ribbons. A newspaperman wrote on copy paper, one story in one take. If he wanted a copy, he used carbon paper. If it didn’t sing, it was spiked.
A newspaperman edited with pencils and always had a ready stack, freshly sharpened, at the start of every shift. A newspaperman smoked at his desk. And if the managing editor wasn’t paying too much attention, he might steal a drink, too. A newspaperman knew how to eat well and finish off the meal with a stiff drink and a fine cigar — all on the company dime./CONTINUES
A newspaperman wore black slacks, a bit worn. A short-sleeved white shirt and a thin black necktie. A newspaperman owned one pair of black wingtips for his entire career.
A newspaperman had nicknames, raunchy, rude and unashamedly affectionate nicknames, for all of the linotype operators in the basement. A newspaperman reveled in the composing room heat, the smells of melted lead and oily black ink.
But the newspaperman was most at home in the newsroom. A loud, smoky, smelly place. Wire machines. Real phones with loud rings. The morning news meeting held in the men’s room, the last two stalls on the right, each editor doing his business while conducting business.
The newsroom was a place of boisterous rough housing, crude jokes and tough insults, none taken too seriously, unless they were taken seriously, in which case there might be a bit of a ruckus, maybe a swing or two.
And the characters. The copy editor who barked like a dog. The old city editor who ate reheated fish for lunch. The former war correspondent, hobbling around on one leg, the other lost to drink not combat.
The newsroom was no place for the meek. The young newspaperman knew that when the managing editor threw a coffee cup at his head, the proper recourse was to duck. There was no HR department ready to take a complaint.
The older newspapermen had their heroes. Ben Franklin. John Peter Zenger. Horace Greeley. William Randolph Hearst. Joseph Pulitzer, maybe. William Allen White certainly. And because he had the heart of a newspaperman, Edward R. Murrow and, later, maybe Walter Cronkite.
For the aspiring newspaperman, heroes were the veterans who welcomed him into the newsroom, all the while expecting he would stay quiet, pay his dues and eventually prove himself under fire. The brightest, most ambitious, most talented young newspapermen were grateful for every day they were able to work next to these great, principled and talented men.
Of course, they were not all men. And in this politically correct world, there are some who think the term “newspaperman” is inherently sexist. But the greatest newspaperman with whom I ever worked was Deborah Howell. Don’t tell me Deborah Howell isn’t a newspaperman. In our world, it was the newspaper that defined us, not gender.
A newspaperman knew the meaning of a deadline. He felt a chill when the presses rumbled at midnight and would look for a reason to be in the press room, slipping an early run paper from the conveyor to give the front page a quick look and maybe also to see his byline in print.
Newspapermen worked hard and played hard. The bartender at the dive across the street knew how many beers each reporter could consume between editions. And after the last edition went to press, the bar lights would be turned up just enough to let the newspapermen read those papers pulled fresh from the press.
The newspaperman was respected in the community. There was a mystique, a glamour that really didn’t exist but which the newspaperman happily cultivated. In the movies, the editors were Cary Grant. Or Clark Gable. Or Jack Webb. Or Humphrey Bogart, the greatest of all.
The young newspaperman wanted to be Bogie, standing in the press room, screaming into the phone, “That’s the press, baby.” The young newspaperman aspired to challenge authority, defend the defenseless and right wrongs. If he was a Don Quixote with a pen, his windmills were politicians, bureaucrats, crooks and thugs. He thought of his job as a calling and truth was his holy grail.
The old newspapermen have died or are dying. One of my great mentors, Dan Wyant, passed away just a week or two ago. The younger, my generation, are fading, too, facing a future in which journalists serve products and platforms not communities and their newspapers. The young turks have become the old farts. We pray at the old altars. We worship the old gods.
The new media moguls have their shiny new religion. And our passing is seen by them as both timely and just. But there is more to be lost than warm, rosy recollections. It’s not all about nostalgia.
No instrument will ever serve the public interest so relentlessly as the daily newspaper. New media will successfully distribute data and information. “Communities of interest” will develop around niche products. And while print newspapers will survive to serve a small, elite audience, they never again will serve the larger geographic communities that gave them life and purpose. Democracy will have to find a new public square.
Even as I try to articulate a coherent and meaningful future for my newspaper and my craft, even as I struggle to innovate, to experiment, to manage a frightened workforce, I weep for what is lost. Oh, I still hang on to the trappings. The fedora. The rumpled raincoat. I have the aging wingtips and 25-year-old ties. My battered old typewriter can still churn out memos. But the life I aspired to, that has defined me for nearly 40 years, is going, is mostly gone.
It is a sad thing. And tonight, I find myself mourning the fading, disappearing American newspaperman, the bison of the information age. The wooly mammoth and, bless us, the dodo.
Tomorrow I’ll try to think again about what happens next.