When I worked at a radio news station in the late 80s, when I was about 20, I would often saunter into the newsroom a half hour before my shift started, so that I could sit down with a sandwich and a bottle of apple juice, and page through the newsroom’s copies of The Washington Post and a couple local papers. I also enjoyed watching the experienced pros put together the noon news report, and watching through the windows of the broadcast studio as they read their copy and played their tapes.
Once, a senior staff member who apparently didn’t know my schedule snapped at me for loafing, and gave me a task.
I saw the other staff members exchanging pained expressions; they seemed willing to jump in to defend me if necessary, but a big deadline was looming and nobody had time for drama.
I just put down my paper, made the recording he had asked for, and then returned to my chair, picked up the comics section, and made a point to chuckle out loud periodically until my shift actually started.
During downtime later in the day, that staff member (I forget his exact job title but he was ranked #3 in the hierarchy) didn’t exactly apologize, but he did admit he wasn’t aware when I was scheduled to start.
I interned part time in that newsroom for two semesters, and followed up with a paid full-time summer job, where I learned a lot trying fill in for my colleagues as one by one they took their vacations. Before that summer was over, I was delivering live newscasts, and I remember at least a handful of Friday nights when I was the only person in the newsroom.
But I spent a lot of time in a busy open newsroom, with four or five reel-to-reel editing workstations. I heard the seasoned reporters making phone calls calling in favors, or bucking each other up with vulgar nicknames after a rough day. They sat down with me to explain things I hadn’t learned as a student journalist, and they reworked my copy to be more clear about uncertainty, to be more sympathetic to the victims of crimes, to be more neutral towards those suspected of crimes, and to avoid romanticizing cops. (Forgive me; I was young and naive.)
One staff member’s way to say variations of “I volunteer to cover that story” or “that’s a promising lead” or “what an elegantly phrased and expertly timed introduction” was to incline his microphone at a particular angle. The more enthusiastic his response, the more upright the angle. He was very good at manipulating his microphone in different ways to communicate various other emotional states that I’ll leave to your imagination.
Among my favorite stories involved some out-of-towners who applied for a license to run a campground but neglected to mention the facility would be “clothing optional.” I also researched a 20-year perspective on Hurricane Camille, broke a story about the local jail banning tobacco, and did my best to be respectful while reporting about a man who ran over his child with a power mower. (Even though my kids are in their 20s now, every time I start the mower I think of that story and make a mental note about where my kids are, and where the neighbors’ kids are. Maybe someone else who heard that story did the same thing, and avoided further tragedy.)
At a staff meeting near the end of that summer, the same seasoned pro who had snapped at me a few months earlier was losing an argument about about some change that was scheduled to kick in after I had left.
This staff member pointed to a shelf of “carts” (audio cartridges, that looked like 8-track tapes) and said, “Look at this backlog of solid stories we haven’t had time to air. We wouldn’t be in such good shape without Dennis on the staff.”
He had given me lots of valuable mentorship and many direct compliments, but I thought it was a high indirect compliment that, even after he knew he was losing his argument, he felt my accomplishments would help him score a few spite points on his way down.
I really felt like I belonged.
When my summer position ended and I had to go back for my senior year of college, the boss said she’d gladly hire me full time if she had an opening. I stayed in touch — volunteering to work on Election Day, and once showing up with actors from a summer repertory theatre company to record some ads.
A few years later when a newsroom position did open up, I was already committed to grad school, so I did not apply.
Some 35 years later, I teach journalism for about 1/4 of my course load, and I often think of that newsroom and my life that might have been.
“What would a newspaper movie look like today?” wondered my New York Times colleague Jim Rutenberg. “A bunch of individuals at their apartments, surrounded by sad houseplants, using Slack?”
The legendary percussive soundtrack of a paper’s newsroom in the 1940s was best described by the Times culture czar Arthur Gelb in his memoir, “City Room”: “There was an overwhelming sense of purpose, fire and life: the clacking rhythm of typewriters, the throbbing of great machines in the composing room on the floor above, reporters shouting for copy boys to pick up their stories.” There was also the pungent aroma of vice: a carpet of cigarette butts, clerks who were part-time bookies, dice games, brass spittoons and a glamorous movie-star mistress wandering about. (The Times never went as far as Cary Grant’s editor did in “His Girl Friday,” putting a pickpocket on the payroll.)
Forty years later, when I began working in the Times newsroom, it was still electric and full of eccentric characters. The green eyeshades were gone, and nobody yelled “Hat and coat!” to send you out on breaking news. And it was quieter as it computerized. —NY Times