Tuesday, July 14, 2009

What we miss: Each other

When I talk to my former newspaper colleagues we agree on the one thing we all miss. The daily interaction with each other.

Not that we all thought alike, or agreed with each other. Far from it. What is missed is the excitement of working on stories, sharing ideas, war stories and working together to produce a product that was here for a few hours and then on to the next edition.

Sort of like an intellectual disposable drink cup. There is nothing like the rush we got when we clamped onto a good story and refused to let go. Admittedly, most good reporters are adrenalin junkies. That's what makes them a lot like police officers and fire fighters.

Off blog, I've been exchanging messages with a former colleague, a photographer, about all the nasty and depressing things we witnessed in our careers. Bodies, wounds, tangled metal, mutilated lives and destroyed homes.

After nearly 18 months off the job, I have decompressed, others are in the process of decompressing. Where police officers, fire fighters and medical responders get counseling help or debriefings provided by enlightened companies, reporters who experience some of the same stress from dealing with tragedy get zip, zero, nada from their employers.

There were a few times in my career that I went to my editor (a good one, no longer employed) and told her I need a few days or weeks off from dealing with the endless string of deaths and injuries and she would take me off the death rotation. As a former police reporter herself, she got it.

Editors who rarely, if ever, dealt with the dead, dying or their families, thought nothing of asking reporters to do that very stressful and difficult work with no concern for what it was doing to their psyche. They were too busy worrying about whether desks were too messy to worry about what was going on with the mental well being of their employees.

At the same time that fewer reporters are available to do the difficult work they have to do, they are also dealing with reduced salary and benefits. A combination surely designed to increase unhealthy stress for editorial employees.

One of the things we could always fall back on was our friends in the newsroom. We could laugh together and grieve together, but with the wholesale layoffs and buyouts those support systems are largely gone.

Over the years, we exchanged tacky souvenirs from trips taken. We always looked for a cheap trinket on our trips to bring home and share with our friends in the newsroom. I still have my refrigerator magnets, Eifel Tower pencil sharpener, and miniature Roman Colisseum in my box of stuff I took off my desk during my last week. At Christmas we exchanged small gifts in groups.

During my time at the Oakland Press, I started a collection of snow globes that came, thanks to my colleagues, from all over the world. I have a box of more than 100 of them in my attic, most now without water. People loved that collection, but it eventually had to be taken home, an edict of the "clean-up-the-newsroom" crowd.

At the Flint Journal, there used to be a "ghoul pool" in which some reporters (I never participated) bet on which celebrities would die in the coming year. Sure it was ghoulish, but it was a release from the pressure and sadness we faced daily.

There were also betting pools on the Academy Awards and the NCAA Basketball Tournament. I also never participated in these, because technically they are illegal and I didn't want to be in a position where I might have to write a story about a gambling issue outside the paper while violating the same law inside it.

The annual "Bounce the Chicken Day" celebration, which included foods specifically related to chickens and eggs started when a goofy press photo of a rubber chicken being bounced up and down on a blanket made it to Page 1. Every year after that, on the same date, there would be a chicked to be found somewhere on Page 1 and a huge banquet of chicken and egg related food in the newsroom. It was great fun and it too was a release from the seriousness of what we did.

One of my favorite copy editors (although she will find that a surprise) started an annual pool and contest to pick the winner on American Idol. She made up a stage, complete with American Idol logo, and photos of the contestants on sticks that were eliminated each week with the vote.

The stage included a desk with the three famous Idol judges as well.

We looked out for each other. My buddy Kim, the one whose life I ruined by hiring him as a reporter at The State News back in 1978, asked an intern to bring me and a photographer a cup of coffee during an long running armed stand off in north Flint.

The intern, a woman, bristled at the suggestion that she should be an "errand girl" for two men just because we had been outside in below zero temperatures for more than four hours. Kim explained to her that reporters look out for each other and if he hadn't been busy on rewrite, he would have brought it to us.

In the end she didn't like it, but she dropped off our coffee. Maybe later in her career she figured out what Kim was saying. There were many times that I took coffee or relieved a reporter on a crime scene so they could get out of the cold or get a meal. It's just what we did for each other.

Heck, the bosses would cringe if they had known it at the time, but we often bought and delivered coffee to the cops and fire fighters who were stuck out in the cold with us. It was just a human thing to do. Didn't hurt when it came time to get the story either.

Once, when we had an intern that was pretty full of himself, we organized a "hat" day. The intern, thinking he looked cool, was wearing a snap brim fedora everyday like he was some character out of a 1930s "Front Page" flick.

So we all got together and agreed to wear different kinds of hats so when he arrived at the office he might get the hint. We had people wearing football and hockey helmets, every manner of ball cap, crowns, newsprint hats, stocking caps, cowboy hats (me). When he walked in the room, he noticed the array of hats, smiled and asked, "is this about me?"

We all got a good laugh from it and the young man didn't take himself quite so seriously after that. A newsroom that isn't fun, isn't really a good newsroom.

Tomorrow: A word about sources.


MaryAnn Chick Whiteside said...

Wasn't the first chicken photo the day the paper learned it was "newspaper of the year?"

Thanks for the memories. You made me homesick :)

Jim of L-Town said...

You may very well be right. The annual chicken photo/story was kind of an inside joke. It was a harmless little distraction that would probably cause some journalism ethics prof to tear out his hair.

No harm, no fowl. (spelled incorrectly on purpose. Ouch.

Anonymous said...

Jim: A very nice essay that captures the essence of the camaraderie of the newsroom. Thanks for the memories.

jamorrison1 said...

It was something special, wasn't it?

Anonymous said...

Aww, thank you, Jim! Not only for the wonderful comment (I am indeed surprised, you cranky old fart), but for the trip down memory lane.

We had A LOT of fun over the years, and still we were pretty darned good at what we did. Funny how that works.

One of my first memories at The Journal (in 1999 ... time flies!) was walking up and asking you if you had a Bible I could borrow (someone had said if anyone did, it would be you). You kept saying, "A what? A bobble?"

I never really lost my Kentucky accent, but somehow we all came to understand one another. I love and miss all you guys tremendously.


Anonymous said...

Great stories.

Remember the crazy Xmas contest in which each pod (grouping of desks) tried to out compete each other for the most Xmas spirit? There was the pod with all the wild game food. There was the pod with the carolers. And, of course, how about the pod with the animatronic Santa Claus and the real miniature pony/reindeer.

What a December that was!

Jim of L-Town said...

Ah Misty, my favorite copy editor. I love the photos of your little one on Facebook. (My youngest little one is now 24). And, as I recall, I always had a Bible on my desk.

Yes, those were great times. Christmas, yes, was a very special time. My favorite editor (jm) also had lights and extra special decorations. I had forgotten about the carol singers.

The amazing thing was, despite all the fun, we produced some great stories. Maybe it was BECAUSE of the fun that we produced those great stories.

Anonymous said...

Great piece, Jim. I've been thinking about that a lot lately down here in AA, where The News closes in 8 publication days after today. It's sad, really, and it makes it worse that a selected few get jobs and the rest of their colleagues get a tiny severance and perhaps a hot dog or two -- if we're lucky. I hope they don't pit friends against each other when they do this in GR, New Orleans, Portland, or other "wired" communities next time.

Anonymous said...

Remember the time reporter S.Y. paid to have the whole newsroom filled with balloons? It was beautiful. I miss those days.

Cooley's Dictum said...

Jim -- I won't mention last names but is your buddy Kim the same guy that published a civil war history of a Flint regiment a few years back? If so, I would like to contact him if you know how that can be accomplished. I need to know if he ever got the Smith manuscript published.

I've googled his name forward, backward, inside out but because of the name, what google returns are three gazillion hits for the fashion model and two gazillion hits for the winery.

I believe he took the buyout sometime after 2005.

Can you help me and, if so, is there some private way for me to get you my email address so Kim can get back to me?

pam said...

I want to work in a newsroom! You guys sound like a blast! Heck, can I have a job delivering coffee? I'd love it! A boss that makes an American Idol Stage? Oh my gawd, I'd be the best employee she ever had, just because she has fun and a sense of humor.

Jim you are so right. A newsroom, or any work environment for that matter, should be fun, pleasant. It would behoove alot of upper management to figure this out. My last few jobs have been in fun environments and its amazing how much more work you get out of people when they enjoy being there. Not to mention the loyalty. Creativity flows much better among people that are happy, joyful and relaxed.

You all have enlightened me to the hard work involved in the newspaper, which so many of us take for granted as just being. I now stop to think about the effort and dedication it must take to report interesting and responsible news. I think this blog brings light to the significance of the newspaper in our culture and I appreciate mine more and more each morning.

Remember cutting out current event articles to share at school? Do schools still foster that assignment?

Jim of L-Town said...

Cooley's Dictum:

You are right about Kim. Contact me at my e-mail address:


And the answer to your question is, sadly, he has not yet found a publisher for the Smith book.

Anonymous said...

I remember that intern with the hat well. As a fellow intern at the time, I was honored to be let in on the joke beforehand and wore my cowboy hat that day, too. Made me feel like a member of the team. Thanks, Jim.