Sunday, November 17, 2013

Al MacLeese: A throwback to the way newspapers used to be. Buy this book!

My 30-year journalism career spanned 1977-2007, it was a transitional time filled with great joy, excitement and frustration. It was also the time that saw the end of newspaper characters like Al MacLeese, who became strangers in a strange land as newspapers went from being tough, hard scrabble denizens of characters to polite, orderly and antiseptic warehouses of young, healthy news gatherers.
During my time I had the great fortune to meet a few of the old school folks like MacLeese. I actually did meet MacLeese a couple times, but I didn’t know him like Roger Van Noord and others at the Journal, and frankly dozens of newspapers knew him over his long and turbulent career.

Using years of MacLeese’s own recollections, through e-mails – during the times he could afford Internet access – or through snail mail Roger Van Noord has used his own great story telling skills to weave a biography into a pseudo autobiography about  a man who truly represents what was great and bad about journalism in the old days.
Unlike Ed Snowden, the American who took all our nasty secrets to Russia without permission, Roger had MacLeese’s consent for his e-mail and data collection. None of MacLeese’s secrets will endanger our national security or result in the death of any spies.

MacLeese didn't worry about 401ks or savings accounts and it later showed in his life, but you get the feeling that MacLeese worried more about living than dying so he worried about the important things, where to get his next drink or blunt. I'm a Christian so he would not have cared much for me, but through his writings he did as much to help people as many Christians will ever do.

“Unleashed” is a glimpse into the “good old days” of journalism, not that all will see it that way. You can find it on Amazon and for me it was a quick read. Roger can turn a phrase with the best of them, including MacLeese.  If you remember the good old days, buy the book. If you are young and missed the good old days, buy the book. It’s cheap enough even for the wages they pay today's news gatherers or "content professionals" or whatever they call what it today.
You can read it while you head to Yoga class or while you watch the kids at soccer practice, both of which were unheard of activities for reporters in MacLeese’s days.

Unfortunately for my own good health, I started thinking about the book at 4 a.m. this morning when my aging prostate forced me up early to the bathroom and then my brain kicked in and thoughts turned to Roger’s book and all the characters I had met over the years. Finally a two-hour mental tour of my own newsrooms  kept awake until I was forced to abandon wife and bed to write this review/reflection for my blog.
Journalism, or to be more precise and accurate, newspaper work has always attracted engaged Type A personalities. It used to attract talented folks, many who came with baggage like alcoholism and gasp, cigarette smoke. It still attracts talent folks, but with pre-employment drug tests they have to travel with lighter personal luggage today.

During my insomnia this morning I was thinking of the late, great reporter I worked with at the Oakland Press – Jean Saile. I loved her, she, like MacLeese, was right out of “Front Page.” Jean could be affectionately and not politically correctly referred to as a “newspaper broad.”
I used to watch Jean type a story on the old Atex system, a cigarette, with a curved long ash, hanging dangerously over her keyboard as she pecked away at her story. She was probably in her late 60s or 70s when the Press banned newsroom smoking in the early 1980s. On the day the ban went into effect, she quit the newspaper forever. We thought she was joking when she told us she would quit if she couldn’t smoke in the newsroom. She proved us wrong. Some people thought she smelled of smoke, I always thought she smelled of news.

She had a screechy voice, not unlike Edith Bunker (for you younger folks simply Google "All In the Family" and watch a few You Tube clips). The voice would escalate and get louder as the story got more important and closer to deadline. I miss that voice. To me it was the song of the newsroom.

When my good friend and editor, Larry Laurain died of cancer in 1985, Jean bought me a new bottle of Jack Daniels (I was still drinking in those days) so I could continue to spike my morning rewrite coffee with a little inspiration each day. Eventually, and not too long after, I had to take the 12 steps to rid myself of  the demon rum.  I'm clean and sober now, but probably not as much fun.
We had a female food editor who was another character at the Press. She had the nasty habit of printing recipes in the Sunday features section that sometimes did not include all the ingredients. That meant for me, the hapless Sunday reporter, that I had to track her down on a Sunday afternoon so I could find out just how much Pineapple you were supposed to add to the “Pineapple Upside Down” cake recipe she had published that morning for some woman in Orchard Park. Little things, but Sybil was a character. You would not find her in a newsroom today. Maybe some folks are happy about that, but I’m not.

There were many more characters that I came across, I remember a Detroit TV anchor – Bill Bonds – who was a hard drinking a-hole who once called me a “turkey” on the air for a column I wrote about him that was none too flattering. We exchanged unpleasantries on the phone, but later he offered me his left over French fries at the Detroit Press Club. I just looked at him quizzingly when he handed me his plate. For the record, I didn't eat the fries, although I was tempted.
The newsrooms I lived in had tension, arguments, heck sometimes editors and reporters would nearly come to blows, but it was because we had passion about what we were doing.

I can only imagine if a reporter threatened to rearrange an editor’s face in today’s world, they would likely be sent to some “anger management” clinic for an extended stay to heal them from the problem. In MacLeese’s days editors and reporters “made up” by going to a nearby gin mill and soaking their disagreements in gin, vodka, bourbon, but hardly ever scotch.
Now before you think I’m advocating a return to those boozy, fun-filled days of the past, I’m not. They had their place, but they were very destructive to the people involved. Roger’s book will give you all the evidence you need of that as it relates to just one man.

Al alienated friends and family alike with his self-centered and destructive behavior. But he was a genius at a typewriter/keyboard and he did what we were told to do in that day, “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
Hopefully, today’s “new” journalists will work to continue the tradition of affliction, even if they’ll have to find a way to do it at clean and orderly desks that don’t include a bottle of Jack Daniels in the drawer.

For those who knew the “old” newspaper office, it was harder and harder to live in the “new” newspaper office. Probably because it felt more like an “office” than a news room.
As I recall more stories and personalities from the old days, I’ll start posting them here, probably for no other reason that I need my sleep and I don’t want to think about these folks at 4 a.m.

Next up, ” election nights when they were really election nights.”

(Eds note: I have no idea why the font size shrunk, I'm calling together a meeting of the computer squirrels I work with to see if I can fix this, until then I'm sorry)