, , , , , ,


Frank-Journal News Pix

Frank, at the Journal News, working the slot on the news desk.

I am part of an ever-growing fraternity – former newspaper journalists. It has been sad to see the industry implode over the last three decades. Like most people who have worked in newspapers, I wish I was still doing it. But the combination of poor pay, anti-social working hours, and an industry that has been slowly going out of business for a generation, has produced a diaspora of journalists. My journey from newspaperman to lawyer/blogger is typical.

In my junior year of college, I started writing for the college newspaper. I loved it so much that I arranged an internship with the Telegram & Gazette in Worcester, Massachusetts for my senior year. Over the summer before my senior year, I worked on a local weekly in my hometown. This was back in the days when newspapers were printed using linotype machines. These now-extinct machines consisted of a keyboard that created lines of type (similar to the striking keys on a typewriter) out of molten lead. As might be expected by the last two words of the previous sentence, this machine threw off a lot of heat – hence the term “hot type.”

My job at the Lodi Messenger included melting down the previous edition’s lines of type, and making the long lead cylinders (called “pigs”) that fueled the linotype machine. In my spare time, I also re-wrote press releases and proofread the newspaper. This prepared me well for my internship at the Worcester Telegram & Gazette (T&G).

At the T&G, I was placed on the copy desk. This was a horseshoe-shaped desk. The copy editors like me sat along the outside of the horseshoe – called the “rim.” And the chief of the copy desk sat on the inside of the horseshoe – called the “slot.” The slotman’s job was to assign copy to the editors on the rim. Sometimes the copy needed a full editing job. Other times, it was wire copy from the Associated Press or some other wire service, and we would just scan it for obvious errors and then write a headline.

Headline writing is an art. Editors are always looking for a clever hed that will draw readers into the story, while fitting the allotted space. The New York Daily News had some of the best headline writers ever. People still quote “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD,” more than 35 years after it appeared. Humor was highly prized as long as it was in good taste. We were, after all, a family newspaper and that meant something back then. While newspapers did not have a federally-mandated list of words they could not use, they all exercised self-censorship in the cause of good taste. Words like “penis” never appeared in newspapers. One newspaper I worked for banned the word “Mafia” because they thought it might upset Italian-Americans.

Anyway, I had a great time working on the T&G copydesk, and after graduation, I found a job doing the same job on a daily paper in Westchester County, New York beginning in 1975. I worked every shift imaginable, and in just about every editorial department. I loved the fact that every day was different, the work required creativity, and that at the end of the day you got to take home your day’s work in your hands. And each day was a clean slate.

Then in 1980, CNN was founded. It had an immediate effect on newspapers. Editors felt they could no longer compete on breaking news. The focus changed from news to analysis. Deadlines of formerly afternoon newspapers were adjusted so that papers would be available for the morning commute. That way, the production and distribution time between the writing of the newspaper and its availability to the public would take place at an hour when news was not likely to happen.

I saw the writing on the wall. I applied to law school to have a parachute out of what I saw even then as a dying industry. The year I left the newspaper business – 1984 – was the peak year in number of papers sold daily. The total daily circulation numbers have been going down ever since. The coming of the Internet just hastened the decline.

And so, here we all are on the World Wide Web. We are in the age of do-it-yourself journalism. Unsubstantiated rumor stands on an even par with double-sourced facts. There is no money for proofreaders, or even copy editors. Twitter is touted as a news source. It’s depressing for those of us who remember when journalism was a profession and journalists were professionals.

With newspapers cutting back their staffs, or closing altogether, former journalists can be found doing just about every job imaginable. Some of us are lawyers. Others have tried to eke out a living in public relations, advertising and even as teachers. But I think we all miss the excitement of crafting a quality newspaper on deadline. For me, there is no joy in being right 30 years ago about the decline of the newspaper business. It has not been pretty watching the decline. All I can hope for is that new online organizations will arise from the ashes and bring back the professionalism and respect that once caused print journalism to be reverentially referred to as the Fourth Estate.