IT USED TO be such fun, back before The Meltdown in the news business that I've known and loved for more than four decades. The week that marks the 180th anniversary of the
seems like an appropriate moment to do a little reminiscing about the colorful business for which the obituaries have already been written.
Newsrooms in those days were filled with characters, like a guy I worked with with the nickname "Baron von Booze." Or another who'd sleep through his shift at the police station, then wake in terror that the reporter from the other paper had actually worked in the previous eight hours.
Back on a horrible day in November 1963, I found myself working in a newsroom overseas, for a real relic, an afternoon paper. What happened in Dallas at 12:30 p.m. that day happened at 5:30 a.m. where I was.
Our boss rousted everyone out of bed by phone, starting an incredible few hours. The editors discovered that the paper had no advance obit for the president. So a talented reporter named Ian, a balding, red-haired chain smoker, was charged with writing one. Pronto. In two hours.
The newspaper library coughed up the raw material of those pre-computer days: small brown envelopes filled with news clippings. In JFK's case, dozens of envelopes. Ian's job was to digest this mountain of clips, then write a comprehensive obit of the president. On deadline.
THEY BROUGHT a typist into the newsroom so he didn't have to actually punch the keys on the old black typewriter. What a scene: He paced the narrow aisle between desks, up and down, lighting one Rothman's after another, often using the end of one to light the next.
He'd read the clips, dictate a few sentences, pace, smoke, read - and dictate. It was masterful. Somewhere, that paper is in my attic in a box. But the memory of his skill is still vivid. I think we were on the street selling papers by noon, just in time to catch the lunch crowds.
That was back when newspapers really owned the news. Sure, there was TV, but it was far from good, and radio wasn't so good either. Now, of course, both have improved, and the 800-pound gorilla, the Internet, is a major player that's turned the newsprint business upside down.
So it's one grim day after another. Papers everywhere in bankruptcy, friends tossed out of their jobs, newsrooms that used to have ample manpower, now struggling to cover even the most basic of the basics.
That shouldn't diminish what used to be, of course. It was a special time for those of us who did it. It was competitive, and tense. You'd do anything to be first. Best, too, of course, but first.
Once, covering City Hall in another place, my competitors had gone to lunch when a protest group showed up, demanding to see the mayor, who had an aversion to reporters.
So I asked the priest leading the protest to fill me in on the meeting when he emerged.
Nonsense, he said, you're coming in. He grabbed my shirt collar and started marching me toward the mayor's inner sanctum. One of the mayor's aides looked at me and said, "You know better than this."
The priest, God bless him, ignored the aide and pushed me through the door.
It was a moment made even better when my competitors returned and saw my afternoon paper's final edition with my story on the top of the front page.
There were more serious moments, too. I spent months on a series that outlined the impact of a Mellon family heir on the budding Reagan revolution. A revolution needs financing, after all. They were months filled with intrigue, so much so that some of my peers started calling me "X," as in "Project X."
In the end, it felt good to write something with real impact, to tell a story that had not previously been told. Besides, I beat another writer who worked for a magazine to the punch.
Eventually, I became a city editor, kind of a legendary job in newsrooms. I had the most fun at the Daily News in that capacity, because of the character of the paper. I remember once starting a contest called "Name that Don" when a Mafia leader without a nickname popped up on the radar. The prize? A boxed set of "Godfather" films.
In my time, we knew we were outnumbered by the Inquirer, so we made sure we picked our targets, and owned those stories. I'll never forget the 12 consecutive front pages we did on one very racy murder story.
One winter day, I couldn't decide whether we needed a story on the slightly snowy weather. I asked a photo editor what he thought. He walked to the window overlooking Broad Street, raised it open, looked at the traffic, and said, "Yes." That's one way to decide.
Or the day I wondered aloud how difficult it was to buy an AK-47, and sent a young female reporter to a gun shop. She returned 20 minutes later with the weapon, which raised some issues with the security guards. It was a great story, though, telling a lot about why there was so much firepower on the streets.
So hats off to her, and to guys named von Booze, and one named Clanger, and another - my real journalism teacher - known simply as "The Sage."
More fun most days than anyone should be allowed to have.*