The Wrecking Ball and the Press

Our local newspaper’s longtime headquarters is slated for demolition this week, so on Saturday they invited all the former employees to drop by for a last look at the place. The event offered an opportunity to see some cherished friends and respected colleagues we haven’t seen in a long while, and some of the conversations were quite convivial, but there was a funereal feel to it that lingered through the weekend.
The paper isn’t going out of business, and the reunion also included a tour of the swank new digs located nearby in the trendy Old Town drinking and dining district right next to the ritzy Warren Theater, where you can watch movies in an easy chair and have waitresses bring you cocktails, but the whole affair was nonetheless a frank acknowledgement of an institution in decline. Although it has ultra-modern and remarkably comfy chairs and two computer screens at every desk and all the steel pipes and chrome doors and sharp angles you’d find in some cutting-edge start-up venture, the most conspicuous thing about the new place is that it’s a whole lot smaller than the last one, and by far the smallest building the paper has occupied since Civil War veteran and founding father Col. Marshall Murdoch moved out of the clapboard printing shop that’s still lovingly preserved at the old-west reenactment Cowtown Museum over in Riverside.
There wasn’t any sense of a cutting edge start-up to the new place, despite all the up-to-date accoutrements, and neither did it suggest a more venerable enterprise. As we walked from the new office to a nearby after-party on top of some young people’s bar, a good friend who used to be a very good aviation reporter for the paper and now gets by on free-lance work remarked that it didn’t seem at all like a newspaper office, as it didn’t have the smell of hot lead and photographic chemicals and cigarette smoke, or the sound of clacking typewriters and telephones ringing rather than warbling, or that big imposing block-long presence that a city’s newspaper is supposed to have, and we couldn’t argue.
The old building was an architectural monstrosity, a concrete and feces-brown blob typical of what was being built for expanding businesses back in 1961, when the paper moved from a smaller but much more elegant building nearby, but you used to be able to walk in from Douglas Avenue and be transported back to a more pungent and noisy and vibrant era of American journalism. Our first visit was on a school field trip, where they took us down to the printing presses and let us watch the typesetters do their Ed Sullivan-worthy legerdemain and see actual reporters shouting into telephones while pounding out the next days stories on typewriters, and it seemed way cooler than the field trips to the Steffen’s Dairy or or the Kansas Gas and Electric Company or the Coleman factory or any of the other very important and now long-gone  local institutions. The folks had already inculcated in us their daily habit of reading pretty much the entirety of both the morning and afternoon papers, and the old black-and-white movies on the late with the fedora-topped reporters shouting “get me re-write” into candlestick phones fascinated us, and we also started noticing that Mark Twain and Walt Whitman and Jim Thompson and Tom Wolfe and most of our favorite writers had worked on newspapers.
And so it was that we walked into the local paper as a newly-hired 20-year-old with all sorts of literary ambitions and romantic notions, way back in the white-hot summer of ’80. We’d dropped out of college and fallen in with the local punk rock crowd, which included a most delightful fellow who’d written for the paper some years before, and he suggested we apply for a newsroom opening he knew of, telling us which people to drop his name to and which not to, and because we could type fast and had a couple of relatively impressive jobs on the resume and seemed very enthusiastic about the newspaper we became “editorial clerks.” That’s a rather fancy term for what the old-timers called a “copy boy,” and although it was hard work it was often fun and a better education than what we’d been getting in college.
We typed up enough obits to fill several cemeteries, answered phone calls from angry readers and people trying to get in touch some reporter who wasn’t around, copied and distributed the daily budgets to all the departments, sorted mail, ran errands, listened to the police scanners and alerted the crime desk to the latest atrocities, watched the local news broadcasts just in case they might have something the newsroom didn’t know about, took dictation from reporters in the field, and reveled in the frantic atmosphere. They were still typing on typewriters back then, with a conveyor belt sending hard copy from the copy desk to those typesetting magicians downstairs, and although the state-of-the-art IBM Selectrics didn’t make quite the right clickety-clack sound it was still pretty noisy, and there was this great old guy developing all the pictures in photographic chemicals back in the dark room, and not only could you smoke cigarettes in the newsroom, pretty much everyone did. It looked and sounded and smelled and had a feeling right down to your bones of a real newspaper, just like in the movies.
Nearly all of the then-numerous reporters and editors and everyone else outranking us on the staff had been more inspired to enter the newspaper racket by “All the President’s Men” than by “His Girl Friday,” and when we all watched Ronald Reagan being elected and started getting the headlines downstairs we were the only ones celebrating, but for the most part they were a good bunch. There was still a lot of the wise-cracking and banter we’d come to expect from the old movies, and some of the same instinctive anti-authoriatian streak, and several of them took a liking to a punk college drop-out and generously shared their considerable knowledge with us. Although we’re still pure-bred prairie Republican goyim our most influential mentors about the craft turned out to be Jewish Democrats from Back East, who really were so common in the press back then they even wound up in such remote places as our hometown, and we also lament that the latest iteration of the hometown newsroom lacks a certain Jewish favor.
We literally fell in love with one of those mentors, a wise-cracking and rule-breaking and very tall woman who reminded us of Rosalind Russell in “His Girl Friday,” and when she split town for a job at the bigger paper in Kansas City we followed her there. Our title at that paper was “dethwriter,” the abbreviated journalese for the guys who wrote death notices and the local’s out-of-town traffic fatalities and the murders too petty for the crime reporters to bother with, and as gruesome as it was it provided enough oft-told stories to make for a novel we hope to write someday, tentatively titled “Dethwriter Takes a Holiday.” The newsroom had these pneumatic tubes that brought clips down from the library upstairs, which usually included some fishy news about the many Italian businessmen in Kansas City whose jukeboxes unexpectedly exploded, and there were a couple of very sound and educational friends on the “dethwriter” desk, but all the reporters seemed kind of snooty, and although we still miss her we had reasons to break off the relationship with the witty and rule-breaking and very tall woman, and we wanted to be back at the hometown paper.
After a short stint of cleaning houses we were back at clerking at the paper, doing a very fine job of it if we do say so ourselves, and angling at that up-from-copy-boy story we’d seen in all those late night movies. Eventually we’d done enough favors to the editors and cleaned up so many of those stories the college kids were phoning in to earn a byline, and then a column about the local music scene, and despite the newspaper’s recent fetish about college credentials we eventually wound up with “Staff Writer” under the daily bylines. We like to think of ourselves as the last of the up-from-copy-boy breed, but it also had to do with the fact that newspapers were so big at the time they could afford to take a chance on a punk kid.
This was at a time when almost every city in America was becoming a one-newspaper town, talk radio and cable and the internet didn’t yet threaten the local newspaper monopoly, and the business of printing all those papers and all that money took up an imposing square block and the building was bustling to the seams. Our paper could be purchased for a quarter in racks everywhere from Kansas City’s Strawberry Hill to Mount Sunflower on the Colorado border, with bureaus across the state providing locals news for the trucks that sped out as we walked home from day. The paper had reporters snooping around every office in City Hall and County Hall and the statehouse, the fashion reporter and the drama critic were flying off to New York City for the latest shows, the aviation reporter was at the Paris Air Show, and several we times found ourselves flying on chartered plains through scary thunderstorms to far-flung stories as we rose through the ranks.
We were there when they started bringing the computers in, which at first were shared by every two reporters. The bosses promised these devices would herald a new gold age of the American newspaper, but the time we left after 25 years it didn’t turn out that way. All those magical typesetters were the first round of layoffs, and then a lot of those deaf pressmen who were hired because they communicate over all the news were laid off, and eventually they figured out how to do a lot of the work we’d done as a clerk, which saved the company a lot of the money that was still coming in. Then the computers started letting people buy classified ads on Craigslist, though, and all sorts of internet news sites were popping up that allowed advertisers to buy more specifically-targeted ads, and then the money started going away.
More lay-offs followed, of course, first in the no-longer viable classified ad departments, and the circulation area was limited to the metro area, which allowed all the statewide bureau staffs to be laid-off, and the cuts eventually reached the metro newsroom. The paper has less than a third the number of reporters and photographers snooping around the city as it did back in our good old days, and a big share of that is devoted to local sports, and they laid off all the pressmen when they outsourced the printing of the relatively few on-paper copies they sell these days to that former rival in Kansas City, which also provides the bulk of the state political news, and even in its shiny new but conspicuously small building the old gray mare clearly ain’t she used to be.
Still, it was nice to see all those old friends and respected colleagues we hadn’t seen in years. Several people we would have loved to have seen weren’t there because there because they’re dead, others had their own good reasons, but one formerly helpful editor came all the way from Florida and a guy we kind of like came in Minnesota, and there were some great stories about all the scandals and screw-ups and general editorial ineptitude at the paper at the over years, as well as a few political scoops and astute theater reviews and off-beat feature stories that did the public a full quarter’s worth of good. There are still a few folks at the hanging on the paper the worked with, some of whom we well regard, especially a couple of photographers and a savvy second-generation editor, and it felt good to offer them our best wishes. After all the fond farewells we walked by the cranes and the wrecking balls that are going to tear down that ugly old building, though, and happy ending somewhere out there on the internet seemed far less tangible.

— Bud Norman

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