Friday, February 27, 2009

Careers that ended in cardboard boxes

I'd never seen a newspaper vanish -- at least not from the inside. Friday, I stopped at The Rocky Mountain News. I don't know why I felt compelled to pay a visit, but I did. I hadn't been there in the year-and-a-half since I'd left. I wanted to say goodbye to friends, collect a few personal email addresses and share a sad moment with people I've known for years, many of whom face an uncertain future. I went for the same reason I went to News reporter John Accola's funeral in 2006.

John was one of the few writers at the News who knew how to carry a long story to its conclusion. He had a sweet demeanor, but could also be a tough reporter. I didn't really know John all that well, but it seemed right to attend the funeral of someone who got ambushed by death; John had a heart attack at 56.

Someone at the funeral asked me if I knew John well.

I didn't, I said, but added that I came because John was a newspaper guy.

The person who asked me nodded in agreement. He understood what I meant.

So there I was in the post-Joint Operating Agreement newsroom of the Rocky, a place where I'd never felt entirely comfortable. Everyone was dressed for moving day. Jeans and sweatshirts were the uniform of the day. Cardboard boxes were everywhere, as people emptied filing cabinets and sorted through the bric-a-brac on their desks. Someone, in a throwback gesture, was drinking bourbon and Diet Coke out of a paper cup. My former editor gave me a Rocky Mountain News lapel pin from last summer's Democratic Convention.

Eerily some people were staring at computer screens, looking as if they were working. They either were answering emails of condolence or sending emails to their personal accounts, perhaps preserving contacts. They all had to be out of the building by the end of the day. They'd have to turn in their IDs, account for whatever company equipment they'd been using, fill out some papers and hit the road. Would they tell each other to have nice weekends? In this context, what would that mean?

A couple of people talked about having lunch to discuss a possible Web site. Some didn't look up from their work, like the guy who was sitting at the desk I used to occupy. I felt a sudden and unexpected territorial urge to boot him out of his chair. Some of the faces belonged to people I'd know longer than my first marriage, a few even went back to the days of the crummy old newsroom where I first reported for work. That was the newsroom where they hung roles of newsprint in the bathroom instead of paper towels and where the concrete steps leading up from the street to the second floor were so trod upon they'd been worn down in the middle. That building and the one that was added on to it have since been replaced by something euphemistically called a Justice Center; i.e., a jail. No additional comment is necessary.

There's something about newsrooms, and for much of my life, they've have been one of the few places on the planet where I felt totally at home, those and, later, screening rooms. The first time I walked into a newsroom to work, I was a graduate student at Syracuse University and had landed a part-time job at The Syracuse Herald Journal, a paper owned by the Newhouse chain. It wasn't one of the great papers, but I was scared. Still, there was something about the atmosphere, a mixture of nervous energy and stale air that appealed to me, something that said, "No bullshit, please."

Over the years, I've met a lots of different kinds of people in newsrooms. Mean bastards. Wannabe mean bastards who couldn't pull it off. Men and women who were scary smart and others whose intelligence slid toward the low end of the scale. I met merciless grammarians and pathetic drunks. I met cynics and optimists. I met idealists and people who would rank among the biggest pains in the ass you'd ever want to know. I've met people who thought they were better than they were and people who were better than they thought. I also met some of the funniest people I've known, the type of wise asses for whom one-liners seem to come as easily as breathing. I've met sharp wits, self-promoters and people who cared so much about what they were doing it seemed to cause them physical pain.

As the years went on, the reporters seemed to dress better. Cigarette smoke vanished from the room. Typewriters were replaced by computer terminals. The bathrooms got better. The newsroom began to feel more corporate than chaotic, but it didn't lose all its scruffy charm. No one can make a room sloppier faster than a couple of hundred journalists.

Now, the expansive, annoyingly "modern" newsroom of the Rocky with its TV monitors and natural light will go silent. No one will report to work there Monday or Tuesday or ever. I was sad to go there and glad that I went. I was full of anxiety for folks who would wake up Monday in a frightening new world where they'd no longer have jobs and where they'd no longer have each other. They'd be something unspeakably sad -- newspaper people without a newspaper.

1 comment:

Peter Cassels said...

Bob,

A wonderful and very appropriate screed on the death of a newspaper, from someone who shared the copy desk at the Syracuse Herald Journal as a grad student some 43 years ago. -- Peter Cassels