Constable: All the news not fit to print makes newsrooms special
We are in an age where fear, hatred and violence drag us down as we struggle with trying to make a living, overcome a deadly pandemic, grapple with the results of climate change, argue about politics, and seem on the verge of finally tackling the racism that has stained our nation for 400 years.
The sports world, once seen as an escape from all our daily woes, now is a lens that focuses attention on our problems and the work that must be done. The communal bonding, learning and energy that comes from the mingling of students and teachers, co-workers and bosses, religious groups, bowling leagues and other gatherings is gone, or far from normal. That's a loss that weighs on some of us.
I miss the newsroom, and the stories that help us escape.
Working as a rookie reporter at the Journal & Courier newspaper in Lafayette, Indiana, I fell in love with newsrooms. Above the clatter of typewriters (yep, I'm that old) and ringing phones, a beloved editor married to another staffer gathered everyone around to make an announcement. She took a deep breath, let a smile spread across her face and announced, "I am pregnant!"
There wasn't even a pregnant pause before someone yelled out, "Any suspects?"
We don't have class clowns, wiseacres and group fun offering us an escape from the world these days. I haven't been part of our newsroom family since mid-March. With the pandemic shutting down newsrooms across the nation, and threatening to make them extinct, I'm not sure when, or if, we'll return in 2021.
Newsrooms always have been filled with characters -- mostly interesting, creative, smart and funny people. I married one of those types after we met in our small satellite newsroom in Mundelein, where our bureau chief stopped me from bothering her on deadline by giving me quarters to play video games at the nearby arcade. When an editor announced that Cheryl and Burt were getting married, there were congratulations, but it was a half-hour later before a reporter gave the announcement a second thought, and asked, "To each other?"
I was impressed by the resourcefulness of a copy desk chief who noticed that we copy editors under her command would rush to edit stories with a title that sounded juicy, and ignore the boring ones. More than once, I grabbed a story slugged axmurder or killerpuppy only to discover her note at the top telling me to edit the routine listing of chicken dinners and prayer meetings and re-slug them properly as religion notes.
An editor once designed our front page with a vertical photo accompanying a story about the restoration of Leonardo da Vinci's famous "The Last Supper" painting of Jesus eating at a long table with his 12 disciples. Realizing the photo had to be horizontal, the copy desk chief barked, "Hey, Bozo, are we supposed to run a photo with the caption, 'Christ, flanked by both disciples?'"
Sometimes, we didn't even need words. I once communicated with a deaf pressman by turning on and off the overhead lights. I remember lunches with the late, great columnist Bill Granger, where I'd get the French dip, he'd have a pitcher of beer and cigarettes, and I'd get one of his stories for dessert. Some of the characters I've met in newsrooms remain close friends throughout the decades. The newsroom is the place we bonded, celebrated and grieved, and helped each other be better at our jobs.
Modern newsrooms corrected some of the problems of previous generations, when the stories of less admirable characters often provided the escape.
"You can't call yourself a newspaper man until you've been fired and spent the night in jail," I was told by one editor who had checked off those boxes. I don't qualify -- yet.
"On many afternoons, I was the only sober person in the newsroom," Jack Mabley, my late columnist buddy, used to say while spinning stories of the old Chicago Daily News newsroom in the 1950s. My favorite was Jack's story of a reporter who bragged that he was leaving as soon as he finished his story to rendezvous with a married woman at a hotel in Milwaukee.
After completing their night shift a few hours later, Jack and his newsroom buddies decided to play a joke. They tracked down the reporter in his hotel room and had the hotel operator put through their call.
"That's my wife you're with," one of them bellowed into the phone. "I'm in the lobby, and I'm coming up to kill you."
When the reporter showed up in the newsroom the next day, Jack innocently asked him how his date went.
The man launched into a vivid story. "I barely got out alive," said the reporter, who went into great detail about how the husband, a brute of a man with arms as thick as railroad ties and a face crimson with anger, was charging down the hotel hallway screaming at him. The reporter said he fled to the fire escape with his pants in his hands and made it to the street before the murderous ape could catch him.
The newsroom hung on every word of his amazing story. No one ever fessed up, carrying their private joke with them to their graves.
It's hard to get those stories from Zoom.