Time for a eulogy?

Larry Fugate of Pine Bluff, an old-school newspaperman if ever there were one, sent me a long piece from the American Journalism Review by Carl Sessions Stepp, the magazine’s senior editor and an instructor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.

The article is titled “A Eulogy for Old-School Newsrooms.”

I’ve rhapsodized about the old newsrooms on this blog before. When I came to work at the Arkansas Democrat in 1981, the newsroom there was still like something out of the 1950s. Yes, we were still using typewriters (albeit electric typewriters). And, yes, the editors still had spikes on their desks.

I suspect I could walk through the newsroom of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette today and discover that 80 percent or more of the reporters couldn’t tell you what a spike was. Oh well. I don’t want to risk sounding like that old man who constantly talks about how he walked to school in the snow.

Still, I realize how incredibly fortunate I was to have spent much of my career in the newspaper business before a certain era had ended. I think of all the colorful characters I’ve met. I think of the events I’ve been allowed to experience firsthand. I think of the friends I’ve made. And, as I get older, I cherish the memories more than ever.

Frankly, there aren’t many careers that would have allowed a guy from a middle-class family in Arkadelphia to sit in the press box at a Super Bowl, to walk down the track with the winning trainer right after the Kentucky Derby, to sit directly above President Reagan in the House chamber during his final two State of the Union addresses, to attend presidential inaugurations, to be at national political conventions, to have lunch with a president at the White House. I could go on.

What was my biggest thrill from a career standpoint? I would have to say it was having my byline on the lead story in the statewide newspaper when Bill Clinton was first elected president in November 1992. It will always be one of the most famous newspaper front pages in our state’s history.

In his e-mail to me, Fugate related how we watched a pistol fall out of the purse of a woman in her 60s who covered southeast Kansas for the Joplin, Mo., newspaper. He also saw a small flask fall out of her purse.

“She wore orthopedic pumps,” he wrote.

A pistol. A flask. Orthopedic pumps. My kind of reporter.

And Larry Fugate has always been my kind of newspaperman. When I worked for Gov. Mike Huckabee, we usually would headquarter at the Holiday Inn when staying overnight in Jonesboro. When he was working in Jonesboro, Fugate often would sit with a group of men having coffee at the same table each morning in the Holiday Inn’s restaurant. It was a de rigueur stop for the governor. He would sit down at that table, grab a cup of coffee and visit for a few minutes. Meanwhile, Fugate was doing his job — getting a sense of what was being said out there in the community before heading for the newsroom of The Sun.

Of the old newsrooms, Stepp writes: “Typewriters clattered, teletypes rang, scanners crackled. Reporters hectored sources over rotary phones with hopelessly twisted cords. Editors yelled. Whiskey bottles leaked from desk drawers as cigarette butts smoldered in trash cans. … You felt the ‘glorious smugness,’ as one journalist puts it, of people united in a mission, underpinned by an earnest faith that the work mattered, and you knew it, and the public knew it, too.

“Step into today’s newsrooms, and vestiges of this spirit linger and sometimes flourish. But something quintessential has waned. Over the last generation or so, newsrooms have taken on a self-conscious meekness, increasingly bleached and domesticated by a battery of challenges. Chances are they already are recrafting new personalities to serve new audiences in new ways. But now seems a good moment to offer some blend of farewell, salute, lament and good riddance to those grand and goofy newsrooms of the past, their season gone but their legacy unforgettble.”

Stepp quotes a Pulitzer-winning reporter named Jacqui Banaszynski as saying: “Newsrooms always felt like an episode from the old MASH television show, a group of passionate people doing difficult jobs under pretty impossible circumstances, and the only way they survived was doing it a little bit wacky. Now newsrooms feel to me like heavily edited copy. They’re neater, tighter and more efficient. They just don’t have as much voice and flair.”

Of course, the Internet has changed everything.

“You always had the sense you were six or eight hours ahead of the game,” Portland columnist Steve Duin tells Stepp. “You knew what had happened. You had the behind-the scenes storyline. And you got to go to sleep at night just reveling in the fact that you knew more than everybody else, and when they woke up in the morning, they would be reading what you wrote. Now you feel like you’re hours, days, years behind the curve.”

Writing is writing. I love the fact that my job allows me to be sitting here writing on a cold February morning with a good cup of coffee and a great view of Little Rock. This blog is a nice outlet for me. I would be less than honest, though, if I didn’t tell you that posting something to the blog simply cannot match the thrill of opening the Democrat-Gazette each Saturday morning and seeing my words in print. Blog posts are fun. The weekly column that the folks at the Democrat-Gazette allow me to write is more satisfying.

Jim Naughton, a well-known name in the newspaper business, tells Stepp that he finds newsrooms to be increasingly “uptight and morose … for the obvious reason that companies have economically pinched the hell out of them. They have cut way back and piled new duties on.”

Stepp writes: “Those cutbacks, combined with mission uncertainty and a rising fear of irrelevance, could humble most any operation. There are so few people left in his newsroom, one longtime reporter said recently, that they’re too grateful for having jobs to act out as they once did. Obviously, though, the old days shouldn’t be blindly romanticized. Their demise represents progress as well as loss. … You also sense hope and resilience in the here-and-now. Many journalists, like the Tribune’s Mary Schmich, still love their jobs and newsrooms.”

Schmich tells Stepp: “I get to write a column in the city of Chicago, an amazing place. I stay because I love my work, and I can’t imagine where else I would find work that — despite the huge frustrations right now — would satisfy me like that.”

So, as someone who took his first newspaper job in high school and worked in the business into my mid-30s, I join Carl Stessions Stepp in a toast.

“Let us toast those old news roosts and the tribe of rapscallions and reformists they let loose on many a city,” he writes. “Shabby they might have been. Perfect they never were. But who would trade the days you spent there, sassing the boss, dissing the mayor and imperiously threatening to cancel the subscription of anyone who dared complain? All the while doing some of the best work of your life. Think of it as something like leaving the home you grew up in or your first apartment. Its time has passed. Eagerly if warily, you head into the future. But just before you turn the corner, you look back one last time. And the old place and its rich memories seem pretty special.”

Thanks for sending this along, Larry. I’ll run down to Pine Bluff one day, we’ll grab one of Bobby Garner’s burgers at Sno-White and we’ll talk about the newsrooms of yore. . . two old guys walking to school in the snow, I guess.

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7 Responses to “Time for a eulogy?”

  1. [...] Time for a eulogy? « Rex Nelson’s Southern Fried. [...]

  2. Bluedog says:

    Want to see what a real newsroom looks like? Rent “All The President’s Men.” I’ve seen it maybe 20 times, it still gets to me. The banter, the screaming, the frustration, the camraderie, that’s what makes a real newspaper.

  3. Aaron Sadler says:

    I enjoyed this post, Rex. My first full-time newsroom job was under Larry Fugate in Jonesboro. What a character, and the true definition of an old-school newspaper editor.

    He chain-smoked Kools at his desk until an out-of-state newspaper group bought The Sun and banned indoor smoking. Then it was an every-five-minute retreat to the back door. Pity the poor reporter who was summoned outside to hear a Fugate rant about Las Vegas or Oklahoma (apparently his favorite places) or on the City Hall scandal-du-jour as menthol fumes floated in the reporter’s direction.

    His less-than-couth manner could be less than endearing, especially when in the mornings he’d shout “What are you working on today?” with that voice that has more gravel than a backwoods county road.
    I’m told he still has a penchant to ask on the phone, “Anything else?” even though he’s the one who initiated the call.

    Yes, he is quirky — no time to mention all the other habits or the “birth cerftificate” that puts him at an age a lot younger than he looks — but the man taught me plenty about reporting. He’s a scholar when it comes to the FOIA and his handle on Jonesboro is better than that of anybody who has worked at The Sun since he left.

    He knows the questions to ask and when to ask them. If I needed a contact anywhere to answer a question about anything, Fugate could point me in the right direction.

    His reporting skill was top-notch. His mannerisms made it fun (at least sometimes) to work in a newsroom.

    I have Fugate to thank for helping me start a career that led to a stint in Washington.

    Like you, Rex, I wondered how a kid from the outskirts of Trumann could be so lucky as to have a job covering a presidential campaign or actually having a member of Congress return calls on a regular basis.

    The answer is simple: Old-school bosses like Fugate and others along the way who’d cuss at you if a story wasn’t good enough, yell at you if you weren’t writing it quickly enough and, when they knew you’d had enough, let you yell right back.

  4. Fugate’s a keeper, all right, even though I never had the pleasure of working with him. The absence of people like him from newsrooms today makes me glad I left the business when I did.

  5. rexnelson says:

    Aaron: Thanks for a beautiful piece of writing. You are missed in the newspaper business. You were one of the best reporters I had the pleasure of dealing with during my 13 years in government. When the newspaper business begins losing people like you, I worry about what the future holds — Rex

  6. Joe Quinn says:

    The 1980′s were the golden age of news in Little Rock. It was such a great time and place to be young and in the news business. No internet or real cable penetration. Three network affiliates with vibrant newsrooms. Two newspapers at war. A good all news talk radio station that really mattered at the time, and always some version of the Arkansas Times. So much of that has changed now as we all get information all day on devices we wear on our belts. But if the business during the day was fun…some of the best stories will always be the after hours parties involving news people. I hope my kids get some period in their lives where they get to do something that matters, understand that it matters, and have fun most days.

    When Larry was in Jonesboro he was always fair. At the time I worked at a place that very seldom got fair coverage. Larry was old school and his pieces were generally right down the middle. There isn’t a higher compliment for guys like that.

  7. Larry Fugate says:

    Rex: You recently raised the issue of hacks and flacks. Notice how Aaron Sadler’s comments are much longer since he went from being a hack to a flack? He was a Class A reporter who dared to ask tough questions.

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