Warehouse B

Remembering Hot Lead

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Newspapers Are A Dying Institution


By James Donahue


We are witnessing the death of a dinosaur, the American daily newspaper. And there is certain sadness in that, at least for this writer, who spent much of his life working in that arena.


I cut my teeth on hot lead type, four-by-five speed graphic cameras and clacking linotype machines. I hammered out news stories on a Royal typewriter in smoke-filled offices with stiff brewed coffee with easy reach. My first job was with a weekly paper in my home town while I was still in high school. That paper was produced in a shop in the basement under a downtown bank.


Those were the days when reporters were trained on the job. They started as copy boys who hacked out the mundane stuff like daily weather information, temperature readings, obituaries and social news . . . stuff that the big boys didn’t want to be bothered with.


There was a certain pride to working up the chain . . . getting that first big story and then sweating over writing it as the crunch of the daily deadline bore down on you. If the ME (Managing Editor) liked the story, you got rewarded with a by-line . . . that is, having your name printed at the top of the story so everybody knew that you were the author. We strived for by-lines.


Reporters worked long hours . . . sometimes staying up late to cover important town council or school board meetings, or chasing police stories, and then sitting at the old Royal until after midnight, writing that front-page story amid rows of cluttered desks in an almost-empty newspaper office. Cigarettes, ink-stained shirt pockets, reporter’s notebooks and strong coffee were trademarks of the profession.


Over the years I worked for small newspapers and big dailies. I probably worked every beat a reporter could cover, from township government to circuit court murder trials; from industry to the local symphony orchestra.


There were important rules about journalism. We always tried to write a story from the middle ground, no matter how we personally thought about an issue the bias had to be stripped from our minds. Both sides of every issue had to be given equal space. We never editorialized. And we used a time-honored system of asking “who, what, when, where, and why” and lastly, if possible, we added the question: “how.”


Once you had all of the information you could possible gain for the story, the trick was to put it all together in a package of words designed to get the story told within the first few paragraphs, and write them in a way that invites the reader in to find out more. That was the trick. That first paragraph was always called the lead to a story. And many a beginning reporter has sweated bullets over leads.


I referred to what we did as a profession because we always considered ourselves professionals. It wasn’t until television reporters came along that news writers and editors started getting recognition as professional tradesmen and women. That was about the time that a college degree in journalism was required to get a job on any newspaper, and if you really wanted to make a career of it, they recommended a master’s degree in the field.


Oddly, that was when the old system started breaking down, the ethics of journalism as I learned it started getting twisted, and everything that newspapers were slowly changed into something we no longer recognized. Stories turned into light personal features about individual victims rather than giving you all of the facts in a single blast. Newspapers stopped devoting attention to what city councils and school boards were doing, but sent reporters off to write fluffy feature stories.


I watched the newspapers begin to die on the vine, even as I was still writing. I remember when working for one of the Gannett Newspapers that we used to have important staff meetings . . . mandatory attendance required . . . and the topic was always how to fight the decline in readership. The publisher and the editors were always there, pumping the staff for ideas, and giving us pep talks on what they thought ought to be done. Usually anything we suggested wasn’t taken seriously because the big boys already had their minds made up.


I think I got scarred among the high rollers during one of those meetings, when they started to ask everybody in the room, one-by-one, for an opinion on this subject. When it was my turn to speak, I suggested that we go back to reporting news again and quit wasting space on fluff. I said I grew up reading newspapers and sadly reported that my own teenage children never read the paper, even the stories written by their own father. I told the staff that if my kids were not interested in our newspaper, then we were doing something very wrong and we needed to fix that or things were only going to get worse.


There was a dead silence in the room. The publisher then went on to the next person for an opinion and nothing more was said about my remarks. It was obvious that they took offense at what I told them. Today I look back on that incident with a strange smirk on my face. The Gannett newspapers, like all of the other big chains, are losing circulation now to a point where they are cutting staff and forcing their best, most experienced writers and editors into early retirement rather than pay the higher level salaries.


That is starting a chain reaction that I can assure you will lead to the total destruction of newspapers in America. Without the professionals at the helm, the quality of journalism we once strove for will not only be lost . . . it will be forgotten.


It is small wonder that most Americans turn to their televisions or the Internet for their news. It is always hot and fresh there, and you don’t have to wait for a paper boy to throw a wad of newsprint in your yard each afternoon. What is more, I believe the new front in quality journalism is on the web . . . not in the old newsrooms anymore.


Thus it is with a not of sadness that I write this tribute to newspapers. We were once a great part of the American way of life. But we blew it. And now we are all but gone.