The Rip Post                        




Quiet! This is a newsroom!
(Nov. 12, 2003)

        I figured out what's wrong with journalism: not enough noise. No, no, I mean it. I had a tour of the San Francisco Chronicle not long ago, and the joint was creepy. Well, the people who work there are perfectly nice and hard-working and all that, but the environment, well. . .
        You wanted to shout "HEY!"
        To be fair, the Chron was not as silent as the carpeted confines of the L.A. Times, long famously christened "the Velvet Coffin" by Jim Bellows. You walk into the Times, and all you hear is the sickly clickety-clickety of computer keyboards. Maybe a little murmuring here and there, granted, but even that is muted by nylon pile. All the conversation seems to transpire in inter-office messages. You feel eyes taking secret looks at you over the tops of cubicles; you get the unnerving feeling that some of those clicketies might be about you. . .
        At least there was no carpeting in the Chronicle city room. Footsteps in that office sounded good and honest. Still, I've been in churches that were noisier. Managing editor Narda Zacchino sat in her glass-enclosed sanctum sanctorum, silently poring over papers---reminding more of a librarian than an editor. The 4 p.m. planning session for the next day's edition contained a good dozen editors, but as I passed the room where the paper was being plotted, I didn't hear a thing! Not so much as an "I disagree," let alone a "god-damn it!" Outside, reporters and editors were arranged in rows of cubicles far and wide, heads half-way down the throats of their computer screens.
        Clickety clickety.
        Man, if you told me this was an accounting firm or a realty office, I'd have believed it. What's more, the place was dark---okay, well, dim. I understand all the ergonomic stuff about reducing glare and saving eyesight, lowering stress, but this joint was downright shady. Permanent dusk. Midnight summer in Alaska.
        You wanted to shout "WHO TURNED OUT THE LIGHTS?"
If I ran a newspaper, which is almost as likely to happen as Bela Lugosi rising from the dead, I swear I would look into bringing back typewriters and paper, just for starters.
        Speaking of dark rooms, there were no more darkrooms. Right---no soup, no photographic paper, no clothespins on wires, no red lights, no chemical odors, no percussion of big camera lenses bouncing off photogs' belts as they come back from assignment. Know what a newspaper photo department looks like nowadays, folks? Here's a hint: it looks a whole lot like. . .every other part of the newspaper. You guessed it: desks and computers and silent people staring into them, their fingers going clickety clickety. The photogs and photo editors do everything digitally, less with their digits. No more developing film, printing pics, cropping pics, physically carrying them to news editors, putting them in library "morgues."
        Obsolete as restraint.
        I'm sorry, but when I think of newspapers, I just can't make the Chronicle---or, to be fair, any other newsroom of a big-city paper---fit the word. Newspapers aren't dim---they're bright! Flash-bulb bright! That's why the copy editors on the rim wore green eyeshades. (Of course, rims---curved copy desks---are long gone, too, replaced by the ubiquitous cubicle-cum-computer.) Low lights and quiet are a recipe for calm, and if there is one thing a newsroom should never be, it's calm. Hell, get a couple of candles and a waiter, and the Chron would be a nice place to take a date.
       No, newspapers are loud, rip-roaring (pardon the expression), raucous, chaotic, tumultuous, nutso collisions of humanity and idea! They are places where information runs head-on into heart and mind, and gets all twisted up in ink and paper and headlines and deadlines. They're frenzied, messy rooms where you tear your hair out, or just lose it naturally. They're homes to ulcer and tantrum, wit and prank, romance and divorce, good conversation and bad office politics. They're salons, where sports guys talk to news guys (or gals), where editors yack with copyboys (or gals), where story ideas come from wisecracks about the morning headlines, and. . .
        None of this can happen in places tyrannized by desks, cubicles, calm, and computer screens. At least, not nearly enough of it, I'll wager.
        Please understand that is not mere romanticizing, or the complaints of a "newspaper nostalgiac" (as I have been characterized.) You see, all this frantic newsroom stuff---this daily mix-up of personality and skepticism and cynicism and expertise and compassion---used to spill right on to front pages. It was as necessary to newspapering as pica.
        Doubt it? Well, when is the last time you picked up a newspaper and found it. . .lively? Spontaneous? Unpredictable? Gutsy? A little wild, not pulling its punches, taking a swing or two on behalf of underdogs everywhere? Right. Me, neither.
        You grab the Chron these days, and it's well-intentioned, competent, but very tame fare (Jon Carroll, tough reporting, and some straight, informative sportswriting excepted.) Same with most papers out there. In other words. . .
        The plusher the carpet, the more insular the cubicle. . .the duller the paper. The calmer and dimmer the newsroom, the calmer and dimmer the journalism.
        If I ran a newspaper, which is almost as likely to happen as Bela Lugosi rising from the dead, I swear I would look into bringing back typewriters and paper, just for starters. I know, you'd have to keep production computerized, but maybe you could have reporters type again, and crank typewriter carriages, and curse when the carbon paper is too worn out to carry through to the dupe. Yes, paper---I'd bring it back at any cost. Just so reporters could actually hold their stories in hand after finishing them. You'll never talk me into thinking that punching "send" on a computer is as satisfying as carrying copy to an editor and handing it over.
        Newspapers used to be such a tactile, hands-on experience. Maybe that's one of the reasons more readers are keeping their hands off.

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