Through a Glass Darkly: Newsrooms are living creatures

BY BOB ANDERSON

Newsrooms have always been living creatures, but their sounds, smells and habits have changed.

When I started writing for small-town newspapers while in high school almost 50 years ago, newsrooms smelled of cigarettes, cigars and paste. The odor of ink permeated everything.

Bigger papers had the same comforting smells and sounds. The rapid rattle of AP and UPI teletype machines added urgency.

The main differences in newsrooms were their cycles of energy. In small-town papers the energy built to a crescendo once or twice a week. The sounds of typewriter bells increased, voices got louder and tempers grew shorter as deadlines neared.

Dailies had shorter energy cycles. Newsrooms of afternoon papers like the State-Times woke early, while those like the Morning Advocate worked late to drop revelations on doorsteps at dawn.

Whatever the cycle, a newsroom’s heart beat faster as deadlines neared and reporters returned from their beats. Some had notebooks crammed with the results of whispered tips of official wrongdoing. While most of those tips had withered under their scrutiny, a few had grown into important stories.

As those reporters dialed phones to check final details, others returned with notes on crimes, trials or meetings.

Across the newsroom manual typewriters clacked. Reporters yanked copy paper noisily from carriages and tore it with rulers. They pasted new information next to previously typed paragraphs.

Reporters hurriedly scratched out misspelled words and wrote in corrections by hand.

On each page they scrawled slugs and circled symbols to make sure the pages meshed when they reached the typesetters.

Chemical smells drifted from darkrooms. The police scanner squawked.

As deadlines approached, pressure shifted to editors.

Early in my career, I edited copy, wrote headlines and laid out the front page on Sunday and Monday nights.

Then I went downstairs to oversee the printers who slapped lead type into page frames with amazing speed and dexterity.

Before long the beast below us awakened. A rumble started deep in the basement.

As the presses picked up speed, the building trembled.

Newsrooms are quieter and less odiferous now. Presses are often located in different buildings. Computers have replaced typewriters, paste pots and the rattle of teletypes.

Cigarettes, let alone cigars, are forbidden. Noise is cushioned by cubicles and carpets.

Yet newsrooms still have a life that ebbs and flows with deadlines. Excitement still builds in young reporters.

More importantly, I still sense their passion to act as watchdogs for the public. I still see them seek out whispered tips and follow links to the truth.

I hope that never dies.

Bob Anderson welcomes comments by email to bobandy66@yahoo.com.