Rites of passage to a newsroom

Posted 5/11/23

“Requiem for the Newsroom,” read the headline from the Columns & Commentary section of the Sunday, April 30 New York Times.

Richard Fleischer who has been an integral part of …

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Rites of passage to a newsroom


“Requiem for the Newsroom,” read the headline from the Columns & Commentary section of the Sunday, April 30 New York Times.

Richard Fleischer who has been an integral part of this company since graduating from URI in the early 1970s knew I would be interested in the piece written by Maureen Dowd. He was right. It brought back a rush of memories.

My introduction to newspaper reporting was at the Port Chester Daily Item, a 25,000 circulation paper barely an hour’s drive from the heart of Manhattan, bordering Greenwich, Connecticut. I landed the job by being at the right place at the right time, or as you might say, by accident.  I really hadn’t planned my search for a job after having volunteered in and then getting paid in a couple of political campaigns that flopped. Such credentials weren’t going to take me far, but I thought that at least I might get my foot in the door at a NYC public  relations firm one of those candidates had used.

I found a sympathetic executive who was kind enough to look over my resume. One of his first questions was, “where are your clips?” I was bewildered, what was he talking about?

“You know, clips of stories.”

“Well, no one has written about me,” I answered.

“No,” he said kindly realizing I was totally green, “where are the stories you have written?”

I hadn’t written any stories and, in fact, writing had always been a challenge. Term papers were a form of torture and had there been spell check at the time, I probably would have gotten a few “Bs” in place of a multitude of “Cs” and a few “Ds.”  Instead, I got circles around misspelled words.

“You need to work at a newspaper, and then come back and see me,” he said. He took out a sheet of paper and wrote down the names of three daily newspapers editors in communities outside the city. His advice, don’t try calling or sending them a letter. “They don’t have time. Visit them in person, but be sure it’s after deadline.”

I didn’t dally. I started with the Port Chester Daily Item. Little did I know but my timing was spot on. That very morning one of the paper’s six reporters, not counting sports or society, had given his notice. The editor showed me into a room with a metal desk and chair that looked like it had come straight out of a police station interrogation room, only there was no one-way window. Warren Randall was over weight. His sleeves were rolled above his elbows and he wore a green visor. He slouched over the desk.   He could have walked off a movie set.  I waited for him to speak and then I learned he stuttered.

It was awkward, but I had the presence to not attempt to finish the words he was trying to spit out. I took the offer of $70 a week.

And then I was introduced to the newsroom. It smelled of cigarette smoke, newsprint, coffee and ink. Randall’s desk was at the head of a U-shaped layout of desks with a depression in the middle where a Royal typewriter sat. To the right of each desk was a dial phone. There was a Rolodex with names and contacts handed down from prior reporters and an ashtray between coffee stain rings.  A switchboard operator, who sat in the reception area and kept track of the coming and goings of reporters and sales representatives would ring you and let you know the caller before making the connection. We worked off sheets of newsprint cut from pressroom scraps when they started a run and before setting the ink. As deadline approached, the copy editor would walk the inside of the U pulling partially completed stories from our typewriters. That way Randall would know what was coming and could start editing.

The tapping of typewriters grew to a crescendo at 11 a.m. some days. That’s when you felt part of the machine in a race to get out the latest news. Then there were the down days when there wasn’t breaking news and you waited just in case something might happen. They were days when reporters shared personal stories or talked about current events and whether to have a martini with a sandwich lunch at the Town House where reporters from competing papers would congregate.

The camaraderie between reporters was genuine as was the boasting on scoring a scoop.  But the newsroom, not the Town House, was the hub, the mothership where you could count on finding someone night or day. Today reporters carry their Rolodex in their phones and their typewriters in their laptops. They text. They email, and from what we’re hearing with ChatGPT  they don’t even have to write stories, no less learn to spell.

I have never liked cigarette smoke, but I would welcome it again to hear Randall yell “what the hhhhhhell are you doing Howell?” and having fellow reporters looking  up from their work. Being yelled at from a usually quiet Randall was a badge of honor. I was on the team.

rites, newsroom


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