Economics

Gag Me With a Pica Ruler

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If there's anything worse than newspaper hacks trotting out a little tuff-guy poetry in discussing Tiger Woods (speaking of which, OMG), it's newspaper hacks-turned academics waxing cornball about Da Good Old Days. Read this American Journalism Review reverie by Carl Sessions Stepp, and reflect that God is just:

Radiating energy at a near sexual level

You stepped into your first newsroom, and some tectonic plate of destiny shifted. You slid into a new dimension, like Harry Potter at Platform 9 3/4, rematerializing in a parallel realm, previously unimaginable, then life-altering.

Enchanted maybe, but gritty too. Newsrooms in their heyday were bundles of contradiction: palaces of power and temples of tomfoolery, swaggering with certitude yet endearingly insecure, cynical but inextinguishably idealistic. They were loud, cocky and randy. They radiated energy at a near sexual level. 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.

Everything happened at hurry-up pace. Pranks let off steam: filling the editor's bathroom with frogs, calling the city desk to impersonate some bigwig, smuggling in a stripper for a colleague's birthday.

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.

Underneath the purple prose here there is a real (if both obvious and not-really-important-in-the-scheme-of-things) point, about the bland, conformity-breeding professionalization of newsroom culture. Though Sessions pokes at a few explanations, and entertains the notion that the Good Old Days weren't uniformly good, he (typically for the form) misses the bloated elephant in the middle of the newsroom: monopolization, and the long-standing but now-obliterated culture of scarcity. Life soon gets boring when there's only one game in town, jealously keeping the gates, and that was true long before Google enabled the stealth fascist takeover of America.

Back in 1998, after an extended jag abroad, my first article was about how a half-dozen former newspaper reporters grew so fed up with a culture they once loved that they went ahead and started their own deals online. And at the end of this endless 2002 Reason piece about the perennial journalism-is-falling cries, I gave a shout-out to one of the most joyful and competitive newspaper pranksters I've ever had the pleasure of meeting, Jim Bellows.

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  1. For those here who do not know, that is a picture of the Al Franken recount.

  2. Waxing nostalgiac about smoking in the workplace? I gather journalists never, ever had anything to do with getting that banned…

  3. In the best newsroom prank I was ever involved with, we hooked up a tape recorder to the police scanner speaker, gave an intern the job of monitoring the scanners, then played a little drama we’d recorded about a giraffe escaping the zoo, news choppers crashing into a local dam and a wall of water careening toward downtown.
    Worked like a charm. HI-larious.

  4. And I still feel “glorious smugness.”

  5. I kinda get the feeling that Welsh never had a whole lot of fun in his newsrooms. I hope I’m wrong.

    1. It was fun everywhere except the L.A. Times, and even there the work itself was mostly pleasing.

      1. I’m genuinely happy to hear it!

  6. 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.

    Apparently Carl never got the memo: newspapers are in the business of selling eyeballs to advertisers. Full stop.

  7. Everything happened at hurry-up pace. Pranks let off steam: filling the editor’s bathroom with frogs, calling the city desk to impersonate some bigwig, smuggling in a stripper for a colleague’s birthday.

    And then the director yelled “Cut” and Mr. Hoffman and Mr. Redford went back to their trailers for dialogue coaching while teamsters struck the set.

    I mean, really, are we supposed believe that all older “by the book” cops are partnered with wisecracking hotshot rookies too?

  8. Ah – but to sell eyeballs, you must first get those eyeballs to read your product — which, I’d argue, entails good writing and reporting.

    1. I’d argue, entails good writing and reporting.

      And thus the newspaper with the biggest circulation is USA Today, the magazine with the largest circulation is Reader’s Digest and Fox News has almost twice the viewership of CNN.

      1. And the newspaper with the second-largest circulation is The Wall Street Journal.

        There’s no accounting for taste…

  9. My smugness is unbounded, and I have never set foot in a newsroom.

    Nyaah nyaah nyaah!

  10. You’d (apparently) be surprised, Abdul.

  11. You stepped into your first newsroom, and some tectonic plate of destiny shifted.

    That’s like really densely bad or something.

    And the prominent Harry Potter reference is the “bloated elephant.” Those old hectoring-over-the-clatter hungover smokers never made any allusions I don’t get because I don’t watch enough TV (or read enough TV).

    “Professionalized” journalism is ditzy. It’s the Senator’s ex-cheerleader housewife of the polity. When it was his scheming mistress whose blackmail threats quoted Petrarch, it was no better, but it was much less irritating.

  12. Seems like the people who do the least substantial work tend to feel that their work is the most important.

    1. How many news stories do you read online every day for free? Maybe I’ll come to your job and tell you that not only is your work insubstantial, but also demand that you give your product to me for free.

      Sound fair?

      1. Maybe I’ll come to your job and tell you that not only is your work insubstantial, but also demand that you give your product to me for free.

        You’re right, all of that advertising space the newspapers have (both the print and electronic versions) is given away for free.

      2. I don’t understand your point. How does the fact that news is available to the end consumer for free make it substantial or important?

        I try not to spend my time reading news stories written by self-important journalists who make their living transcribing official government statements, although this is what passes for “substantial” journalism these days.

        Nevertheless, this kind of nonsense does fill the empty space between the ads.

        My actual work product has immediate value to about ten people. You wouldn’t want it.

        1. The point is, you’re getting it for free, it obviously adds value to your life (else I doubt you would be commenting on this blog), and yet you still insult the people that bring it to you.

          You’re right. Journalism isn’t what it should be. But that doesn’t mean it’s a worthless endeavor.

          1. I suppose there is some value in the job of transcribing and summarizing government press releases for a wider audience, although it strikes me that that product being available for free is actually indicative of how little value is actually being produced. I’ll never understand what is so god-dang important about that kind of work, but I can concede that there is some substance there.

            Wait, not I can’t. I can comfortably read the “A” section of the Washington Post in under 5 minutes without missing anything.

            1. And would you be able to comfortably read Reason’s blog without the legions of reporters that produce the stories that they link to every day? I think not.

              If you are so above the need for information and journalists are failing you so miserably, why don’t you just unplug?

              You won’t. Because deep down you want to know what’s going on in the world, just like everybody else. And you can’t do that by yourself. You need all those insubstantial nobodies that you are so quick to insult.

              1. I hand plenty of good money over to journalists who squander it “reporting” unimportant nonsense.

                Nevertheless, you’ve completely failed to answer my question, so I will ask it for a third and final time.

                How does the fact that a good amount of journalist’s product is available for free on the internet somehow make it substantial or important?

                I’ll ask a follow-up question: how does the fact that a blog like this one links to online news make the majority of news that they do not link to somehow substantial and important?

                You’re so stuck on some point involving the cost to consumers of news that you’ve completely missed my point: that the majority of reporters out there consider themselves tremendously important because of the completely insubstantial work that they do.

  13. Here’s one benefit of working in a newsroom: Rick Nash just stopped by five minutes ago. I got a couple of autographed pix for my older sons for Christmas.

  14. Maybe I’ll come to your job and tell you that not only is your work insubstantial, but also demand that you give your product to me for free.

    Given my tax bracket, I would say you’re halfway there.

  15. They radiated energy at a near sexual level.

    yeah that Scotty Reston was one hot fuck

  16. Tough guy poetry?” I dunno, the only guys I ever knew who wrote poetry were very butch lesbians.

  17. There’s nothing wrong with purple prose if properly applied.

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