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.