Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Sentimental Journey

Once upon a time, in a land that I actually still live around, I had THE PERFECT JOB.

I was a bright, young, eager high school student.  I was determined to be a writer.  Not just a writer...a NEWSPAPER writer.  A Journalist (with a capital J).  A newspaper woman complete with tan overcoat, press passes dangling from a ratty lanyard, and a snappy knack for driving the very truth to the surface. Very "Hildy Johnson".

At the tender age of 14 1/2, I walked into the newspaper office below and begged the Publisher to give me a job.  Any job.  I wanted to, I NEEDED to be around the smell of newsprint, hot rolling wax, photo developer, and stacks of newspapers.
The Publisher, in the grand fashion of those great old newspaper movies, took a chance on the kid.  I was IN! Soon I was filling out my very first timecards, punching a timeclock alongside seasoned pros bearing job titles like "Editor in Chief", "Newsroom Editor", "People Reporter", "Op Ed Columnist", "Circulation Manager", "Darkroom Technician", and of course "The Publisher".
 My official job title was "Morgue Clerk".  This is not as bad as it sounds.  I was in charge of (IN CHARGE OF, mind you!) the dead newspaper filing.  Each week I would disassemble the weekly newspaper with a pair of scissors and file each story, police beat posting, advertisement, sports listing, etc. into these file cabinets:
 See?  this is what they really are called!
 Here's me, 28 years later, visiting my old stomping grounds:
 Here's what the files actually look like:
 Each week, the newspaper that had been "put to bed" the previous night would be filed into these huge morgue books - a library record marking the many years coming and going in our small town.
 I did much more than just morgue clerking during my tenure at this newspaper.  After proving myself competent in this area, I was allowed the privilege to sit with the newsroom staff and learn how to write.  I would literally sit and watch them write their stories.  They taught me how to pull interest by carefully laying out the who, why, what and where in the right order.  They taught me how to capture the essence of a story through the eyes of witnesses.  They taught me not to "bury the lead" or "misquote".

Soon I was given the chance to write a weekly column, appropriately titled Teen Beat (go ahead, laugh!!).  Each week I strove to ferret out some fascinating high school related subject for this column.  Each week, I would have to walk down this very hall to have the Publisher review my work:
That's his office.  I would sit in there and watch while he "proofed" my column, marking my mistakes and poor construction elements with a red pencil on the tan paper it was typed on.  Yes, I  said typed!  He set a very high standard that I longed to achieve.  Each circled word or underlined sentence would be discussed in a manner both enlightening and encouraging.  After about a year, I heard "Nice job" once and nearly floated out of the office.  Here's my column mug shot, still residing in the old "mug shot" files 28 years later:
Considering this newspaper had a history of uncovering such local dramas as the following image displays, I had a right to float!  I had impressed him.  Even if I had just finally reached his high standard, it would have been enough.
 I was completely obsessed with the Newsroom editor, a woman who commanded respect from all in the office, but most especially from me.  When she entered the newsroom, in her long skirts, with her lanyard of press passes swinging, I zoned in and paid attention.  I watched her type out her stories with a practiced eye, noting every pass of her typewriter, every inflection in her voice while she was on the phone with a "hot lead".  When she leapt from her chair to leave and cover a story we would hear come over the police scanner, I imagined myself doing the same...someday.

There was so much more I learned during my 5 year tenure.  I would watch the layout staff "wax the news sheets" so the pages of the newspaper could be designed and moved around with ease if a change of design or "breaking story" came in late.  I learned the graphic elements of designing a newspaper page, from laying out the order of stories to placement of advertisements and classifieds.  This was all done manually, mind you.  No computer programs existed to assist this effort.  In fact, when I left, only word processors were in play.

I used to watch the darkroom attendant produce the contact sheets and half tone images for use each week.  I learned the trade of news photography.  How to frame a photo, how to light it, and how to crop it for best effect.  I still remember the "F2 Dark to F22 Light" lesson about lighting.  Here's an example of what those sheets looked like:
 Occasionally, this young comic would pop in and give us some information about his upcoming gigs, hoping to get a plug in his local newspaper:
I met one of my best friends at this job.  We were the same age, in the same high school, and he RAN the circulation department of the newspaper while I ran the morgue files and wrote my column.  We had a ton of fun snapping rubberbands at each other, leaving fake messages for each other on our desks, and staying up until 2am on some Tuesday nights, inserting the ad sheets into the paper for delivery the next morning.

Here's my newspaper buddy, 28 years later, revisiting one of his old machines/enemies - the crafty coupon inserter:
 We were also given the awesome responsibility of delivering the newspaper sheets to the printers.  I remember seeing the HUMONGOUS rolls of newspaper at the printers, just waiting for our waxed and prepped layout sheets to arrive for printing.  That place REALLY smelled of newspaper print.  And I loved it!

Now, you may be wondering what is making me suddenly wax so poetic about this time of my life.  Well, the grand old Publisher just passed away last month, after a long and fruitful life.  I went to his memorial,  listening to the stories told by politicians, newspaper staff, family and many, many friends.  It was not a sad ceremony, more a celebration of this man who had such a powerful impact on so many.  A GOOD impact.  It was the best job I have ever had, and it's sad that it ended so abruptly.  The newspaper was sold around 1989 and new management had no time for fresh young kids like me hanging around.  I moved on to other jobs, in other directions, and have yet to ever match the satisfaction I had working at the local paper.

The reception was held at the newspaper office.  Yes, in this age of internet news and instant gratification, this newspaper is still in business!  After saying hello to old friends and catching up with the two members of the news staff still in circulation at the paper today (pun intended), I headed to the back of the building to see what might be left from those old days.

IT WAS ALL THERE!  I opened the back door and the 1980's practically leapt into my lap.  I think that might be my old desk under all those boxes - it looked like it:

The old machinery, the morgue files, the layout wax, the contact sheets, all of this is now stored in the back of the newspaper:

The contact sheet files were all there too:
I wasted no time reacquainting myself with the old "Mug shot files" - I saw my very own teenage writing on many of the file folders:
In the end, I did not find it a sad task to remember the man who gave this fresh kid a chance back in 1984.  His life and influence were celebrated through the many happy stories we all had in abundance.

I found it harder to realize that everything I learned in those few years is no longer needed.  There are no waxed newspaper pages waiting to be taken to a printers.  There are no more typewriter ribbons to be replaced. Stacks of contact sheets and the red pencils used to crop those images lay in old metal filing cabinets. There is no darkroom with strips of negatives hanging to dry.  The microfiche machine lies dusty and unused, a symbol of a time when information was tangible, something you could touch and share and file.
In closing, I ask you to please support your local newspaper!

I'll also leave you with the best lessons I learned from those days:
Always be learning
Always be listening
Always be willing

...and proof read. Always proof read.

1 comment:

David Hoffman said...

Well Miss Hall - your training still pays dividends. A very nicely written piece, and one from a time that I was proud to share with you. While you took the effort to memorialize this "best job", I couldn't agree with you more; it was my best job as well. And here's to many, many more years of taking photos, writing stories, and proofing, proofing, prufing... Though our memorials may never be attended by what remains of the newspaper family that we grew up with, I will always be proud to have learned these lessons with you, and with my fellow newspaper people.