By Rosalie Tirella
Watching this 60 Minutes interview, thinking about the new Tom Hanks/Meryl Streep movie, got me thinking about American newspapers and writing for a “daily,” The Springfield Union News, pre-social media – say, the early 1990s. Back then I was a cub reporter for the Union News, just an hour and a half westward ride down the Mass Pike from ol’ Worcester. I had made the wise decision to move to Springfield to immerse myself in the city – and its news.
I had been a “stringer” for the T and G here in town, back when the T and G – like most daily newspapers in America – was the only show in town and hence lucrative, and hence able to hire all kinds of writers. Back then the T and G reporters filled an ENTIRE building on Franklin Street! Three floors of writers! And there were all kinds: columnists, lifestyle reporters, cooking writers … travel, features and even music (classical AND rock n roll!) reporters. Today? Just the bare-bones news and sports writers , throw in a columnist here and there. It’s the formula for most second/third-tier city dailies in America today.
But back in the day things were so good$$$ for mid- to big-city daily newspapers that their reporting staffs overflowed into the many small towns and burbs around them. That was true of the T and G and Worcester County. We called them “news bureaus” – publishers rented small offices in the surrounding towns to “cover” them, too. Report their news. These news bureaus had a managing reporter/editor type in charge of two or three town reporters, plus a couple of stringers who covered the teeniest town meetings that were deemed to insignificant to be covered by the reporters. These town meetings were usually sparsely attended and run by town officials – big fishes in miniscule ponds who loved the sounds of their parochial voices. Their egos were huge. Many were stupid and/or corrupt. I loved it!!
This was my entry into the writing world: Chasing a Spencer police chief who turned around and chased me out of his police station – his cane raised over his head, swiping away at me! Limping and waving his cane over his head at me – Rosalie Tirella, not just a girl Polak from Green Island, but a REPORTER who demanded the TRUTH – to see the town’s police log – public record! I was a real threat to this guy! I had power! The truth, the law, was on my side! Intoxicating!
Reporting totally appealed to my feisty, right-makes-might, writerly Catholic girl self! I was in heaven in that stinking little police “headquarters,” being chased by the proverbial racist, sexist small town, good ol’ boy top cop! I knew, at that moment: This is the life for me!!
Flash forward three years… I’m still a stringer at the T and G. News editor Leah Lamson doesn’t want to take a chance on me and hire me as a full-time reporter – for a T and G bureau. “Our reporters have masters degrees from the Columbia School of Journalism, ” she tells me. Haughtily.
I think: Right, Leah, and you got your entry level reporting job here because your family used to go to the same summer camp as the old editor.
But I was more polite back then. So I held my tongue. Faced with her snobbery – and mediocrity (Leah couldn’t write for shit!) – I smiled, thanked her for her “time and consideration” and shook her hand. Goodbye!
Then the magic happened: I was hired as the Enfield, Connecticut, reporter at the Union News in Springfield, the same kind of newspaper as the Telegram – a small city’s major rag. They had just opened their Connecticut bureau but weren’t renting an office in Connecticut. The money folks weren’t sure how their CT experiment would unfold. So they kept their five newly hired CT cub reporters – my four colleagues and me – in THE CITY ROOM in Springfield. WHERE ALL THE GREAT REPORTERS WERE! WHERE ALL THE ACTION WAS! The big, beautiful, sprawling, fluorescent-light lit city room!
Did you look closely at the Washington Post’s city room in the above video clip I posted? That’s the way it was in Springfield. That’s where I worked four glorious days a week!
Picture this: Rose begins her day at the Union News hub, in the middle of a diverse, challenged and challenging city… the doors open…the news room beckons: row, after row, after row of desks…each desk with a reporter typing on the chunky keyboard of his or her gargantuan desk top computer – the early ones. Atop their metal desks: notebooks, thick, bound reports, file folders of “clips” they’re referring back to for info and context, dinky paper cups filled with bad coffee bought for just 50 cents out of the big coffee machine in the utilitarian (let’s face it – ugly) break room off to the side. The computers are as ugly as the break room. Big plastic television set jobs – the size of a Lazy Boy lounger. The computer screens are ugly too: no beautiful screen savers, no fancy bells and whistles…just the black background on which you typed your deep and beautiful thoughts in ghastly green letters, in a basic, no nonsense font. Paragraph, after paragraph. It was really all about the words back then. Nothing was Instagramed, touted on FB, publicized to death in a fast, streamlined, slick manner. No one sat on cool ergonomically designed desk chairs, no one drank lattes or spring water. People drank Coke and many reporters smoked cigarettes – in the city room.
The desks were big clunky metal jobs – like the ones your high school teachers sat at. Nothing was saved in “the cloud” – we each had tall or short metal filing cabinets in which we saved our new clips – the ones we cut out of papers and periodicals. We created different file folders for different subjects: the dog pound, the shooting at the park, the restaurant with the roach problem. Our file cabinets also looked like the ones you’d see in your high school – your principal’s office.
And yet the writing was terrific! The reporters smart and intellectual – and hard nosed – and idealistic! We talked poetry and music when not writing our stories. We shared notes, sidled over to each other while sitting in our beat up metal chairs – with wheels. Told a joke, flirted …
The desks were arranged in subgroups, according to the reporters’ “beats”: the cop reporters sat at their clump of desks; living had their row, schools and education theirs, features theirs, sports on the other side. Editors and copy editors were stationed in the middle of the long room – big enough to host a wedding – but the nerve center of the city room, the entire newspaper, the desks from which all the orders and decisions floweded, the people we reporters went to for guidance, advice. The (mostly) men to whom we “sent” – emailed I guess you can could say – our “budgets” – the list of stories we were working on and would have for them at the end of the day – usually around 11 p.m. , as we were a morning newspaper. Budgets had to be in to our editors around 4 p.m. You had to produce stories at the Union News. You had to always be working on a story. You had to be fast.
This was exciting.
Your daily deadline made it exciting.
Here you were – you and 100 or so other newshounds – up against the clock. Out in the city or your town or police station (your beat) in the afternoon hustling for the facts, reporting, then coming back to the city room with your notes and typing up your story. There were no cell phones back the, so you made your follow up phone calls around a million people, at your desk phone – a big clunky black job with a receiver on which was attached a plastic or rubber cradle so you could type your interview subject’s answers right onto your computer screen while cradling the receiver in the crook of your neck. All the cool reporters wrote like this. I did. It was like being in a movie – you and a 100 other people talking into phones and typing. Still, some of the great ones used only pen and notebook. I had a crush on a senior reporter who did both. Sometimes I’d look up from my computer across the room to look at him working – and catch him looking at me! City Room Lust!
You had to write – or I had to write -beautiful prose within this world-wind of people and phones ringing and keyboards clicking…this cacophony of slamming of desk and file cabinet drawers, munching and lunching! Heaven! At least at the Springfield Union News where all the reporters we’re so respectful and friendly. I don’t know if this is true for all city rooms but, while being hyper-competitive – all reporters want front page, above the fold! – my colleagues in Springfield were always proud of each other’s good work, catches and scoops. We all read each other’s stories – kept tabs on our bylines. We knew each other’s strengths like the covers of our slim, reporter notebooks: one guy was a brilliant writer! Another guy super sleuth reporter. Another was a brutal but accurate political scribe – after one of his investigative pieces was published, the politician he wrote about killed himself! Another person wasn’t much of a writer but a great guy who was good with sources and a total work horse. One gal got cheated out of the cop beat cuz she was a girl – but the cop reporter (a guy) was so good to her, so nice, so wanting to share his beat with her (he felt guilty for getting the job she deserved) it was … a little heart breaking.
Friendships formed, people hooked up and moved in with each other, a bunch of guys and gals would go on a celebratory bar crawl every Friday night – after the work week. I wasn’t a bar gal but I became friends with three or so reporters – all guys, all helpful with ideas, sources, you name it. One turned out to be a total keeper – handsome, an elegant writer – and as crazy as me! His desk was next to the reporter I had a crush on. The guy I lusted over had a cute way of typing – eyes half closed, his long bangs brushing over his forehead. While busy typing, he never brushed his hair off his handsome face, just shook his head back. Very sexy. From across the city room I’d stop typing my school board story only to see my kooky buddy sitting next to him – doing the same thing. Typing the same way my crush did. I’d laugh out loud! He would too. … I’m sure the object of my affection thought my buddy and I were both nuts! But we were good writers – sometimes my friend had written the most elegant news story of the day. Once I walked by one of the top editor’s office during one of his meetings with other top editors, and I heard him say “She’s one of our up-and-coming reporters.”
My God! Grab this girl’s ankles! Pull her down from scribe heaven! Wipe the star dust out of her eyelashes!
I floated over the ugly yellow linoleum city room floor for an ENTIRE day!
Back then there was a true mix of reporters – not everyone, as Lamson has stupidly crowed to me, had graduated with a master’s degree from the Columbia School of Journalism. Some great reporters came with no fancy pedigrees. After all, reporting started out as a career for blue collar smarties, society’s misfits and frustrated poets. That’s what made it such a great profession. At the Union News, the guy reporter I had a crush on had gone to a first rate liberal arts college, and there was a Yale grad, too. But there was a first rate gal reporter who had once been a social worker. There were Westfield State College grads – and a New York Times burnout at the copy desk. My editor was a very savvy reporter – and an alcoholic. As in reeking of booze when you went to talk to him about your stories, blood shot eyes, greasy hair … stumbling as he walked over to you. Born and raised in Green Island, I had seen plenty of this before … and looked past it. One reporter, she was my least favorite , called him a booze hound, laughing . I never called him out. Was loyal to the guy. Liked him and his ol’ smile and his takes on the news. Today the editor would be fired, I’d be called an enabler and we’d both be in psychotherapy – and AA for him and Al-anon for me, to boot. But it was different back then! He kept his job, I kept my sweet editor who, in his tipsy state, still managed to do his job. Lots of reporters in the good old bad old days were drinkers. It kinda came with the territory.
Often I yearned for more…to be on the city staff writing about city people and city issues – the racial and ethnic stew from which I had sprung. It was a drag covering the drippy (white, homogeneous) town of Enfield, Connecticut. So I’d propose stories with more oomph to my editors. Stories with a wider scope. Big picture pieces. Investigative juggernauts…but they never happened, or maybe a few did, but I don’t remember them. Mostly, people liked my feature writing and personal essays – what I’m doing now for you.
In a year or two my city room dream died. The Enfield bureau wasn’t generating enough Connecticut ad revenue – so the Union News stopped printing a CT edition. None of us were laid off – but I was offered a job all the way up in no man’s land Greenfield. In their little bureau in a little town north of Northampton. I had graduated from UMass/Amherst, so I was familiar with the town. Like hell was I going there! A small town with no big exciting city news room where the piles of books and file folders were a fire hazard, where my drunk editor gave me silly grins, where I could go to the city room library and read The New York Times just for the hell of it. Or any major American paper. The city room, where all the ideas, arguments, note books, copy editors, editors, cans of Coke, cookie crumbs, photographers, affairs of the heart and words, words words that moved, changed a CITY sloshed about like a big gorgeous gold fish in a small gold fish bowl. No. I was NOT going to the dinky Greenfield bureau after the City Room!
Watching the clip, above, made me cry. To see all that beautiful junky clunky office furniture again. To see disheveled, dissipated looking, BRILLIANT editors again! To see hundreds of work horse reporters who live and love their job. So NOT fake news, as President Trump bellows. And three cheers for all the young hungry reporters who are TODAY relentlessly pursuing the TRUTH. Their writing isn’t as strong as the guy and gal scribes who preceded them…but they work just as hard – haven’t given Trump a second to catch his gassy breath. They are relentless! And that’s gangbusters!
Still, I cry over the death of most American city newspapers (even the T and G) and the shrinking of most city newsrooms. It’s the end of a glorious era. Glad I had a chance to experience the rukus and the romance!
Rose today: still crazy for writing, after all these years!