The other day I was excavating in the landfill that is the basement when I came upon my old typewriter. This thing is twice as old as I am, easy, an ancient heavy black Remington that may have typed out someone's bold adventures or love letters or Great American Novel once upon a who knows when.
I don't recall just where I found it, but it always reminds me of the roots of my craft. I got my first newspaper job at 15, writing sports for the venerable Fort Dodge Messenger in the last couple of months before the stubborn old girl finally replaced typewriters with computers for good.
The newsroom has never been the same.
It used to be a wild and romantic place, filled with shabbily swashbuckling characters with cocky mustaches, wide ties and bellbottoms, and glamorous ladies with too much makeup and big hair who cussed like sailors. One thing they all had in common was the belief that they were doing something that mattered. A something that an internet-bleary society seems often to value less today - truth.
Newsrooms were dirty and cluttered and bustling at all hours of the night, a Woodward and Bernstein place full of scoops and intrigue that was very appealing to a teenage kid looking for something to do in life.
If you wanted to know how good a reporter was, or how sober, the typewriter would tell you.
When a talented writer had hold of a hot story, chasing some rascal out of power or crusading for social change, they would bang the keys fast and loud, with infectious clattering enthusiasm, and everyone knew there would be something exciting to read the next morning, something no one else would know. If a writer was reporting on tragedy, the typewriter would ring morosely soft and slow.
The gentle pitter-pat of a Mac keyboard just isn't the same. Raucous newsrooms filled with energy, the smell of bad cologne and stale cigarette smoke, gave way to sterile environments full of potted plants that look and run like an insurance office or telemarketing joint.
At the same time, many of the unique characters who made journalism so much fun have disappeared as well. They would simply not fit the professional mold today.
At the first paper I edited in college in the '80s, one of my reporters insisted that his name was
"Magic," and so it appeared on his byline. He once painted a mural on the office wall of the president riding a chopper and firing Terminator type weapons, labeled "Ronald Ray-Gun."
My sports reporter achieved traction in the winter with his huge old Monte Carlo by filling the trunk with bales of marijuana. Seriously, bales.
Anger management wasn't a fine art in that era. I once witnesses a sports reporter ripped the phone out of the wall, hurled it against the far side of the building, where it ricocheted off and accidentally struck his girlfriend square in the face as she sat beside him.
In my early days at the Pilot, two competing reporters fueded constantly, with it coming to a head as one locked the other in the darkroom, with no way out, over the weekend. She eventually kicked her way through the steel door, with spiked high heels no less.
Suffice it to say that the sofa in the break room got plenty of extra-curricular use in those more freewheeling days, but you won't hear anyone's secrets from me.
Here in Storm Lake, when I started we had a reporter, an odd old bearded dude, who claimed to go on assignment on his beat every afternoon, when he actually was going to the lake and taking a dip, sans swimwear. He showed up again daily with smelly water seeping through his cheap suits.
A young cub reporter on staff would arrive every day in pantyhose, but by every afternoon had somehow become bare-legged. She remains a friend to this day and has her own prestigious ad agency, but I still haven't quite been able to bring myself to ask where all those pairs of hose went, and why.
One guy smelled so bad that other staff members created a barrier wall of those odor-eater thingies all around his desk, but he miraculously did not get the hint. An intern paused every few paragraphs to do ballerina stretches to work out her writing kinks, muttering to herself in French.
The've all gone, and will likely never be replaced.
The American Journalism Review proclaimed "A Eulogy for Old-School Newsrooms," and indeed, it is true. Staffs are smaller and more politically correct today, called upon to do more tasks in less time, with less opportunity for individuality and outright weirdness.
The great journalists are mostly gone. Major cable TV "news" stations and some news magazines and papers twist the facts to suit their own purposes and politics, and no one calls them on it.
The passion for journalism is still here, but any self-indulgent stooge with a laptop and a blog full of gossip can consider themselves a "reporter." Some of the character and magic of the process is gone forever.
We still love what we do, but it's more of a job for most today than it is a calling.
And in the newsroom, there are no whiskey flasks hidden in desk drawers any more, no missing panty-hose or well-used couches or crusty old school editors who insist on proper English, and no loud banging of journalistic prose coming together - just a cacophony of tiny cell phones blipping and beeping and issuing eight second burst of bad pop songs, and the quiet ticka-ticka-ticks of the plastic keyboards.
Thank goodness there are professionals, still, out there in search of truth. But if I was 15 again, and walking into my first newsroom now, I'm not sure I would fall in love with it.
And that scares me a little.