I once worked with a pressman who tapped his foot to the rhythm of the cutter blade as the press rolled out that day’s edition of the newspaper.
It was as if the pressman — a true craftsman who knew every nut and bolt of that complex machine by heart, and kept it spotless — was listening to music. Thump, thump, thump, thump, for an hour every weekday afternoon. He was part of the machine, the machine was part of him, and if some strange sound interrupted that beautifully predictable rhythm, he was on the problem like a duck on a June bug.
Upstairs, in the publisher’s office, the rhythm of the cutter blade could also be felt, a reassuring reminder that the business was alive and well. It was a comforting sameness in a business that was different every day.
We were a solid and useful part of our little town.
I once had a chance to leave the newspaper business to edit publications for the Geologic Survey, for twice the pay. Sounded like a good move at first. The guy who would be my boss said it would be my job to catch “boo boos” in the complicated reports churned out by the geologists. (First thing, quit saying “boo boo.”)
I thought about it for less than a day, and ultimately just couldn’t figure out how I could walk away from a job on a real newspaper. How would I feel when — making twice the money catching “boo boos” — I would pick up the paper and see stories I could have written, if only I had stayed in the business?
I stayed in the business for the next 40 years.
I think about that amazing pressman, and the joy I had for my minimum-wage first job as a real-life newspaper reporter, when I read stories today about massive, fundamental change in the newspaper business, and about the low regard Americans have for my old business, journalism.
In a year when our worst fears of some journalists being “in the tank” have been reaffirmed, I’m just like everyone else, cussing when I see bias in the work of the major and not-so-major media outlets. But, I also remember the fine work done by so many of my friends and co-workers (we never had the ego to call each other “colleagues”) over the years.
There was the young reporter, fresh out of college, who could walk into the county courthouse every afternoon, and come out with three or four great stories. People ached to tell him what was going on. He’s the editor of a big paper today.
Or the computer guy who took the latest in technology and put a little paper in Illinois on the map by producing the best color photo reproduction anywhere. It was so good that my boss came to town to see how the heck we were doing it.
Or the great advertising sales people who, as the saying went, “would kiss a rattlesnake to make the sale.” They kept the business viable.
Or the young circulation manager who had worked over our suppliers so thoroughly, in the name of cutting costs, that we were getting our rubber bands for almost nothing.
So many wonderful people, doing their best to be a solid, useful part of our towns.
We thought the 1970s change from “hot type” to “offset” printing was fundamental change, but we hadn’t seen anything yet. Computers, desktop publishing, massive consolidation, and the ultimate hollowing out of revenue sources by the Internet have changed almost everything about the business.
I’m sure that there are still pressmen out there like the one who tapped his foot to the rhythm of the cutter blade, and reporters getting big stories, and editors trying their best to keep their towns honest, viable and (often neglected) affordable.
But, they’re hanging on by their fingernails in the face of hurricane-level change in the newspaper business.
I know journalism is held in low regard by some. But these local folks, hanging on for dear life, deserve a pat on the back, or a cup of coffee for their hard work.
Trust me on this. It ain’t easy out there.
Dave Simpson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org