|William R. Wood and Linda S. Mah smile on May 17, 2012 as they are awarded the Tony Griffin Golden Word Award by InterCom at Western Michigan University. (Photo courtesy of John A. Lacko / LackoPhoto.com)|
By Joyce Pines
View From Kalamazoo
The new HBO series “The Newsroom,” reminds me that one of the things we’re losing in today’s Internet-driven information grab bag is the sense of family that newsrooms created.
Although set at a cable news network, the second episode of “The Newsroom,” brought back memories of working as a young reporter in newspapers in Indiana and Illinois and a little of my early experiences in Kalamazoo.
The HBO show, starring Jeff Daniels as the TV anchor for a 9 p.m. cable news hour, includes a newsroom full of young people eager to make their mark in the business. Like the fictional characters, I didn’t make much money, my personal life was lived in the middle of the open newsroom and after work we’d all go to the bar with the best drink deals and cheapest appetizers. It was a life full of deadlines and disasters and because we are reporters, we were constantly in each other’s business, right down to emails inadvertently sent to the wrong people.
It was a pressure cooker but the idealism, passion and drive produced good journalism. What’s more, it was fun. A newsroom is supposed to be a place where its inhabitants can and should talk or argue about everything.
Connie Schultz got it right in a recent column for Creator’s Syndicate when she said she missed the brainstorming that used to go on in her newsrooms. It was, as “The Wire” fictional metro editor Augustus Haynes says, “a magical place.”
These thoughts tugged at me as I attended a memorial service for Kalamazoo Gazette staff writer Bill Wood on July 2, 2012. Bill was one of those reporters who had a habit of walking into a newsroom discussion and posing some of the most jaw-dropping questions you could possibly imagine. He saw the world differently. I thought the pastor at his memorial put it well when he noted that Bill looked for what was good and beautiful in the world.
Bill was fearless when it came to asking questions and he was courageous in fighting his 7-year war with cancer.
Looking around St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Kalamazoo, I was astonished by the diverse elements — politicians, musicians, chefs, actors, playwrights, journalists — who came together under one roof.
It was the power of Bill’s personality and writing that brought all those people together. It was also the love and respect the community feels for his wife, Linda Mah, a fine journalist in her own right.
Today, the demands of technology, the changing economy and perhaps the increasing concentration of media ownership among a few entities concerned with profit more than community is tearing newsroom families apart throughout the nation.
I fear something important is being lost. Newsrooms allowed people who care about news, facts, writing, photography and design to debate the information gathered and decide the best way to present it to the community.
We weren’t supposed to agree all the time - it was the debate that mattered. It gave us different ways of looking at things, the opportunity to ask the questions that would lead to follow-up stories. We took the time to argue about what words we were using and why. Plus, we were entrusted with the historical context for what was happening because we had been about the business of gathering the news for decades.
A newsroom scene from “The Wire” on the proper use of the word evacuate provides a fine example of the kinds of discussions that people who care about language and the meaning of words have with one another.
During my first years in journalism, being in the newsroom was a great learning experience. I spent much of my day outside the office - meeting people, covering meetings and events. Then I would return to the newsroom to write the stories, discuss them with my peers and editors, and then go out in the evening to replay the day with coworkers, one of whom I eventually married.
Bill and Linda were among several married couples who worked in the Gazette newsroom during my tenure there. It added to the family feeling that existed as coworkers went to weddings, watched children grow up, overheard squabbles, shared stories of illnesses, triumphs and losses.
Sometime shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, things began to change. Management began endlessly repeating the mantra “less is more.” First it was shrinking news hole and then it became shrinking staff.
When the buyouts began, the fun ended. The family that was the newsroom was torn asunder. Yes, intellectually it was just business. But it was also the community’s knowledge that was being tossed out, because many of the people who had been at the Gazette the longest and knew the community best were let go. It was no longer a priority for the newspaper to be guardian of the community’s history by having staff members skilled in knowing who to contact, how to find old clippings and files and knowing the community well enough to know the power structure and who gets what done.
In his newest mystery, “The Skeleton Box,” former Gazette reporter Bryan Gruley includes a scene where the main character, Gus Carpenter, the editor of a smalltown newspaper, has to go to the county clerk to look at old issues on microfilm, because the owners of the paper turned the archives over to the county. MLive Media Group gave the Gazette’s archives to Western Michigan University. I love it when fiction and reality collide.
Perhaps I’m getting this wrong, but I’m just sitting in my home office, typing on my laptop and posting to my blog. There’s no editor (other than my husband) to tell me I’m going overboard, no business reporter sitting next to me to argue against my economic theories, no one to push me to find a resource other than my go-to favorite, “The Wire.”
I have found a life after journalism and I love it. Sometimes I think I took a long detour through journalism to get to the place I really belong - psychology. But saying goodbye to Bill filled me with such sadness.
I’m mourning a man who was a delightful character and colleague. His passing also reminds me that the family of journalists who were entrusted with continuing a tradition begun in 1837 of telling this community’s story has been stripped of its building and most of its resources.
But Bill was an optimist who sought goodness, truth and beauty. His wife Linda is still among those trying to report the news in Kalamazoo, so I will continue to hope for the best — good, professional journalists who are valued and recognized for the work they do by those who sign their paychecks and by the community in which they live and work.