Saturday, January 24, 2009

Tales of the Newsroom

The Courier News is moving from Bridgewater to Somerville after 40 years, reporter Mark Spivey tells us.

After retiring on July 31, 2003, I never set foot in the building again. Every so often, I thought of visiting, but eventually all the reporters I knew had moved on, including two of the four people who covered Plainfield after me.

A lot of my memories of the building have to do with its inhospitable construction. There was no fresh air and all summer it was 60 degrees inside. Stuck out on Route 22, it was inaccessible except by car. The newsroom was a big, open place with most desks piled high with news releases, official documents, reference books and quirky artifacts such as toy cars, figurines and stickers. I had a Tube of Gloom, from the Archie McPhee store in Seattle, which emitted a mournful groan when upended.

There was a high staff turnover and staff departures were marked by the appearance of an ice cream cake on top of a file cabinet and a brief show of bonhomie. These cakes or something much better from the Gaston Avenue Bakery appeared for birthdays, and folks gathered to serenade the birthday person, while sometimes an unlucky staffer was on the phone trying to interview a grieving family member or an important dignitary.

I liked the killdeer that nested in the gravel outside, and the wildflowers that grew on the embankments around the parking lot. When the indoor chill became too much, I would take a walk around the building and maybe pick a small bouquet for my desk, or should I say my pod. Four arrow-shaped desks were arranged together in such a way that everything past the computer monitor was out of reach. The center of each pod gathered rolls of dust that seldom got cleaned. My most memorable pod mate was a young reporter who was ill-suited to covering municipal meetings and went on to more intellectual pursuits, writing for prestigious magazines.

A lot of people ate at their desks, because once a round of calls was made for a story, the reporter had to wait for callbacks. Of course, most of us were working on many stories at once. I used to pack in provisions like a wilderness explorer, but if the day wore on too long, a circuitous trip to Somerville became necessary to get food. Some people went to the Bridgewater Commons, but that always seemed like too much of a trek in heavy traffic for me.

One year, the newspaper converted from the old Atex system to a more modern one. We each had two monitors and two keyboards in front of us for a few weeks while the kinks were worked out. I often found myself typing on the wrong keyboard.

One of my favorite things was the clip file. Besides microfilm dating back to the earliest days of the paper, there was the “old library” of clips and a newer one dating from around 1987. I learned a lot about Plainfield and its people from those clips. Later, a digital archive was created, but finding the right keyword to get an article was a tricky business. The library and digital archive also had byline files and I liked to see the volume of my work.

When I first started in 1987, editors smoked in the newsroom and photos were developed in a darkroom. Soon there was a building-wide no smoking policy and eventually the photo bureau went digital. There was profit-sharing and free coffee early on, but both faded away.

Business and editorial both had staffs of three, later reduced to one each. I saved all the seating charts and they show the trend toward fewer and fewer people as the organization flattened. General assignment reporters gave way to a rotation called “Day GA,” which we pronounced like the name of the French painter. Similarly, the Day in the Life series was called DITL, pronounced “dittle.” Beats such as health, science, education and crime disappeared and we had to take turns doing cop runs to pick up the police blotter. Then cop runs were dropped.

Most of the newsroom romances went over my head or under my radar, as I was too old to schmooze and gossip after hours with the young reporters. Ye Old York Inn, in Raritan, was the gathering place for socializing in the 1980s. But I was 20 years older than some in 1987, and one of my last pod mates was 40 years my junior.

Somerville should prove to be a much more agreeable location. In a quick walk, staffers will have access to all sorts of food and drink. Real people, one of the requisites for quotes and comments, will be found just outside the newsroom. It will be much cozier than the 71,227-square foot building that was advertised for sale as a warehouse.

Even though we shared the building with circulation, advertising and production, most of us were unaware of employees other than those in the newsroom. Now that newspapers are combining (CN and HNT) and outsourcing major functions, the remaining employees may get to know each other better. People who use public transportation may even be able to get jobs there, though not as reporters. And reporters can set out from Route 28 instead of Route 22.

Good luck to Mark, Brandon, Laurie and all in the new place. Maybe I’ll take the bus or train to Somerville and peek in one day.
--Bernice Paglia


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really, really enjoyed this post, especially noting all that's changed and all that's stayed the same over the years. Being a cigar enthusiast, I really wish the smoking policy never changed!

Your description of the Rt. 22 building was spot-on, and I'm certainly excited about our new digs. Although I will say I heard lots of people talking about how they'll miss the old place over the past two weeks. Only being there six months, I don't think I had enough time to become at all attached to it.

Thanks for the good wishes, and do stop in!


4:30 PM  
Blogger Bernice said...

Thanks! Have a great time in Somerville. And have a Cuban sandwich. And some Thai food. And anything from Alfonso's.

6:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a former copy editor who arrived later in a reporting job, most of my memories of the building are of late-night panic and boredom. Warily eyeing the wires for breaking news as evening edged into night. Sprinting out into the parking lot during 15 minutes of down time to make a crazed run to Wendy’s in Somerville for fast food. (And inevitably having to order for 10 other people.) Frantically scanning the first few smudgy, barely legible papers coming off the presses for overlooked errors. The massive, dull smell of ink coming from the pressroom, where the beast's many whirring cylinders slept during the day.

It wasn’t long after I was hired in 1997 that the huge camera used to shoot broadsheet pages and produce plates for the presses was made obsolete. Large-format film printers that disgorged full-sized negatives took its place. For years after that, the camera sat in one corner of a back pre-press room, now a forlorn antique.

It was tremendously sad to me and many other CN alumni when the presses were stopped in Bridgewater a year ago or so. It was symbolic of the slowing of an entire industry that once seethed with life.

It’s hard to believe, Bernice, that you were in that building for 16 years. But damn, it may be even more difficult for me to grasp that I was there myself for a period that spanned nearly a decade.

The staff turnover in that time was incredible. It would probably be gauche to spend too much time on that particular phenomenon, an exercise which would inevitably smack of trying to assess blame, but still, it was a shame. A lot of quality people passed through the halls of that building ... along with some who were not as fun to work with.

There was a tradition when someone left the company -- on their last night, as they left to walk down the long hall toward the parking lot for the very last time, one of the Sports guys, usually Harry Frezza, would stand up and shout something like, “Ladies and gentlemen, Chad Weihrauch has left the building!”

I wonder if, in the past few days, Harry stood somewhere in the newsroom, now stripped of desks and computers, files and personal effects and paperwork, and shouted, “Ladies and gentlemen, the Courier News has left the building!”


-- Chad

12:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is 1:35 a.m., an appropriate time to wax poetic, since when I began to write at the Courier-News in Plainfield in April of 1970, I usually headed for the door around 2 a.m., having waited for the west coast scores to bang across the A.P. machine while all else in the building was reduced to the hum of overhead lights, a police siren speeding around Church Street, or just the silence waiting on Blue Moon Odom to shut down the Tigers 1-2-3 in the ninth inning so I could leave.
I walked out of the C-N on Route 22 on a summers night in 1992. As I read many of the names on Lynn Jackson's blog, I do not recognize them. I must be old now, because all I can think of are guys in the back shop who used to smoke like blackjack dealers, bitch about articles that didn't fit the layout, and wander out to the newsroom at night to see who the new hotties were interning every summer. Or they would sit on our desks, wanting to know how the Dodgers were doing at Shea. I dated one of those summer interns, around 1972 or so; I think she might be living in Texas now. And the year before I left the building I fell in love with a volunteer movie reviewer. You can't even imagine what that did to my focus - or maybe you can - feeling that my time was being wasted at my desk until my addiction dragged me to our next randevous (I was always a horrible speller). Eventually, like the building now itself, it crumbled under cruel reality, missed deadlines, so-called progress and a full moon in the parking lot - now filled with buried memories and bylines. Not sure where that first kiss was now, somewhere in the last row of the lot.
I see mounds of dirt now; tractors, fence to keep us out. I am reminded of guys who died when I worked there, guys who have died since. And really, was writing about someone else's life really worth it all those years, instead of living my own. Or was that my life? Maybe there really couldn't have been a better job than that; maybe most of the best memories I have I just don't remember.
I do remember a lot of laughs, late-night beers at the Ole York Inn, parties that lasted till dawn and somehow driving home in strange rush hour traffic without nodding off. I remember sleeping until noon. I might have written 5,000 stories there. I remember Andy, who died falling off a ladder cleaning the gutters. I remember Sam, who went to USA Today and liked to recite Ezra Pound. I remember interviewing Willie Mays, Richard Todd, Willis Reed, Tug McGraw, Lou Rittino, Danny Higgins' father at Piscataway High, driving to Lancaster, Pa., to put the paper out when our system was down and pulling into the parking lot somewhere around 5 a.m. I remember champagne the first night we published a Sunday paper. I remember part-time kids who went on to do twice as much as I ever would. And I remember one night a ferret (sp) peeing on my head. Seriously.
I also remember one day sitting against the flag pole out on the lawn, crying my eyes out. I remember a special editor telling me to take the day off not worry about coming back until I was feeling OK.
Mostly I remember that building as an anchor. It was there. It was a permanent (sp?)file to my past, open 24-7. Now it's a construction site. Time marches on, we might say in a poorly-written cliched' sentence.
But I will continue to write.I will continue to remember.

2:34 AM  

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