In the new edition of American Journalism Review, Carl Sessions Stepp writes about old-school newsrooms. That, in turn, has triggered a long Facebook exchange between several of us who were in a great old-school newsroom — the Arkansas Democrat of the 1980s.
The phrase “Star Wars bar scene” gets applied to newsrooms fairly regularly, but it’s a deadly accurate description of that particular place. Virtually everyone was in his or her 20s or 30s, a number of people working there seemed to have been randomly gathered from off the street, we were in a vicious newspaper war with the Arkansas Gazette, the pay and working conditions were a joke (reporters didn’t even have their own computers — they had to share a too-small bank of machines, even on deadline), pretty much everyone smoked and/or drank, generally to excess, and I feel fairly confident when I say that 80 percent of that newsroom was certifiably goddamn crazy.
What we mostly did, when we weren’t working ourselves into an early grave, was have a tremendous amount of fun together. There were legendary parties, even more legendary couplings/uncouplings, lots of drama, an embarrassing amount of crappy journalism, a surprising amount of really great journalism, and dozens of true stories that sound like the worst purple fiction imaginable, all set against the backdrop of a city and state that were filled with their own cartoon characters (Tommy Robinson! Say McIntosh! A still-very-young Bill Clinton! Sheriff Coolidge Conlee, who kept Wayne DuMond’s testicles in a jar on his desk! Steve Clark and his expense account gone wild! “Sweet Sweet” Connie Hamzy! The entire Arkansas Legislature!)
By the time I ejected myself from the place in early 1990, with a freshly fumbled relationship in my wake and a couple of prescriptions in hand, I’d had about as much of that as I could take. My new job was a lot healthier and a lot less fun and sure enough, the Democrat hired me back within a year — but that was to go to Washington, where I worked out of my bedroom and had none of the exposure to the craziness. And then the paper remodeled its OSHA nightmare of a newsroom and won the newspaper war, and most of the craziest people were booted or moved on and were replaced by better-paid, more-professional folks, and the old-school era ended. By the time I finally relocated in an actual newspaper newsroom again, many years later, most newsrooms had been thoroughly sanitized for your protection.
It’s easy to romanticize those days. In reality, a lot of the joy was rooted in shared pain. But that newsroom was undeniably wonderful in its own twisted way. I’ve forgotten about most of the bad times but I will always miss the good ones at the Democrat of the 1980s.