From the Judge's Chambers-Looking at the sad current plight of the U.S. newspaper brings about a reminiscence

By William Whitbeck

  Walk with me for a moment down memory lane. 
  In 1928, two Chicago newspaper reporters, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, wrote the script for the Broadway play “The Front Page.” 
  The plot was wildly improbable, revolving around the efforts of a disillusioned newspaper reporter, Hildebrand “Hildy”Johnson, to shield a convicted murderer from the hangman’s noose, at one point by hiding him in a roll top desk. 
  Hecht and MacArthur knew the newspaper business inside out. 
  The single set for “The Front Page” was a seedy pressroom located in the Criminal Courts building in Chicago. 
  The dialogue was gritty and fast-paced, almost staccato.  The various reporters drank, gossiped, and played poker more than they wrote, and their general attitude was one of jaded cynicism. 
  Despite these features—or perhaps because of them—the play became an instant hit and was adapted a number of times for the screen. 
  Fast forward to the early 1960s.
  I was attending Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, courtesy of a four-year McCormick scholarship.  (The McCormick in question was one “Colonel” Robert McCormick, a newspaper baron in the early part of the 20th Century and the grandson of the founder of the Chicago Tribune, Joseph Medill.) 
  One of the aspects of that scholarship was that I could “intern” at the Tribune. 
  In reality, I was a copy boy and my job often consisted of getting sandwiches and strong spirits at regular intervals for the real reporters at the paper. 
  Nonetheless, I did have the experience of working in an actual functioning newsroom. 
  While it wasn’t exactly the equivalent of the pressroom in “The Front Page,” there were certainly elements in common.  But what impressed me the most was the quality of the writing. 
  Whether it was the work product of one of the intellectuals on the editorial staff or of the Trib’s person on the  City Hall beat, of a reporter hurriedly thrown at an assignment or of a rewrite man taking it all down over the phone, these people turned out stories that were both readable and grammatical, hard-edged and straight-forward. 
  They wrote for a living and it showed.
  Fast forward again to the present. 
  Newspapers all over the country are in trouble and some, like the Ann Arbor News, have actually closed their doors. 
  The Chicago Tribune—in one sense my alma mater—filed for bankruptcy protection in 2008 and has yet to emerge. 
  I talked recently with a reporter from one of Michigan’s major newspapers who told me that, although there was a decent amount of furniture left on his floor, he was the only person actually working there; everyone else in his department had either left voluntarily or had been laid off. 
  The consequences of the meltdown of traditional newspapers are myriad. 
  As just one result, we are losing an important talent pool of and training ground for good writers. 
  Charles Dickens’ first job as a writer was as a political journalist and his first novel, “The Pickwick Papers,” was serialized in a British newspaper in 1836. 
  Before World War I, Ernest Hemingway worked as a reporter for The Kansas City Star.  More recently, Robert Woodward of All The President’s Men fame got his start as a young reporter at a suburban Washington weekly. 
  Like the reporters I knew at the Trib, these writers had to produce readable English prose against a deadline and their later work clearly benefitted from that experience. 
  So, while this is not an epitaph for the newspaper, it is certainly a reminiscence.  Not every newsroom was “The Front Page” and not every reporter is a Dickens or a Hemingway or a Woodward, but an era is passing and with it a craft. 
  That craft was a valuable resource, not just for those who want the news in a readable form but for all who enjoy good writing. 
  The four most evocative words in the English language are “tell me a story” and we are gradually losing a breeding place for some of our best storytellers. 
  The Romans had it right:  ave atque vale; hail and farewell. 
 

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