I’ve already written extensively about The Houston Post and what it meant to those of us who worked there, but there’s something about round numbers that cause most humans to reflect, and today marks 20 years since Black Tuesday, that venerable newspaper’s last issue before it was shut down.
The Houston Post alumni e-mail list has been unusually busy of late with news about the death of a former colleague, and also with plans for a 20 year reunion in Houston later this summer. Then yesterday, another former colleague posted a photo on Facebook showing his copy of our final front page. Here’s what I wrote in response to that post: “Working there changed my life. Not working there did, too.”
Although I landed at another good newspaper that is itself on life-support today, I never had the same feeling working there that I did in Houston, even though I ended up working 15 years at The Star-Ledger as opposed to just 10 years at The Houston Post. In Houston, my response to belt-tightening or work demands had been to dig my foxhole deeper and keep fighting with everything I had. When the same things started happening at The Star-Ledger, it just pissed me off. Maybe that’s because I’d been through it before and had simply had enough, but more likely it’s because I left my heart in Houston.
For those of you who never worked for a newspaper, they become a part of your identity. There’s a sense of procreation when working for a newspaper. Journalists give birth to one every night and hold it in their hands. Sometimes what you held was wearing a smelly diaper, but more often than not you held a palpable sign of your hard work and dedication.
With the recent passing of two former colleagues — first Joe Fisher of The Star-Ledger, then Fred King of The Houston Post — I’ve been thinking a lot about newspapers and the people who put the spark of life into them. It’s not just newspapers that are dying. It’s us — the ink-stained wretches — who are also dying out and taking the spark with us.
Journalism isn’t dead yet, but journalism as we knew it is certainly dying. I don’t think it will be long before online news organizations won’t have anyone left to remember what it was like to work with … you know … paper!
When I started in newspapers in 1977, I just missed the hot-metal days, referring to the printing method that was prevalent at most newspapers prior to that time. The newspapers where I worked for 33 years used offset printing, and I always thought I would have been a better editor if I’d had some exposure to the older techniques.
With each advancement in technology, newspapers gained speed but lost something in know-how. There’s not a doubt in my mind that technology cost newspapers a lot of what made them cool. The throbbing, beating heart of any newspaper is its printing presses, but by the time I got there, The Star-Ledger’s presses weren’t even in the same building as where I worked every night in Newark, N.J.
By the time I hung up my green eyeshade, new journalists coming out of college didn’t know how to count headlines, had never worked with printers, didn’t know how to rip wire copy or even know what the old guys were talking about when we reminisced about narrow-gauge vs. wide-gauge teletype paper. The new breed had never heard of a pica or a pica pole (I’m looking at you, Young Skywalker!), never scaled a photo the old-fashioned way, never saw a glue pot or a hot-wax machine, never stood in the pressroom at 2:30 a.m to take a fresh one right off the press after stumbling back to the office when the bars closed at 2.
Just like someone might have felt sorry for me that I missed out on Linotype machines, I feel sorry for the kids who missed out on all those other things that really aren’t needed anymore.
In my day, there was pride in seeing what you worked on all night being read by a stranger the next morning. Conversely, any sense of self-importance was destroyed when we saw our baby sailing down a rain-washed gutter or trampled underfoot in the aisle of a bus. I think of Peter Radowick’s final edition memento. What will you online news junkies do when you publish your last edition? Nail your iPad to the wall?
With each death, with each retirement, there are fewer of us left to remember how it was. Does it matter? Maybe only to us.
Twenty years gone. Goodbye, you ink-stained wretches.