Goodbye, you ink-stained wretches!

That's part of our crew of editors, reporters and even a couple of clerks in the pressroom at The Houston Post when our Gulf War edition came off the press. That's me on the far left in the white shirt. Fred King, who died just last week, is near the center of the group, wearing a white shirt with his sleeves rolled up.
That’s part of our crew of editors, reporters and even a couple of clerks in the pressroom at The Houston Post when our Gulf War Extra Edition came off the press. That’s me on the far left in the white shirt. Fred King, who died just last week, is near the center of the group, wearing a white shirt with his sleeves rolled up. Some of us had worked all night on the regular editions, then came back early to publish the Extra.

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.”

Ben Dover, our rubber rat, was our Universal Desk mascot at The Houston Post. He now lives in my laundry room in New Jersey, and he's still pissed off.
Ben Dover, a rubber rat, was our Universal Desk mascot at The Houston Post. He now lives in my laundry room in New Jersey, and he’s still pissed off.

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!

Why are these men smiling? That's me seated in my office on Black Tuesday with members of my staff, from left, Copy Chief Steve Howland, Page One Copy Editor Bill Gould, and Assistant News Editor Larry Lovelace. The photo taken by former colleague Gail Smith, one of our Women of Wire. Congratulations to all of us for making it out of the newspaper business alive!
Why are these men smiling? Good question! That’s me, seated in my office on Black Tuesday, with members of my staff, from left, Copy Chief Steve Howland, Page One Copy Editor Bill Gould, and Assistant News Editor Larry Lovelace. The photo was taken by Gail Smith, one of our “Women of Wire.” Congratulations to all of us for making it out of the newspaper business alive!
My pica pole followed me from my first job in Santa Fe, N.M., to New Jersey. Information like 12 points to a pica, 6 picas to an inch are no longer needed in today's newsrooms.
My pica pole followed me from my first job in Santa Fe, N.M., to New Jersey. Information like 12 points to a pica, 6 picas to an inch are no longer needed in today’s newsrooms.

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.

The front page of the final edition of The Houston Post, April 18, 1995 is on former colleague Peter Radowick's wall.
The front page of the final edition of The Houston Post, April 18, 1995 is on former colleague Peter Radowick’s wall.

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.

In a perfect example of newspaper humor, former copy editor Jan Jordan, photo at left, sent me a rusted bedpan for a Christmas gift, featuring the image of William Dean "Stinky" Singleton as a target. It was Singleton who sold The Houston Post down the river. We haven't forgotten you, Stinky!
In a perfect example of newspaper humor, former Houston Post copy editor Jan Jordan, photo at left, sent me a rusted bedpan for a Christmas gift, featuring the image of William Dean “Stinky” Singleton as a target. It was Singleton who sold The Post down the river in 1995. We haven’t forgotten you, Stinky!

 

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14 Comments

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  1. Wow. Lot of well written emotion here. I’m glad you have the artifacts to remember the good old days by.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow . That was all very sad. I do remember good times and people from a place I worked years ago. They moved and everybody went everywhichaway..Sigh. I always wondered why you wound up in NJ. by the way, none of my dolls were ever as creepy as that rubber rat.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s so good to see that you’ve finally let go of all that bitterness and recrimination. Any chance you’ll be joining us for the 20-year gathering in August?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Spoken like a man who has lived too long in the south. Had you moved up here where the cold winds blow, you’d know that bitterness, best nursed with a fine single-malt scotch to hand, goes a long way toward keeping you warm at night!

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      • I don’t understand. How can it be possible to live too long in the South? And any Southerner — especially a Texan — will tell you that real warmth on a cold night comes from your true love and a fine, hand-sewn quilt. Sorry to hear that you and Mary won’t be able to join us at the Cadillac Bar to toast our 20th.

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  4. A very heartfelt post! You should definitely go to the reunion and see your newspaper family.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Maybe they can make a video of the party and you can watch it on your mobile device 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I am late to the party, but great post. I especially liked the pics – everything I’ve ever read about newspaper newsrooms makes them sound both amazing and terrifying. Which is an excellent combination.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Amazing and terrifying” is an apt description. There’s a different feel to publishing on paper as opposed to something that is strictly online, because there’s no safety net. Once that thing is off the press and whisked away to somebody’s doorstep, there’s no fixing the error like I can do on this blog with just a couple of keystrokes. The ease of fixing mistakes in this medium makes it all the more amazing that there are so many mistakes in online news stories. Anyway, that’s why we’d sometimes stumble back to the pressroom after last call at the local watering hole, because while discussing the night’s events over an adult beverage or three, we’d sometimes get to wondering, “when I moved that Israel story from page 4 to page 11, did I remember to change the refer line on page one,” and you knew you’d have no rest that night until you discovered the horrid truth, whether you could do anything about it at that point or not! So yes, terrifying, but also amazing. I was in Houston for the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, and right across the river from Midtown during 9/11. Not to be ghoulish, but in a sense we lived for those kinds of crises. They brought out the best in everyone, and the sense of teamwork really can’t be replicated.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I imagine those were amazing times! I love reading stories of newsmen – even when it’s just a small story, it is just fascinating.

        As someone who grew up reading the morning newspaper (and loved doing so), I am so grateful for those times and that writing – it taught me to love reading, writing and just being interested in the world around me!

        Liked by 1 person

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