By GLENN REDUS and JOE ECKDAHL
I was a high school journalist. That’s me in the photo above, the fourth boy from the left. The picture was taken during my junior year of high school and was featured on the front page of my first newspaper, The Tartan.
My journalistic career was scripted two years earlier when my middle school counselor went over my options for electives once I transferred to high school. She told me I sucked at math and science (which I already knew) but was very strong in language arts. “Journalism might be a good choice for you,” she said, and that was probably the first time I ever even heard the word “journalism.”
The next year in high school I was given the choice of newspaper staff or yearbook staff. I chose newspaper, and the die was cast for a future that would include an appropriately named BJ degree from The University of Texas at Austin and a 33-year career at five different daily newspapers in three states.
Journalism was good to me. It kept a roof over my head, food on my table and paid me just enough to raise three children to productive adulthood. Why, then, do I still have nightmares about newspapers 11 years after I walked out of a newsroom for the last time?
Turns out I’m not alone.
During a Facebook Messenger chat last week with one of my former bosses, the conversation took an unexpected turn from best films to watch during a pandemic to this:
JOE: “I still have dreams about being in tough situations at work.”
ME: “You too? I have what I call ‘newspaper nightmares.’ Usually involves an enormous load of work that can never be completed. Been having them for years, and I expect I’ll have them for the rest of my life.”
JOE: “Yeah? PTSD.”
Over the next few days, Joe and I had more chats about how our careers ended. I accepted a buyout the day before Thanksgiving 2010 at The Star-Ledger of New Jersey; he took a buyout from The Los Angeles Times in 2013, though he did work at another newspaper in Alaska until 2017.
Ultimately, however, we put lids on our careers and our experiences are eerily similar. We never talked about it until now.
Through one or more of my blogs, I’ve touched on my newspaper experiences before, but usually in a tangential way. I’ve been reluctant to talk about what led to persistent nightmares because, frankly, it makes me look weak, especially when I consider that other people in other lines of work have it much tougher than I ever did. Think nurses during a pandemic and perhaps you’ll understand my reluctance to whine.
Joe feels it is significant but not unusual that two editors at two different publications could have such a similar outcome to our individual newspaper endgames. He thought writing about it might help us, and although I still have reservations, I’m making a start.
Where there were two disaffected former journalists there are probably many more. In fact, we know that for a fact.
So what was it that took work I loved and morphed it into work I came to dread?
You’ll hear from me again later, but for now I’ll turn it over to my friend and former boss, Joe Eckdahl.
“When I decamped from The Houston Post, I hired on at the Los Angeles Times as senior news editor for the San Fernando Valley/Ventura County editions. There were three, four or five zoned messes going on at the same time.
“San Fernando Valley was zoned with downtown’s LA, and Ventura County was zoned east and west. West is a coastal plain and beach community; east is nestled above a grade and more annexed to Los Angeles.
“I often worked the Ventura County edition on Fridays and Saturdays, and I’d have anywhere from 16 to 18 pages, multiplied times two because of the two editions. Each edition entailed five locally zoned stories on the front local section page, then a couple of jump pages, some inside stories and then yards of open space for Los Angeles County and San Fernando Valley copy. It was the same drill for the east county.
“In addition, I busted into A1 and placed a zoned story on the front page. In Ventura, I had to wait until Los Angeles was done with its copy and then wait on San Fernando Valley to finish up its work before beginning to piece together the puzzle as best I could, just to minimize changes to copy and headlines.
“Lawdy, I handled as many as 240 columns a night, so, yeah, I have nightmares, too!
(EDITOR: For the uninitiated, ‘columns’ are how newspaper people measure their space. Take an old-fashioned print newspaper and open it up. You might find six distinct columns of type that measure 21 inches from top to bottom, and that would represent one column of space. Keep in mind that most newspapers have shrunk considerably since the good old days. But in Joe’s example, 240 columns would be a hella lot of space for one editor to fill.)
“What affected me most, though, were the brutal and widespread layoffs. After toiling for a couple of years in the zoned news sections, I became a “bigger cheese,” serving as assistant managing editor for page one. I knew every byline that came across my desk and took keen interest in how stories and accompanying photographs and graphics were developed and crafted. Everything was reported, written and shot by my colleagues and friends.
“It was a chore to juggle all that back in 2000 when the Times had just about that number of editorial employees, but by the end of the decade, that number had been slashed to about 650.
Each loss diminished the report and hit me like a death. Colleagues were there one day and gone the next, all while the company was being catastrophically mismanaged by a series of owners who insisted on those very layoffs.
“If it wasn’t one nightmare, it was another. Whether it was the edition not coming together as planned, more layoffs, or the ownership rumor of the day, all of it was distracting journalists from the timely delivery of their best work.
“While I had the good fortune to work for a series of editors who allowed me the freedom to concentrate purely on the journalism and not get involved in personnel issues, it was an awful several years before the bell finally tolled for me.
“I remember the frustration and fears, tears and anger often communicated by the 1,500 that went before me. But for me, the buyout was a sad relief.
“Sure, I was in my early 50s and worried about just how I would provide for my family, among them two sons who had recently been accepted to University of California schools, but this kind of stress I didn’t like dealing with.
“I could guide an anxious and tense newsroom through another deadline fire drill, but the stress of seeing my friends cut down in their prime and then facing it myself was a tough pill to swallow.
“Which brings me to the dream that wakes me in a cold sweat and haunts me to this day:
‘I’m in the newsroom putting a particularly bothersome edition to bed. It’s excruciating. I finally tame the edition, decompress for a bit and then head for the door. When I get to the garage, my car is not there and it doesn’t turn up in a thorough search of the parking structure. I then venture out onto the streets and can’t find the car there either. Now I’m worried about getting home and sleeping long enough to get back in for another 12-hour shift. I begin to walk the 50 miles home but get lost on treacherous and unfamiliar ground.’
“This goes on all night! The same feelings churned while awake now haunt me in my sleep! There’s a feeling of helplessness and abandonment, uncertainty about where I stand in life, and confusion about how I might chart the future.”
What Joe wrote is a good approximation of what many former journalists went through as the newspaper industry augered into the toilet in newsrooms across America.
It so closely echoes my experience that I feel no need to compare them point by point.
Suffice to say that by the time you’ve worked in the same career field for three decades, one has a pretty good idea of what is normal vs. what are unrealistic, unfair and even cruel expectations. Also, suffice to say that after that much time, one has a good idea of his or her own strengths and weaknesses. I was never a slow editor, quite the opposite in fact. But the workload became such that I often felt overwhelmed and uncharacteristically flustered. I was never confident that I could work that quickly without making mistakes.
By the end, I was lucky that my children were grown and I gladly accepted a buyout when it was offered. My boss at the time told me, truthfully, that he wished he could hire more people just like me, but the reality was that he could hire three college kids for what I was then making. Of course he was right and I knew it.
I walked out of the newsroom and never looked back, instead taking a part-time job at a nearby Home Depot store until my wife could retire. I knew my career was really over on that chilly predawn in 2011, waiting for the Home Depot doors to open when I heard that Osama bin Laden had been killed by U.S. Navy Seals. Typically, I’d have been rushing off to the newsroom, but on that May morning I just walked inside and tied on my orange apron. I no longer gave a shit.
With an attitude like that, it’s easy to wonder what attracted me to journalism in the first place. With the Watergate scandal still fresh when I went to college in the spring of 1974, a lot of people might assume that I wanted to be a journalistic crusader like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein at The Washington Post.
I liked newspapering because I was good at it and knew it. Something clicked as early as high school. It wasn’t so much the writing part that grabbed me, but the big, clunky machines — teletypes, OCR readers, punch tapes, process cameras and, of course, the beating heart of any newspaper, the presses. It got in my blood right from the start, and it took a long time before the last drop drained from my veins.
Thinking back to the early days, it was somehow cool to walk around with purple fingers after changing the ribbons on the teletypes, or spend an hour before dawn spooling punch tapes in a wire room filled to overflowing with the overnight report. After spooling the mountain of tape onto a device that I’d wind up like a clock mechanism, I’d then match the tapes with the corresponding hard copy, printed in that same purple ink on yellow fan-fold paper.
Of course I’d also have to “rip the wire,” and if you’re an old newspaper guy like me, you already know what that means. Story lengths were calculated by physically measuring the narrow-gauge teletype copy with a metal ruler (but don’t ever call it a ruler, it was a “line gauge” or “pica pole”). After measuring your copy, you then divided by two, which would give you a fair approximation of how long your story would be when it was set in type by a machine that read that punch tape.
At my first newspaper, headlines were written on an IBM Selectric typewriter with the margins set to a predetermined width based on how many columns you wanted the headline to cover. If the headline then proved a little too long, printers wielding X-Acto knives might “kern it in” with the blade. The practice might lead to those slightly crooked headlines you oldsters barely remember seeing in your printed newspapers.
Newsrooms at the start of my career had a look, sound and even a smell that was intoxicating. Maybe it was the smell of hot wax, but also the rubber cement in brown glue pots, or the smell from the tons of ink and newsprint wafting up from the press room. It was the olden days, so reporters and editors were chain-smoking and puffing like a steam engine as deadline approached. Never a smoker myself, I didn’t care too much because, by god, it added to the ambiance.
But by the end of my career all that ambiance was long gone, and while some of that was a good thing, there were also things I missed. There would be no more clattering teletypes, no more hot wax, not even any dangerously colorful printers, plying their trade with sharp instruments and a bad attitude: “What do you mean you don’t want a slice of my orange, college boy, you think you’re too good for me?”
You might think that the removal of some of those more earthy aspects of daily newspaper life made things easier, but in actual practice, the last 12-15 years of my journalism career in a more sterilized newsroom were an abject misery; I hated every minute of it.
No longer would I take visiting friends and relatives on newsroom tours because, truly, there was nothing left worth seeing. Even the press room at my last newspaper was now empty, that job having been moved to a remote plant miles away. No more could we feel the throb of that beating heart in the basement, nor could we walk down and take a fresh one off the conveyor belt. “Hot off the press” had become a misnomer.
We couldn’t even yell “Stop the presses!” anymore because that was too expensive. Those decisions were taken out of journalists’ hands and decided by some bean-counter in the circulation department.
By that point, in fact, all that was left was the mounting stress to do more in less time while wondering what benefits would be downgraded this week, or whether I’d even have a job in a month’s time.
We were no longer just editors, but printers, too, using computers to build pages that used to be assembled by quasi-skilled and cursing craftsmen. There was no longer anything interesting or special about the place, it was just desktop publishing, except on a much larger scale and with a woefully inadequate front-end system.
And the galling thing was when our “betters” gave nary a shit as they walked to the elevator after delaying news decisions to the last possible moment and compressing our near-impossible workload into a scant 3-4 hours before deadline. Few of them understood or cared that when they made “just one tiny, last-minute change” to a newspaper, it was like tipping that first domino that sets off a cascade felt all the way down the line.
But we were pros so we were just expected to handle it, and let the recriminations come tomorrow.
While my career gradually devolved into a hellish existence (I know of three journalist suicides and a fourth one suspected but unconfirmed) I remained a huge advocate of daily newspapers.
Long retired, I still preach to friends and family that the best thing they can do to safeguard the country from corrupt government — including the shame and lies of the past four years — is to subscribe to a daily newspaper. Sadly, few of them listen. They’ll say that Twitter is cheaper, easier, and so much more fun!
The flip side to being a booster of journalism is that I’d never recommend to any of my six grandchildren that they follow Grandpa into the newspaper business. And there’s something wrong with that picture. Important as my job was and as important as the profession remains, the personal toll is just too high.
Last night I lay awake in bed thinking about how I would wrap up this very post. I thought about the stress. I thought about the disrespect. I thought about the anger. I thought about all the people who died way too soon.
Worst of all, I wondered if it was preferable to be lying in bed and thinking those things while awake, or go to sleep and let them come to me unbidden in another nightmare.
Either way there’s no escape.
I’ve touched on my career before in my writing, and last night I decided it’s like walking on a treadmill. I trudge along, ostensibly for my health. I’ll sweat and I’ll fume. I’ll watch the distance counter and the clock, yearning for it to end. And then, when I finally get off, I’ll note that I’m in exactly the same place where I started.
Writing about my career is like that. Doing it for my health? Get it out of my system? I already know the results will be negligible at best.
Journalism was something I loved so much that it became my career. Then it became just a job. Then it broke me.
I hope newspapers somehow continue and I salute those who soldier on. But tired and sad from my insomniac reflections, and wondering what deep-seated horror might resurface in tonight’s nocturnal newsreel, I cannot in good faith recommend it.