About the underbelly
I spent two summers working as a gofer for a newspaper. They didn’t test for drugs, since it would have gotten at least two reporters and a photographer
fired. They did pay minimum wage, and it seemed like better work than McDonald’s, with less exposure to grease. Unfortunately, there was greater exposure to ink, and I still get a rash if I don’t read the paper online.
Newspapers are compiled by copying a lot of articles from the national wire services like The
Associated Press (AP) and the old United Press International (UPI). But you also have to have local photographers and writers to send to fires and funerals. Spelling and grammar were requirements until Microsoft Office and WordPerfect came along. That lowered the requirements somewhat. Suddenly, the difference in the professional classes became apparent to me, as smaller market media outlets could pay wages that only require one additional source of income each week. Today, I observe a different kind of journalism than I learned in college: We weren’t taught how to exploit tragedy and make catastrophe funny.
The folks who covered city hall, the sheriff and the morgue were well known to those on both sides of the benches, bars and refrigerator doors; the ability to keep a secret was useful if you wanted to expose corruption in the public arena, and also useful if you wanted to get through those doors. It wasn’t always about the “right to know.” Although secrets don’t sound like an important part of a free press, they actually are more important the smaller the market.
The printing area where the presses were was one to be avoided if you wanted to actually hear what your grandchildren said to you later in life, or if you were wearing good clothes. There were noxious odors and plenty of things to slip on lying around, and the press itself could take an arm as easily as it could stack your comics. The rolls of newsprint were fatal if they rolled off the rack; but the tales of workers who died for the First Amendment are lengthy the further back you go in the history of newsprint.
I was always amazed at the fact the language of the newsroom never translated to the language in the columns: If there was a Roget’s Thesaurus of Curse Words, it was written by reporters. But remember, in order to keep their jobs they had to associate with the underbelly of both politics and crime while pretending there is a difference.
They learned what not to write before they learned what they could. With only a couple of exceptions, there were few people I worked with I would have let my sister marry, but I always enjoyed them when they were buzzed in a bar. That’s where you got the real news. The stuff in the paper: That’s just what everyone agreed was the 50 percent that was safe to admit. Morality was a foreign word: I first learned situation ethics in a newsroom.
I see things have changed: Today there is always a clever way to make fun of people of the underclasses when they find themselves out of work. It isn’t journalism, but it gets published.
John Craig Popkess is a resident of Brandon.