Sunday, April 14, 2013

NEWSROOMS: WHERE LEGENDS ARE BORN (PART 1)

Note: This is the first of what will be a probably intermittent series of posts on newsroom legends. I hope that whoever reads them will find  them interesting, fun and not too overly self indulgent.
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After nearly 43 years in the business, I have learned many things, among them is the fact that that there are two absolutely immutable truths of newspapering. First, when you spend a career in newspapers and look back, you will realize that no two days were ever exactly the same. I am not sure that anyone in any other business can honestly say that. Second, there is no other workplace on the face of the planet like a newsroom for longer variety or reasons than I can't even begin to list here, but all of you who are, or have been, news people know what I mean.

One of the things that makes -- or at least before the spread of corporate ownership and the introduction of domineering HR departments used to make --  newsrooms incredibly interesting environments to work in are the legends that are born there, many of which would give today's HR directors a severe case of the willies.

Like most legends, those growing out of newsrooms are a mixture of facts and hearsay that alter with each retelling until the kernel of truth that lies beneath them becomes hard to identify. Many of the tales growing out of the nation's newsrooms have their genesis in the fact that once upon a time they were home to little in the way of political correctness, or, for that matter, correctness of any sort. That began to change, I think, with the introduction of computers, carpet and corporate HR, but has not and will not ever disappear completely. That may be due, in large part, to the fact that every newsroom seems to be an island of misfit toys. I've never worked in any newsroom that didn't have more binders full of legends than Mitt Romney had binders full of women. Sometimes the legends involve people who have worked in the newsroom. Sometimes they are about stories the newspaper has covered.

Shortly after joining the staff of The Fort Worth Star-Telegram as business editor in 1982, I began to notice that every now and then I would see other staffers who'd been there longer wearing t-shirts that on the front had a cartoon of a little dog and the inscription: "When frozen dogs are outlawed." On the back was another cartoon of the dog lying on its back, stiff with its legs pointed skyward, "X"s for eyes and the inscription: "Only outlaws will have frozen dogs."

Finally, I asked someone what that was all about. I was told it involved a much covered murder that occurred several years earlier in a small Texas town a few dozen miles south of the Dallas-Fort Worth area involving a man who had been paroled after may years imprisonment at the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville. Upon his release, he moved back to the small town and into the house that had been left to him by his deceased parents. He landed a menial job, acquired a small dog and had every intention of living there peaceably for the rest of his life. The dog pretty much became his constant companion and only friend. Unfortunately, it also took to relieving itself on the beautiful flower beds of the two elderly sisters who lived next door. The sisters, upset with the little dog's urination habits spoke to the aging ex-con who promised to make the dog stop, but was unable to reason with the pooch.

One evening, he came home and was horrified to find his little dog dead on the front porch. Distraught and unable to immediately part with his friend, he put the dog in the freezer and began to drown his sorrows with booze. After several days of drinking, he started asking question around the neighborhood, trying to find out what had happened to his little dog. Finally, some kids told him that the elderly women next door had been suspected of poisoning other animals who had opted to use their flower beds as a latrine. The thought that his little dog had been poisoned so upset the ex-con that he took to several more days of drinking while he screwed up his courage enough to confront his neighbor ladies.

Finally, days after the dogs demise, he was ready. He went to the freezer to retrieve the dog, which by that time had become frozen stiffer than a supermarket turkey. He tucked the frozen pooch under his arm and headed next door. He knocked on the front door which one of the sisters partially open and then slammed in his face when she saw the rigid hound. The ex-con knocked again. This time the door was opened just a crack and he was told by one of the sisters to go away before she called the police. She tried to slam the door shut again, but he forced it open, barged in, got into and argument with the ladies and, in his drunken stupor, ended up beating them both to death with the frozen dog.

Just how true all of this is, I must admit, I have no idea. A further investigation by me into all of the facts never materialized while I worked at the Startlegram. I have tried in the intervening years to research the incident online, but to no avail since it occurred before the era of computerized court records or newspaper archives. All I know is that there must have been some basis in truth or the paper's staffers involved in the coverage would never have had the "When Frozen Dogs Are Outlawed, Only Outlaws Will Have Frozen Dog" t-shirts printed.

In newsrooms, stories often grow into legends and so do people. One news person who became a legend in his own time and about whom many stories were and, I suspect, still are told was Norman E. Isaacs, who was the executive editor of the Courier-Journal and Louisville Times when I started working there in January 1970 -- my first job out of college. Isaacs is widely regarded as the preeminent newspaper editor of the middle third of the 20th Century, in large part because he is the man considered responsible for instituting the code of ethics that most American journalists live by today and because he had an absolutely brilliant news sense that led to him and his papers to win three Pulitzer Prizes during his career. Under his guidance, the Courier-Journal and Times came to be regarded as among the five best papers in the United States. He also had a legendary temper which earned him the nickname "Stormin' Norman." He may have been one of the last of the newsroom absolute dictators and would have given today's newspaper HR directors both a heart attack and a stroke.

I met Isaacs just once before he left the paper a few month after I started working in the Indiana Bureau, headquartered on the third floor of the American Bank building in downtown New Albany, Ind., right across the Ohio River from Louisville. That meeting was on the day I was being interviewed for the job and found myself being taken from one senior editor's office to another for a brief introduction. After meeting Louisville Times Managing Editor Bob Clark and then Courier-Journal Managing Editor George Gill -- who, like me, was a product of the journalism school at Indiana University -- and carrying on 10 or 15 minute conversations with each, I was ushered into Isaacs' office. He spent a minute or two looking over my resume, stopping for a second to say, "Indiana University, good school." Then he went on reading and stopped again, looked up and said, "So you were in the Navy? Good. That means you at least can probably at least follow orders." With that, the brief meeting was over. When we left the office, I was sure that I had not gotten the job. So, I was surprise when Gil Neal, the Indiana bureau editor, who had been squiring me around said, "That went well. I think he likes you."

I got the job and several month later found myself in the middle of what was to become one of the Stormin' Norman legends.

During my first several months in the bureau, there were lots of good stories and things were going extremely well until the news seemed to just dry up as summer approached. Bit but bit, much of the bureau staff of eight reporters sank into a barely productive doldrums. Everybody, that is but Brenda Tyree and Bob Scully, two of our three old pros in the bureau. Somehow, the two of them just kept chugging along with the same high level of production of great quality copy they had always been their hallmark. Despite that, the overall production by the bureau had slipped to abysmal.

The bureau's production -- or, maybe I should say, lack of production -- level did not go unnoticed by Isaacs, who summoned Bureau Chief Gil Neal to his office across the river to "God damned explain what the hell is going on over there."

Nothing, but nothing, in world made Gil more nervous than having to explain anything to Stormin' Norman. With a great deal of trepidation, Gil showed up at Isaacs' office the next morning and was immediately brought before the boss who launched into a long tirade peppered with language that might have made even the crustiest sailor blush.

When the quaking Gil was finally given a chance to  "explain," it was his intention to let Isaacs know that not everyone had lapsed in to minimal productivity and that Brenda and Bob were still doing great work. He at first hemmed and hawed until Stormin' Norman again demanded to know "what the hell is the problem."

That's when Gil blurted out, "well, Brenda and Bob..." But, before he could get in another word, Isaacs slammed his fist down on the desk, saying, "Well, fire them!"

"But, but," Gil responded.

"No buts, you go back there and fire them right now," Isaacs ordered.

With his tail between his legs, Gil drove back the New Albany and dutifully fired the only two people in the bureau who didn't deserve to find themselves out the door.

Although is was in no way the right thing to do, it turned out to be another brilliant move on the part of Norman Isaacs, because it scared the hell out of the rest of us and bureau productivity immediately began setting new records.

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