October 22, 2018
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Newsrooms may change, but not the need for news

Renee Ordway

Newsrooms traditionally have been very noisy places — chaotic, perhaps, to the uninitiated. There are police scanners blaring, a TV or two tuned to 24-hour news stations and ESPN, impromptu meetings convening in various corridors, reporters and photographers coming and going, ideas and questions and occasional jokes being shouted from one desk to another.

A seemingly impossible place to get any good work done.

Oh, but such good work gets done.

Not just at this newsroom, of course, but in much bigger and much smaller ones all across the country.

Most people think newsrooms are exciting hubs of activities, smart, edgy, interesting and spontaneous.

Those people are exactly right.

The people that are in the newsroom, of course, are a quirky combination of talents. They are nerdy wordsmiths mixed all up with adrenaline junkies and sport fanatics and serious art writers. There are those blessed with the talent of producing lengthy and important investigative stories sitting next to those dashing off to weave together a Page B3 police beat item and an intern entering newsworthy items for the Calendar page.

I spent the better part of my adult life sitting in the middle of one and most of the time felt I had the best job in town. I still think I was right.

When I arrived for my first day as a City Desk reporter in the Bangor newsroom I was convinced I would never be able to form a thought amid the chaos, let alone write one down using proper English.

It was 1988 and I had been transferred in from the two-person Pittsfield bureau.

You might liken it to being a nurse in a small-town doctor’s office and relocating the next day to the emergency room at Eastern Maine Medical Center.

And each day, Assistant Managing Editor Kent Ward (Old Dawg) would march through the newsroom at the same time and yell, “State Desk, City Desk, Copy Desk, Spooooorts.”

The obedient editors of each desk would fall in behind him to attend the midmorning editors meeting during which the next day’s paper would begin to take shape around a small conference table.

The young among us would listen to the elders tell of us the good old days of “newspapering,” when phones actually jingled loudly, reporters banged away on loud manual typewriters, hard copy was sent to the composing room by vacuum tubes, nearly everyone smoked at his desk, some had ink-stained hands and many had a fifth tucked away in their bottom drawer.

Newsrooms are a much more sober place today, in part because being liquored up on the job is strongly discouraged and because depleting budgets and revenues and layoffs and uncertain futures have become as much a concern as breaking a great story.

And they are quieter due in part to high-tech equipment and because there are simply less people working in them.

Newspapers are downsizing and closing nearly weekly across the country. Midcoast Maine’s beloved weeklies were the most recent.

There are actual websites dedicated to chronicling their demise. One is called Papercut, which provides unofficial data on the latest layoffs and closings across the country.

Philadelphia’s two financially troubled newspapers, which are jointly owned, may be sold for the fourth time in six years. The Washington Post recently offered a buyout to 48 newsroom employees. Last December the Tampa Tribune laid off 165 people, 16 percent of its work force, and at the end of January two-thirds of Michigan households were unable to get daily newspaper deliveries because of reduced distribution schedules at papers in Detroit and four other Michigan cities, according to Editor and Publisher.

There are some who study the business end of newspapers who predict that 1,400 dailies could disappear over the next five years.

I mean, where is the place for a daily newspaper today when news is distributed by TV and the Internet at nearly the precise time it occurs?

It is not all bad news, of course. Because of global citizen reporting, people worldwide are notified quickly of atrocities and tragedies occurring nearly anywhere and hence rectifying action might be realized much sooner.

And there will always be a need for people with interest and a bit of skill to sit and record the happenings at city council meetings and in legislative chambers.

And I hope there will always be a venue for good reporters to publish their stories.

But the transition to these new media, whatever they may be, is painful and, for me and many others, a bit sad.

The old folks in the newsroom in the 1980s and 1990s spoke of their own old newsroom days in the 1950s with great nostalgia, as I guess I do of mine today.

There is still so much work to be done.

And there are hordes of smart, quirky and adrenaline-driven wordsmiths out there ready to do that very important work and ready to serve a generation that is probably hungrier for information than any before.

It’s just going to be served up differently and probably with much less noise.

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