On Matters That Matter

The man who removes a mountain begins by carrying away small stones

What Happened To Newsroom Characters?

leave a comment »

This lovely piece has been in my mail ever since it was first sent by a friend. David Shaw lamenting about the disappearance of newsroom characters in 2002, and I guess the situation now is no better. In 1994 when I joined my first job I met some delightful rogues in the newsroom, people one loved to talk about because of their odd way of looking at things and an odd way of living. Having come from a small town where there was no dearth of characters, like in most small towns; I slowly realised the dearth of them in big cities. I am putting this piece in my blog because I’d love to share it with people and to preserve it here lest something happens to my mailbox.

By David Shaw
© 2002 Los Angeles Times

In my early years at The Times, at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the ’70s, I often marveled at the stylish prose turned out by several colleagues whose writing was so evocative and so lyrical that I came to think of them as poet-journalists. When Bella Stumbo died early this month, at age 59, she became—sadly, shockingly—the fourth member of that elite group to succumb at a relatively young age. Dave Smith died in March, at 64; Chuck Powers in 1996, at 53; Jim Stingley in 1984, at 43.

Talent and early death were not all these four had in common. They all worked hard and played hard, with booze, drugs and inner demons as not infrequent companions. And they were all genuine characters. Jim shambled through the newsroom, unkempt and unshaven, looking more like a lumberjack than a reporter. Dave had various psychological problems, and in 1968, after he wrote a long, brilliant profile on a deeply troubled mass murderer named Benny Smith, one editor here nicknamed Dave “Benny the Shrink.” Chuck and Bella were a couple for a while—a ferociously tempestuous couple—and I can still recall Bella punching Chuck in the mouth during one of their more public quarrels at The Times’ local saloon.

I miss these four—and their talent. I have at my desk, in a file labeled “Others’ Epics,” copies of several of their stories. An early paragraph in Dave’s Benny Smith profile: “Inwardly, in one dark valley where his mind comes more and more to dwell, and where no one else can see, corrosive fantasies leap and flicker, finally taking on life of their own—stronger than that of their quiet, timid creator.”

Dave, Bella, Chuck and Jim were all long gone from The Times when they died, but I think their absence symbolizes a void in our profession (and our society) that’s even greater than their talent. There aren’t many larger-than-life characters being hired in big-city newsrooms—or stepping into the larger political arena—these days.

The only true character I can recall The Times hiring in the past decade or so lasted about two weeks in the mid-’90s. His newsroom colleagues ridiculed him and complained about him, and he got no support from the then-top editors. He left in a New York minute.

I’m not saying that today’s reporters aren’t good. Most newspaper staffs are better than they were 30 years ago—better-educated and more sophisticated. Many, at The Times and elsewhere, are fine prose stylists. But they aren’t characters. They aren’t colleagues about whom you go home and say, “Geez, you’ll never guess what Bella [or whoever] did today.”

This is more than a lament for the good old days. And I certainly don’t long for the days when many reporters played poker in the newsroom, took free meals and gifts with both hands, and drank their lunch out of half-pint bottles stashed in the bottom drawers of tobacco-stained desks. But I’m convinced that when you take the characters out of the newsroom, you also take some of the character out of the newspaper.

Newspapers are generally more responsible today than they used to be. But they’re also—often—less interesting. There are far fewer stories of the sort that make a reader say, “Wow, I never thought I’d see that in the paper.” I’m thinking of a mood piece Chuck wrote after hanging out with derelicts in MacArthur Park, for example, and I’m thinking of an impressionistic blend of hippie dialogue and quasi-dramatic construction, written by Dave Felton, another of The Times’ 1970s poet-journalists. Click on the headline to read the full story…

Pages: 1 2

Written by Deepan Joshi

August 18, 2009 at 10:39 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: