Monday, August 23, 2010

My name is Henry Schulman and I am a newspaperman

God I love that word, "newspaperman." Yeah, it's sexist. It harkens and era when newsrooms were full of men aside from the writers for the "women's pages" and the rare trailblazing woman who didn't gave a rat's backside about fitting into the old boy's network and went to work for newspapers because she loved the thought of it. We are lucky indeed that so many great women now work as journalists.

Yeah, I'm a reporter, and a sportswriter, and a scribe, and a hack, and a baseball writer, and I love being all of them. But a newspaperman is different. He is someone who might have worked with Hildy Johnson in "The Front Page," who smoke and drank and reveled in the camaraderie and actually garnered respect from the public, which saw newspapers as an important watchdog that fought corruption and toiled for the little guy.

I knew newspapermen. The teacher for my first college news writing class was a man named Maynard Hicks. He must have been a 80 then, and that was more than 30 years ago, and he told stories about working in newsrooms of the 20s and 30s, an era when the Internet and even television would have been laughed off as science fiction, when newspapers were king, when big cities like San Francisco had a half-dozen of them and all were important.

I first got the bug in high school, when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought down President Nixon. God, that was a heady time for the business. Two guys holding 50-cent pens and two-dollar notebooks asked the right questions and brought down a corrupt president. Who wouldn't want to be Woodward and Bernstein

As a high school journalist I toured the Los Angeles Times in the old Times-Mirror building in downtown Los Angeles. The first sensation was the smell of the ink as soon as you walked into the lobby. The presses were in the building. It was like liquor to me. Writing for the Fairfax High Gazette, I listed the winners of the recent swim meet and editorialized about the need for new band uniforms. Not exactly Watergate, but my name appeared atop it and it felt so good.

Fast forward to age 25, when I got hired at the Oakland Tribune. The Trib Tower in Oakland was the LA Times all over again, an old building, presses downstairs, the smell of ink and, best of all, working with older cats who back in the day were real newspapermen. My desk mate was old-timey guy who smoked cigars in the newsroom. I didn't care. I loved the scent. Then, smoking was banned in the newsroom. he bought cases of grape Bubble Yum to ease the withdrawal and told me I could grab as much as I wanted. One morning, I walked into the newsroom and learned that he died the night before. He had just gotten married. Another newspaperman gone.

A great story from the Trib. There was a newspaperman there who liked the sauce. In his later years, he did rewrite. Reporters who covered accidents, murders, government meetings, etc. phoned in and dictate stories. One reporter was covering a meeting in Berkeley at which activists were complaining about stronghand tactics by immigration officials. The reporter phoned in a quote that went something like, "We're tired of the INS coming in here and disrupting our town." In the paper the next day, the rewrite man had written, "We're tired of the iron ass coming in here and disrupting our town." Got by all the editors, too.

Another great story from the Trib, from before I got there. It used to be an afternoon paper. One Saturday morning, word came into the sports department that a former Cal athletic coach, Nibs Price, had passed away. With time short, the editor ordered one reporter to write a quick obit, another to fish for a photo from the library and a third to write the headline. It all got slapped together in a hurry, and an real old-time news guy who still employed colorful language of yore wrote a headline that read, "Death Calls Nibs Price." It ran over a photo of Price on the telephone.

As my old friend and editor John Simmonds used to say when telling this story, "No, Nibs, don't answer it!"

In 1992, the Trib died. Actually, it got sold to a cost-slashing company named Media News, which was worse than death. I wound up at the San Francisco Examiner, once the flagship of the Newspaperman of Newspapermen, William Randolph Hearst. but times were changing. We typed our stories on video-display terminals. Drinking was discouraged. Old newspapermen were pushed out in favor of hotshot kids with master's degrees in journalism. Some were fantastic. Others couldn't find a good story in a Shakespeare library, but by gum, they had that diploma.

There was a time a reporter earned his "master's degree" by working in the cop shop, when veterans would test the mettle of the neophyte by showing him gory crime-scene photos.

This is not just me channeling Herb Caen. There is a fundamental shift in this business I love. Instant opinion is welcomed, even encouraged, fact-checking be damned. I can live with the end of the printed newspaper. After all, I drive a motor vehicle, not a horse and buggy. But I cannot countenance the demise of newspapermen -- and women. With athletes, they say the name on the front of the jersey means more than the name on the back. It was the same in newspapers. The name on the masthead meant more than the byline. Yeah, there were stars, but really, it was all about telling a story, righting a wrong. Not selling a personality.

I have been blessed to write about baseball for the last 22 years. I am proud of my work and my vocation.

But, please, if you happen to blog or Tweet my obituary someday, please do me one last honor and call me a newspaperman.

10 comments:

  1. Thank God, Henry. I was afraid I was such a deeply-rooted anachronism . . . my first story was written on an Underwood upright in the 4th floor sports department of the Pasadena Independent-Star News, on goldenrod paper with a box to imitate a column. It was sent downstairs via vacuum tube to a hot-lead typsetter.

    Newspapermen were my idols growing up, and that was even before Woodward and Bernstein invented the job title of "investigative reporter"...

    Just as I always call Lowell Cohn "doctor", an honorific he earned along with his PhD., I will always speak of you as a newspaperman in the future. It's the least I can do for a true professional.

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  2. Amen! Nicely done....Hildy Johnson

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  3. You just hit it out of the ballpark like the Hammerin Hank. Thank you for reminding us of how important the people behind the presses are and how they once were. We need more like you. At the ballpark I want to be handed a sports page with box scores and stories to be read and passed around. Not access to a damn app for my iPhone or iPad.

    Newspapers created and nurtured baseball into the "National Pastime.". er

    Mp3s and tweets don't have integrity and soul.

    It's music on vynal and news on print that creates the richest experience.

    Play Ball and read it the next day in the papers ..,

    David

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  4. You know, Henry, I enjoy your Giants' stories and tweets, but this blog is really your best stuff. Thanks.

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  5. I agree with rev-joe. Really glad you chose to do a blog, thank you!

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  6. Newsroom stories are great.

    Speaking rewrite men, I heard of a crusty old one taking dictation from a high school wrestling tournament at a paper in the Central Valley (don't know which). The reporter had a line about an athlete "sucking wind." The rewrite guy joked, "It would be funny if he was sucking (something else)."

    And, yup, something else is what made it into print. The rewrite guy was encouraged to retire.

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  7. This great post reminds me of my first writing job, as a weekly columnist for the Peninsula Times Tribune. Leonard Koppett had retired as editor but still covered sports. Man, could that man write. He strolled the newsroom in a three-piece wool suit - in the summer, in Palo Alto. He was a newspaperman, and so are you, Henry.

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  8. It amazes me how Newspaper reporters can write in large, nosy rooms surrounded by dozens of other writers and editors.

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  9. I think people still respect newspaper journalism and journalists, whether on paper or online. If a story needs pictures or video, they're available, but if you want to know the whole story, you get it from the print people who actually live and work where the news is. I have little respect for "seagull news", where the national people fly in, squawk a lot and crap all over the actual story, then fly away.

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