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  • February 15th, 2019

STOP THE PRESS!

By Joel M. Vance

 

The University of Missouri journalism school dates to 1908, the first such school in the world. The first building housing the fledgling J-School dates to 1919 and became Neff Hall, named for the father of Ward Neff who gave money to build it. A second building adjacent to Neff Hall is named for Walter Williams, the first Dean of the journalism school.

 

By the time I got to the journalism school in 1954, my junior year in college (the first two years having been spent in such meaningless classes as algebra— which I would never learn if I spent 100 years in the class— and American history— which I already knew nearly as well as the boring lecturer who taught it) J school consisted of the two buildings (Neff and Williams) separated by an arch, guarded by two concrete lions.

 

The legend was that the lions would roar if a virgin ever passed through the arch. Although I passed through that arch many times en route to class, I never heard a peep out of those iconic felines, though I was eminently qualified to spark them into action.

 

Every beginning news person was required to take “The history and principles of journalism” course taught by the school’s longtime Dean, Frank Luther Mott. I was in the final class taught by Dean Mott, by then a professor emeritus. The textbook was his and I still have it and it still makes interesting reading. Dean Mott has long since gone to a corner of heaven inhabited by defunct news men and instead of listening to harp music throughout eternity, they are serenaded by the clatter of Linotype machines and the roar of a rotary press, music to the ears of print guys.

 

By taking Dean Mott’s course, I escaped the threat of what happened to the late Mort Walker, creator of the Beetle Bailey comic strip. The University brags about Walker as a distinguished alum. Some years back I wrote a fan letter to him, one J-Schooler to another. Walker wrote back, “I was kicked out of J-School. I had just returned from four years in the Army during World War II and had become editor of the Show Me Magazine, a member of the honorary journalism fraternity, a straight A student and I had an office in the J-School.”

 

Mott called Walker into his office and said that he saw by Walker’s records that he had not taken the history and principles of journalism course and Walker said “I was too busy saving the world for democracy, Sir” and Mott screamed at him to get out of the office and the next day Walker’s office was locked and he was out of the school. During my four years at the University, the Show Me Magazine, a humor publication, was more often shut down for making fun of the administration then it was actually being published— so Walker was ahead of his time as a J-School student and instead carved out a career making fun of the Army, rather than Dean Frank Luther Mott.

 

 The J-School newsroom in those days was a noisy place populated by neophyte journalists armed with clacking manual typewriters. The only computer that any of us knew about was Eniac, a 30 ton machine that took up a whole room in a government facility somewhere and did laboriously about what it takes a modern hand held computer microseconds to do on a chip the size of your little fingernail.

 

Instead, we labored over manual typewriters that predated by decades the electric typewriter and which were barely more practical than a quill pen and a piece of paper.  The typewriters were Remingtons and Underwoods. Possibly the more affluent of students had portable typewriters like the one used by famous war correspondent Ernie Pyle during World War Two. The desk models weighed as much as a baby elephant.  You didn’t carry one of them to cover a local meeting; instead you had a reporter’s notebook and, if like me you didn’t take shorthand, you struggled to scribble down notes on what was happening and hoped to be able to read them later while writing your story.

 

I was lucky enough to have an Underwood that had belonged to my mother and father and which dated to the 1920s. The only maintenance it ever got was a ribbon change when the letters on the paper got so dim they were barely readable and I ran the risk of wrath from Dale Spencer the J-School professor/copy editor who had a tongue as biting as the sting of a mule driver’s whip.

 

The luckless student in whatever the course was that included a session on the copy desk prayed that he or she would bask in the benevolent presence of anyone other than Spencer. When Spencer’s glowering presence dominated the copy desk we approached writing a headline as if it were a coiled rattlesnake. Once, however, I wrote a headline for a one paragraph wire story about how a prison convict had escaped by hiding in an empty soap barrel. Inspiration struck! “Con in soap barrel/makes clean break” I slid the headline timorously in front of Spencer and waited an eternity for his reaction. I think I saw the corner of his mouth twitch briefly and he spiked the headline. (Copy spikes were lethal looking pieces of equipment, a metal base topped with a long, sharp stiletto-like spear on which you would slap stories and headlines ready for the Linotype machines— you ran the risk of impaling yourself, a sort of Jesus like mutilation.)

 

We wrote copy, the now archaic term for how one constructs a news story for the press, on flimsy paper backed with a sheet of carbon paper which, in turn, was backed with an even more flimsy second sheet that served as the backup copy. Make a mistake and you either X-ed it out or painted over the mistake with White Out, an extinct substance which came in a little bottle, equipped with a tiny applicator brush like something you would use (well, not me anyway) to apply eyeliner.

 

Once spiked, your copy went through a mysterious process which resulted ultimately in it appearing in that day’s Columbia Missourian, the daily newspaper printed by the school of journalism in competition with the Columbia Tribune the city’s family-owned commercial newspaper. We had the advantage of an unpaid reporting staff; they had the advantage of professionals who knew what they were doing.

 

Today the Missourian still is published by the University but the Tribune has, like so many other one time family-owned operations, become a cog in a conglomerate, sold out of the family to a faceless corporate entity. The fate of the Tribune is symptomatic of what has happened to the newspaper business in the last few decades. The “local” newspaper of yesteryear today is more likely to have corporate headquarters far from the town it supposedly represents. This is not a good thing.

 

The erosion of the nation’s print media starts at the top with a socio-pathetic president for whom the nation’s legitimate press is “the enemy of the people” and to whom any story he does not like is “fake news.” If he were to have his way, any news media with which he disagrees would be eliminated, leaving only regime-approved news sources. And this is the very definition of a totalitarian society. Once you get rid of the truth tellers, all that is left is a dictatorship.

 

General Joe Hooker, one of Abraham Lincoln’s best officers, got in trouble with his boss when he said that what the Union needed was a dictator. That earned him a tongue lashing from Mr. Lincoln, who understood democracy and how it operates better than just about any of his Republican descendants, today in positions of political power.

 

But equally as malicious a threat to the printed word is the gobbling up of the nation’s small dailies by corporate conglomerates to whom the backbone of such newspapers— local news— is a foreign concept. The local newspaper for 200 years or more has been the source of a community’s daily identity.

 

The newspaper I worked a decade for was family-owned for a century by the White family. The first Robert M White, back in the 1870s, apparently had at least one fistfight with an irate subscriber and the concept of horse whipping the editor occasionally  substituted for dissatisfaction with news coverage. I think maybe a good old whuppin’ might soothe everyone’s feelings better than the half-baked and often half witted letters to the editor which litter the op-ed pages of today’s newspapers.

 

Corporate giants have swooped down on the newspaper industry and the family-owned dynasties of yesteryear are vanishing. Even the Washington Post whose team of investigative reporters (Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein) brought down the pernicious president Richard Nixon, no longer is family-owned. Instead, it is owned by Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world.  The Washington Examiner, Donald Trump’s Trojan horse in the print media world, is trying to destroy Bezos’ reputation because Trump doesn’t like the Post’s reporting of his nefarious dealings.

 

Trump may have picked a fight with the wrong guy because the Amazon-owning zillionaire has vowed to spend what it takes to whup up on the Examiner and by extension, quite possibly pull off another Nixon coup de grace. Maybe print media is not quite dead and the concept of horse whipping those who abuse the public trust likewise still exists in modernized form.

 

My old newspaper today is a cog in a conglomerate machine and one of the first actions it took after its takeover of the paper was to fire the sports editor— the job I had for 10 years. Maybe that colors my feelings about corporate ownership of small-town dailies, but such personnel decisions all too often are made by bean counters far removed from the community their newspaper is supposed to serve.

 

For a semester in J-School, my beat was the school board. Unfortunately for me, the board met at the north end of the city and I lived at the south end. I had no car and in order to cover school board meetings I had to hike the length of the city, scribble my notes, hike back to the dormitory, write my story on my antique Underwood in what Frank Sinatra called “the wee small hours of the morning”, turn my copy in virtually at daybreak to a well rested Dale Spencer and then trudge wearily to the first class of the day.

 

Today’s reporter can dictate his story to a smart phone, using voice recognition software, download it remotely to a computer where mysterious things happen electronically and the result is a pristine column on that day’s Columbia Missourian. No more wearying hikes to cover school board meetings, wee small hours laboring over a clackety Underwood. It’s tempting to say that those were the good old days, but they weren’t. Technology has made today’s news gathering and reporting a cakewalk by comparison. But the dark downside is the erosion of a free and unfettered press and that is a dark side best exemplified by what happened to Rod Smith.

 

Our local television station sold out to a large corporation and one of its first acts was to fire Rod Smith who had covered sports locally for the station since his high school days, the television version of an old time shoes-on-the pavement reporter. There was an immediate and virulent blowback from the community and the bean counters hastily reconsidered and rehired Rod. In a classic in your face moment Rod recently has been inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame. Chalk one tiny win up for the good guys.

 

The last refuge for local news is the weekly newspaper, too small to attract the attention of the great white sharks of conglomeration, where you still can read about family reunions and bowling scores. It may also be the last refuge for hilarious typographical errors. Every old print guy collected such gaffes and passed them along to fellow news men (often over beer) to general hilarity. They were funny only if you had not been responsible for them. When I was at the Alabama Journal we lived in the eternal fear of any story or headline concerning Fort Rucker. Once, so I was told, a society story in the Sunday edition of the paper referred to a prominent society girl who was having a coming-out party as “A classy young lass” only the Linotype operator dropped the L in the last word. The story goes that the entire newspaper staff spent several hours roaming the streets of Montgomery collecting papers off people’s lawns and sidewalks before they woke up and read the society page.

 

My favorite such story which may be apocryphal—but who cares— concerns two Missouri Ozark towns that actually exist–Licking and Halfway The headline in a local paper supposedly read “Licking Girl to Marry Halfway Man”.

 

Once, when I was in high school, the local weekly newspaper transposed parts of two stories, one an obituary, the other a report of the activities of a social club. The obituary ended interestingly “At the end of the evening, Sally Smith organized games and a wonderful time was had by all attending.”

 

Perhaps, at the bitter end of the nation’s print media, if such a dire fate awaits the profession that I cherish, the last struggling little weekly newspaper will publish an obituary for the voice of democracy and those who now call for an end to what they disparage can organize games and have a wonderful time by all attending.

 

 

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1 Comment

  1. Carrie J DeValk

    February 15th, 2019 at 5:55 pm

    Reply

    Gaffes are funny! I remember a student writing about his job at the meat market. He said his duties included “butchering, cleaning, and helping customers.”



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