January 2, 2017
By Arthur H. Gunther III
“The Front Page,” a reverent bow to the once more-irreverent news profession, written by Nyackers Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur and recently revived on Broadway, could have been staged in the 1930s-1970s city room of the original Rockland Journal-News just blocks away from Hecht and MacArthur in this Hudson River, N.Y., village.
Irreverence was key in that newsroom. Few reporters took big-deal politicos at their word without questioning. Public relations types didn’t last. Scribes went after small-town news, which is just like big-town — same misfeasance, malfeasance, graft, crime, along with the good news of humanity.
The best newspaper people I knew in my 42 years on the job were oddball characters, largely in cheap dress, smoking all the time, drinking too much, scribbling notes on unpaid parking tickets, constantly asking questions. Then, when they got back to the office or called into rewrite, crusty editors (but always brothers in ink) would ask questions of them. Nobody trusted anyone until the presses rolled with the daily birth.
And it was all done under the big city room clock that had its sweep hand in double time as the inevitable deadline loomed.
My paper was no big city daily. In the earlier days, about 10 reporters, four photographers, four desk people, a sports staff, features desk, too, and a city editor, managing editor and executive editor who wrote opinion and who made sure the people’s voice got in as well.
There were always green kids on staff, some of whom really blossomed and then went on to the big dailies. Some long-serving reporters, editors and others were so rich with local experience that their effort was as good as on any big-city sheet, even better.
Hecht and MacArthur, two former Chicago scribes, wrote about big-city reporters in The Front Page,” but the newspaper tribe offered its own well-tested stiffs on shift at 53 Hudson Avenue, too. I don’t know if, when old Charlie bid Helen Hayes, his actress wife, a good night and took a long drink at the St. George bar, whether he came across the street to the Journal-News, but if he did, the city room would be more than familiar.
Today, with far fewer newspaper readers, loss of the cash cow that is classified advertising, media downsizing and the meddling invasion of corporate businessmen into the workings of the newsroom, it’s difficult to get the job done. There seems little tolerance for irreverence and utterly no front-office understanding of its necessity. The best news-gathering comes when you leave the irreverent ones to do the reverent work of asking the who, what, why, where, when, how.
Know well, readers, that newspapermen and newspaperwomen are born to the trade, that poor pay, downsizing, corporate snafu, reader loss and their indifference and the wounds from the many arrows shot at the messenger will not kill the driven spirit.
So, hail and hearty to the few who are left to report, to comment, to shield democracy. Perhaps if the nation had had more of them and if they had been left to their jobs, accomplished in the old-fashioned sniffing way, we might have had good, not bad, reporting in the presidential campaign. All too few asked the who, what, why, where, when, how.
The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org