Ink-Stained Wretches Meet for Lunch

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Five former newspaper guys met for lunch on a rainy winter day in a nearly deserted Italian restaurant. At one point or another all had worked together. One had been another’s boss, or succeeded this one as publisher, hired that one as editor. We go back nearly a quarter-century working for the same company that owned newspapers in East Texas until three years ago.

We vary in age from 80 to 57. That’s me on the low end. I’m the baby of the group, a rare designation these days. I once was invariably the youngest hotshot in the newsroom, back when I started out in this business. As Willie sang, “Ain’t it funny how time slips away.”

While we waited for our meals, I went around and tallied up the number of years each of us worked for newspapers. We logged 179 years among the five of us, at newspapers as large as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution down to the tiny San Augustine Rambler. There is a lot of ink in our collective bloodstreams.

We try to meet every few months — not to complain about how the newspaper business has gone down the tubes, or to pine for the good old days, but because we enjoy each other’s company. The two senior members of this squad were my bosses at one time or another. I learned a great deal from them about how to manage people and how to run a newspaper. The other two were my co-workers as we tried to hang on when the Great Recession struck a few years back, and the newspaper business forever changed.

Mainly we tell stories when we gather. One gathers a treasure trove of stories hanging around newsrooms. I prefer to hang back and listen to others tell their tales. There is the time a county judge got caught using his office to line his pockets. Or when the board of regents fired a university president without explanation, and the paper finally weaseled the reason out of them. That prompted the former president to sue the regents since they had signed a non-disclosure. Everybody ended up in court, including the newspaper’s reporter — and a fellow publisher who also served as a regent. Then there’s the sheriff who kept wrecking his patrol car on the same stretch of highway we were driving on the way to lunch.

Inevitably, the talk swings around to whether newspapers will survive. We all worked during newspapers’ golden years, when running a newspaper in towns like Longview or Lufkin was akin to being given a license to print money. Three of us five at lunch were publishers during those times, and they were indeed wonderful times. I also got to experience the crash, which wasn’t so much fun.

The consensus, for what it is worth, is that newspapers indeed will survive. It is quite difficult for me to imagine a democracy without newspapers. As much as newspapers have slashed their newsrooms, cut the number of pages produced, and filled what’s left with wire copy instead of locally written content, gotten rid of copy editors so that far too many stories get into print practically unedited — given all that is wrong with your typical hometown daily newspaper — it is still essentially the only true watchdog over local governments. Sure, sometimes it takes a citizen to bring an issue to a paper’s attention, but without newspapers in places like Longview, Lufkin, Waco or Nacogdoches, nobody would be watching the folks we elect to run the courthouse, jail, school systems or city hall. At least nobody who has the ability to reach a mass audience like a newspaper does.

My hope is that newspapers get smarter about what they put in the paper, so that many more people regain their interest in reading them. I figure my days running a paper are over.  But since my buddies asked, my reply was that newspapers must become more interesting, and stop simply reacting to events the same old tired way.

I would hire three or four high-energy hotshots and set them loose to find the stories that have people once again gathered around the coffee machine, saying “Did you read that story in the paper or on the website?” I would serialize a novel and run a piece of it every day in the paper, invite people to submit poetry, offer a one-month subscription for the first person to identify a mystery photo. I would run both goofy contests and compelling long-form narrative stories that keep readers coming back each day for more. And I would make sure that a newspaper’s mission was always to,  “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” as early 20th century journalist Finley Peter Dunne put it.

I loved the 40 years I spent working at newspapers. It was a career that brought me great satisfaction, lots of friends and provided a good living for a long time. Not many people are lucky to enough to say that. So as I move on to try something different, I will continue to root for those who are still in the business. And I will look forward to the next lunch with my erstwhile ink-stained wretches.

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  • R Beeman


    Sincerely enjoyed this personal insight. Thanks for sharing.

    • admin


      Thanks, Randy. Hope you're doing well. gb

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