Real News: Coffee, Bagel Recycling Bins and People Who Aren’t Spouting Political Views

The traditional press has taken a beating in recent years given the demise of their print ad-based business model, the budget cuts to newsroom staffs and, of late, the demonization of bad news as fake news. For the uninitiated who want to know what it’s really like in these dens of iniquity (or dens of inequity, for those concerned about fair and balanced news), I want to relate what it’s like to work in real news.

I’ll start my musings on my past life in business news (very real news) by relating the collegial environment at the Baltimore Business Journal, circa 1993-94, where I got my first job out of college as a researcher/reporter. There were about of dozen editorial people and we had enormous, ancient desks that were pushed together so that you had to be mindful your papers didn’t slide into your neighbors’ stuff (more on this later). I don’t remember hearing a partisan political discussion about the local politicians. We did have a government reporter whose role was more focused on how policy affects businesses. He didn’t reserve any criticism for any particular party.

There was some initial confusion about the possibility that I might engage in identity politics. At the end of my first week, I asked two guys if anyone was going to happy hour and they looked surprised. We decamped to the bar down the alley and they again looked surprised when I ordered a bourbon and Coke. Finally, one of them asked me about my internship at the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) and my attendance at Liberty University in Virginia. Errrrr, I had no exposure to either. There had been some game-of-telephone misunderstanding when they previously heard my bio; I then related I had done an internship at CNBC, the financial news network, and graduated from Washington and Lee University in Virginia. I don’t know if they were relieved I wasn’t a fundamentalist Christian, but they seemed to understand at that point why I would consider bourbon a cultural touchstone.

Entry-level journalism is a low-paying endeavor. For this reason, I loved our weekly news meetings, where we were served free bagels. One morning I missed the meeting to go retrieve some record copy from the courthouse (tax liens, new business licenses, etc.). I came into the newsroom famished and asked if there were leftover bagels. A reporter said the paper bag with the remaining bagels had been tossed in a bin. I looked in and the bagel bag was the only item in there, so I reached in, grabbed a bagel and took a bite. Just at this moment, the publisher was walking through the hall with an advertiser and they looked horrified. The No. 1 reason not to ever allow an advertiser near a newsroom is to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest because news must be independent from the ads. The second reason is like unto it: don’t let on how poor the reporters are.

At one news meeting, the editor had a treat besides bagels. He offered to let us pick out new office furniture and we were pumped. We selected desks with low shelf barriers so that we could see each other and easily confer yet still keep our things separate. The day the furniture arrived was devasting for morale. Our decision was overridden by a pennywise business manager who arranged for us to obtain used, ugly cubicles with very high walls. From his new confines, I heard the government reporter bemoan, “I used to work at the [Baltimore] Sun. Now, I work in an outhouse.” The real estate reporter opened a cubicle drawer and found a fresh pink slip from a major employer in the region. This was the impetus for his big scoop about a big layoff. Initially, the flak questioned how the reporter could possibly have gotten the idea that this big company laid off anyone and the response was priceless: because I am calling you from a cubicle that was just removed from your offices and holding a pink slip from its top drawer.

Later, I moved to New York and worked for American Banker, which has a huge newsroom overlooking New York Harbor. Because it is a daily, every day was a crunch and sometimes the stress was intense. During a garbage strike in the city, we had the added duty of bringing refuse to the kitchen rather than leave lunch remnants to rot under our desks. For some reason, the mailroom guys were tasked with emptying out our recycling bins. As my editor and I ruminated on the best approach to a story, the mailroom chief scoffed at us, saying something like, all you guys do all day is drink coffee and talk. I wish! That would be a dream come true for many journos, who tend to be chatty people. The reality is you have get the information, separate fact from notions and then write well.

And, it is not always fun. At McGraw-Hill, I worked for an energy newsletter in an office a few blocks from the White House. The morning of September 11 was a mix of shock, horror and phone calls. I was reaching out to people whose businesses own and operate critical energy infrastructure, including power grids, natural gas pipelines and hydropower dams – all of which could be in the crosshairs of terrorist attacks. An eerie lull arrived and the reporter next to me asked if I had any alcohol in my office. No such luck.

A few years later, two of my editors were debating the competency of then President George W. Bush. It was not a partisan discussion. I could not tell you if these guys are Republican, Democrat or independent. That wasn’t the point of their debate. It was more along the lines of who is driving the bus in the administration, with the counterpoint being don’t knock the guy about the head while he’s trying to drive the bus.

By contrast, the caricature of the “liberal news media” is that reporters and editors are a bunch of partisan hacks out to get Republicans. That’s funny when you consider the media wringer Bill Clinton went through as president (see Whitewater to Ken Starr report).

I never saw or heard anyone conniving how to make politicians look bad. Frankly, the bad ones usually do that quite well all by themselves without any interference by the press.