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Editorial - Police policy must change

September 24, 1997

I confess to being a newspaper throwback. I like newspapers to be black and white. In fact, I'm not big on pictures in general. Or graphics.

Blame us writers and the lawyers. Our stories have become Valium in print. Fewer people like to write anymore, and for those who do, there are editors and lawyers who won't let them.

Newspapers fret over lost circulation, but it's really no mystery. If everything that was discussed in the newsroom made it into print we'd have to beat the subscribers off with a stick.

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But by the time news stories get to you they are so bleached of color, so rinsed of meaning, so stripped of phraseology and interest it's no wonder people tune out.

I blame USA Today, that industry leader that will be the death of the industry.

USA Today ushered in the now industry-standard 10-inch story. How long is 10 inches? In the Bible it gets you from "In the beginning" to just about the creation of the moon. Had USA Today editors worked during the time of Genesis, the fishes never would have hatched, much less the men and beasts.

So now, just about the time a news story is in danger of becoming interesting it's cut off at the quick.

I miss the smoke in the newsroom too, at least metaphorically speaking. I miss the days when the difference between a statehouse pressroom and a senate cloakroom was that the pressroom was afforded only kegs of beer, while the senate was treated to kegs of whiskey. (Hey, were the laws passed then any worse than the laws passed today? Were the stories about those laws any worse?)

I miss the competition. I miss the days when every town had at least two papers and if you sat on a story for a minute you'd get your toukas beat by an opposing reporter and then have it surgically removed by your own editor.

Oh, sorry, I don't meeaaan all this.

My uncalled for fit of surliness is brought to you by the fact that Jo Smith, our 23-year veteran librarian and unofficial ombudsman and moral sounding board retired last month.

Normally when I hit upon a fit such as this I would take it to Jo and we'd commiserate about the good old days and about how things ought to be, and my fiery pen would be cooled to little more than a ruddy coal. But look what happens now that she's gone. I've just ensured that no one in the business will ever speak to me again.

Jo's trademark is to close her eyes, shake her head slowly from side to side and commence with a gravelly, drawn out "I just don't know..." It was up to us to fill in the blank. I just don't know...

a) ...what this world is coming to.

b) ...why they do it this idiotic way.

c) ...how things got to be this screwed up.

Jo left the company at a natural break, as the last vestiges of paper were being replaced with electronic impulses.

Now we've entered the slick new age of the electronic library. When you wish to find a back story it's very simple.

First you determine in which year the story was published. That usually only takes a couple phone calls or a trip to the bound editions to get a handle on the time frame.

Next you need to find out what the reporter who wrote the article called, or "slugged," the story. That's a simple matter of tracking down the reporter and asking - unless the reporter is on vacation or has left the company.

When you learn the slug you type the "keyword" into a "find" program and you are instantly rewarded with 15,000 choices that you need to weed through to find the exact story you want - unless somehow the slug has been changed, in which case you need to start again.

In the primitive, crude, obsolete days of the past you would have to yell "Jo, I need the last Mack contract-vote story we did" and she'd have a photocopy of it, along with a half-dozen follow-ups, on your desk in about two minutes tops.

Jo was also my Ideas Department, always scanning the East Coast papers and ensuring that I didn't miss anything wacky or absurd.

No one cuts through the bull or sees to the truth of the matter better than Jo. She taught me so much. Every time I'd start falling in with an official line of guff Jo would burst forth with an irascible HA! and return me to the straight and narrow.

My lasting vision of Jo was created shortly after I'd joined the company in 1985. She was surveying the newsroom just as carefully and painstakingly as if she were thinking of having one decorated like it.

What she saw were a bunch of pleasant faces, amicably chatting, typing and placing phone calls. She sighed and said "Everybody's just too happy here, you know?" I didn't, so she elaborated. "Everybody gets along."

That failed to clarify things for me so she sighed again and made one last effort. "Nobody gets in any fights anymore."

It was only later that I learned reporters in the past had actually come to physical blows in the parking lot over who would get to handle a choice story assignment.

And I learned that what Jo missed was the tenacious, passionate editors and reporters who scrapped down in the dirt after every detail, every fact, and wrote richly to tell stories and enchant readers.

Jo was right. Perhaps our hand has been forced by matters beyond our control, but we've entered a world of fraidy-cat journalism where words have been sacrificed in the name of graphics and lawyers and written sound bites and pictures and cutesy design tricks and articles that are too short to be called stories.

What have we done to this once-proud profession?

I just don't know.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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