Daily Mail contributed much to community

August 05, 2007|By BOB MAGINNIS

For many reasons, including the rise of the Internet, the decision to merge The Morning Herald and The Daily Mail was inevitable. Like the Baltimore Sunpapers, which folded its evening edition in 1995, combining the two Hagerstown papers will free up more staff to concentrate on what many see as the future of newspapers - electronic media.

The Herald-Mail's Web site is already the most-visited in the region and has begun adding videos in addition to the podcasts and e-mail news alerts already in place. If you're not up on the news, it's not because The Herald-Mail hasn't given you every possible way to access it.

But as bright as this digital future is, I'm still a little bit sad about the fact that The Daily Mail will soon cease to be a stand-alone product. It is worth remembering what it once was, not just because I enjoy traveling down Memory Lane, but because of what our parent company, Schurz Communications, allowed us to do for the profession and the community.


It made sense to have one police reporter on each shift, because things happen on that beat day and night. But for many years the company also had city, county and education reporters on both papers.

The Mail and The Herald reporters often covered the same meetings, but the reporters worked hard to do different things with what they learned. If The Herald reporter did a "straight" news story, The Mail reporter could opt for a feature angle or make some of the phone calls The Herald reporter didn't have time to make prior to deadline.

Being competitive was a matter of pride and that competition also allowed readers to see different perspectives on the news. For the reporters, especially those on The Mail, the challenge was to tell the same story in a different way.

This professional rivalry made for better reporters and better news coverage and each reporter fought hard to find an angle or a new fact the other paper had not. In this system, the readers were well-served.

But consider the arrangement from a business perspective: two papers in the same town, owned by the same company. Until the '90s, each sent its own reporter to cover the same meeting. The stories are edited by different editors and new type is set.

A company intent only on the bottom line would have cut out such duplication long before it did. It didn't, because its leadership believed the community benefited from having two papers to tell local stories, each with its own distinct flavor.

It made us better journalists, too. Kirk Cheyfitz, who covered Washington County government for The Herald while I did the same job for The Mail, went on to the Detroit Free Press, where he was a Pulitzer finalist for investigative reporting. Other Herald-Mail veterans have gone on to larger papers all over the U.S.

It did not seem remarkable when we were going through it, but looking back, we did the job without computers, fax machines or e-mail. If you couldn't get back to the office with a story before deadline, you looked for a phone booth and called it in.

There was only one copy of every story and to rearrange paragraphs or add new ones, the editors cut the copy apart and pasted it back together. Stories that had been heavily reworked felt like sheets of wet drywall, soggy with rubber cement.

Building security was nonexistent and readers or public officials who felt they'd been wronged could walk right up the stairs of our old building and tell off the reporter or editor who'd offended them. There was less decorum then and editors who felt a piece of copy stunk felt free to say so, and not in a whisper, either.

Reporters could quarrel with each other, too, but it was usually not about professional differences but about irritations that arise when people are close enough to experience others' bad habits - such as smoking, allowed in the newsroom back then - up close and personal.

Tempers boiled up like a summer thunderstorm and blew away just as quickly. Wasting too much time on an argument might mean not getting as good a story or perhaps even missing a deadline.

The things I learned back then have served me well. For example, if you ask someone what's new, their first response will usually be, "Not much." If you leave then, you'll miss out on what they'll remember if you stay and listen for a while.

Government officials know that the public doesn't care about the nuts and bolts of what they do. As long as the toilet flushes, many reason, who cares how the sewer plant works? If you show an interest in those workings, however, when there is a big news story - a sewer moratorium, perhaps - you'll probably get the return call.

I also learned to arrive early for appointments or sometimes just to stop by at the beginning of the day, before officials' phones started ringing or their staff meetings got under way. Getting the quote you need the first thing in the morning beats waiting hours for a callback.

I'm proud of what we did in the old days, but I also know that some old things have to give way to the new for the good of the institution, just as the old hot lead typesetters were replaced by "cold type" set on computers. Based on my experience here, what happens next won't be an exercise in cost-cutting, but a transition to an even better way of presenting the news.

Bob Maginnis is editor of The Herald-Mail's Opinion page.

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