Deadline Artists

Russell Baker was an inspiration to a generation of journalists.

 

These last few weeks have been special for those of us who love newspapers.

The great newspaper reporters were being celebrated and it was wonderful to read about their exploits.

Sadly, the great Russell Baker passed away at the age of 93, but his passing led to an outburst of writing and appreciation by those who loved his work.

The best selling author of “ Good Times” and “Growing Up” and a long time New York Times columnist, Russell Baker was an American original. His writing sparkled with insights and humor. They just don’t make em like Russell Baker anymore.

On the heels of Baker’s passing,  HBO released a documentary called “Deadline Artists” which chronicled the colorful careers of New York tabloid legends Pete Hamill and Jimmy Breslin.
They broke the mold when they made those guys.

Breslin wrote legendary stories on the JFK assassination and the Son of Sam killer by veering away from the pack and finding angles that other reporters missed.

That’s not an easy thing to do.

For instance, how do you stand out from the horde of reporters covering that fateful November day in 1963?

Answer: You find the doctor who treated the president and glean all sorts of details about his day before he gets the fateful call that would change history. What did he eat for lunch? What was he doing and thinking right before being called to do the impossible: save a gravely wounded president. That’s how you file a story that adds to the record and humanizes history.

As for Hamill, well he was dashing and lived a large life in a large city.

All three journalism giants practiced their craft during a golden age for newspapers in New York when the Times, Post, Herald Tribune and Daily News carved up New York and covered every square inch of the Apple.

I read book after book about this era of newspapering because newspapers were my first professional passion and frankly I couldn’t get enough information on those days and those characters.

I grew up with Newsday and my local weekly the Three Village Herald, a paper I would later write for—albeit briefly.

I caught the last great wave of the newspaper life working for papers in upstate New York and right here in Delray and Boca.

I shared newsrooms with people who worked for some truly great papers and some supermarket tabloids too.

They all had great stories.

About life.

About life on deadline.

About mistakes they made.

About scoops they scored and scoundrels they nailed.

There was just no better place to spend a day than a newsroom with creative people who wrote, edited, designed, photographed and ultimately glued and pasted the stories of this community on great big “flats” before they were sent downstairs to run on the great big offset presses that were just awesome.

The pay was terrible. The stress could be crazy. The deadlines stressful and the sources weird, wacky and wonderful but what a job!
You went out and found stories. You came back to the newsroom and told them.

Nobody told them better than Baker, Breslin and Hamill.

They were gold standard we strived to match but never did.
But my oh my did we have fun trying.

Better Angels….

They got the ‘damn paper’ out the next day. Those of us who know journalists knew they would.

It’s dangerous to be a journalist.

Five were murdered last week in Annapolis, Maryland.

It’s dangerous to tell the truth and dangerous to share a community’s stories because there are people who don’t want the truth to be told. Especially if it challenges their worldview or their actions.

We are living in a society that’s rapidly dividing. One of the symptoms of that division is we now have our own set of facts. You have yours and I have mine.

And that’s dangerous too.

The most dangerous people in our society are those who are so cemented in their politics that no amount of information, no science, no research, no argument, no amount of logic can get them to consider another point of view.

So some angry, twisted and lethally armed lunatic who lost a defamation suit against the Capital Gazette newspaper decides to walk in and murder his community’s fact seekers and story tellers.

Journalism is a tight knit profession and having been in the field for a long time (in a prior life) you tend to know people in newsrooms throughout the land. I didn’t know Rob Hiassen even though he worked at the Palm Beach Post in the 90s. But I knew his nephew Scott Hiassen who covered Delray in the 90s.

Scott’s dad is Carl Hiassen, a legendary Miami Herald columnist and bestselling author. Carl was Rob’s brother and now Rob is gone for good. And it makes me sad. It makes me angry.

It stings because I’ve worked in newsrooms and they are full of life, humor, knowledge, stories, history, smarts and talent. The people who work there are overworked and underpaid. They work there—if they are lucky to have a job these days—because they love to write, they believe being a journalist is important work, they know in their bones that what they do every day is essential to Democracy.

They don’t always get it right. They miss stories. They make mistakes. There are reporters and editors who are biased—some of that comes with being human and some of it comes because they play favorites and also because they are human. I think we forget that sometimes.

 But there are many journalists who do an amazing job writing the first draft of history, who ferret out the facts, tell the stories, and do the investigations. There are many who report on the everyday too—the often boring city commission meetings, the stories on budgets, taxes, police, high school sports, library programs etc.

If we pay attention to their work, we learn about our communities. If we tune out, we lose out.

There was a time when newspapers were the water coolers of our towns and cities. They were on every lawn, every morning or every week and they kept us informed as neighbors. They built community. They gave us a common frame of reference.

The Internet changed all of that. Newspapers are struggling which is unfortunate because they are still essential to our Democracy and the health of our communities.

You can’t get local news on the Internet in many, many places. That’s starting to change but the business model is still evolving and the big challenge is finding the revenue to support quality journalism.

Even though I long ago left daily journalism, journalism has never left me. I still see the world as a reporter does. I enjoy stories. I look at things and say to myself ‘now that would be a great story’ and I get disappointed when the journalists on the local beat here in Delray Beach and Boca Raton miss what I know to be happening. Trust me, the best stories go untold.

We even invested in a local newspaper because we believe in the power of the medium and the need to cover stories and express opinions even if those opinions rankle the powers that be.

We didn’t buy a local newspaper because we saw it as a quick path to riches and fame. We bought the paper because we care about our community and we want to tell stories that may otherwise go untold. Our July issue—fresh on the stands is a case in point full of stories on local people, businesses, events and charities.

In the absence of a professionally edited and curated water cooler we get the wild west—trolls, haters, rumors, falsehoods, innuendo, misogyny, racism, bots, hackers, content farms—real fake news which is different than news you don’t like or that doesn’t toe the party line.

We are at a dangerous inflection point in America.

We are labeling the free press a danger to our Democracy when in fact it’s a guarantor—regardless of its imperfections.

I’ve been on both sides of the notebook so I know what it takes to do the job. I tried to get it right when I was on the local government, features and police beat. I tried to give context, I tried to quote people correctly and I tried to get the facts right and explain it in a way that made sense.

My old editor, Tom Sawyer (his real name) drilled into his troops the need to get out into the community. He implored us to develop sources beyond the usual suspects, dig for information, double and triple check names, facts, figures etc. He urged us to listen and write stories that explained how decisions—budget, zoning, policy—would impact our reader’s lives.

We frustrated him at times. My lasting image of him in my mind’s eye is Tom with his head in his hands, his face red, his eyes tired from reading and being challenged by a group of free-spirited storytellers. Yeah, sometimes he barked at the moon, but we knew he liked us.

On my first day on the job, 31 years ago this month, he took me to lunch with a few others to Tom Sawyer’s restaurant on Boca Raton Boulevard. I was 22 and very happy to be in Florida and to have a job. He assigned me to a place called Delray Beach, which is where I ended up living because it was much more affordable than Boca. It was all friendly until he told me that they named the restaurant after him and therefore I should never let him down or disappoint him. I was gullible (journalism cured me of my gullibility in short course) and I believed him, sort of.

I went to work in a newsroom with wonderful people, who were smart, funny, ferociously curious, fearless, creative and mostly nice.

Since that special time I have worked in a slew of other places with a bunch of other special people but nothing was as consistently interesting/creative as that old newsroom on East Rogers Circle and later on Fairway Drive in Deerfield Beach.

So I suspect that the newsroom at the Capital Gazette was special too. And to think of five people killed, others injured and terrorized in such a creative and important place….well it just really stings.

We best find our ‘better angels’ as Abraham Lincoln implored us to do before the Civil War. Or we will repeat history and ruin a damn fine thing, which is America itself.

 

The First Rough Draft of History

The first time I dreamt about being a reporter was after seeing the movie “All The President’s Men.”
I was 12 when the movie hit the screens in 1976 and it all seemed so romantic to me: clandestine meetings with anonymous sources in dark and scary parking garages, Robert Redford clanking away on an old typewriter and the amazing Jason Robards just crushing the role of the charismatic, wise and fearless editor Ben Bradlee.
I could see myself doing this, I thought.

But as cool as it all seemed, my aspirations to write for a newspaper ranked fourth in my boyhood mind: right after pitching for the Yankees, playing centerfield for the Mets and winning Wimbledon.
Ahhh…youth. The endless possibilities of possibilities.

Needless to say, I never did pitch in the majors  and the closest I came to winning Wimbledon was finishing runner up in a junior tournament at the Stony Brook Swim & Racquet Club –losing the match after a foot fault was called at the worst possible moment —but that’s a story for another day.
Today my mind is on journalism and the nobility of that profession.

We went to see The Post which has lots of Oscar buzz and star power with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks anchoring a stellar cast.
“It’s a must see for journalists,” to quote my friend Marisa Herman, herself an excellent young reporter.
It’s also a must see for all those who value the important role the press plays in a Democracy.
Quite simply, there is no Democracy without a free press.

A press free to report, opine, investigate and publish without fear of government censor or seizure.

Far from being the enemy of the people, a free press is a guarantor of our American ideals. As Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee says in the movie: who else will hold em accountable if we don’t?

The Post is a fascinating look at the decision by Katharine Graham to publish The Pentagon Papers despite threats from the Nixon administration.
Among the myriad of issues is whether the sanctity of the First Amendment trumps the power of the presidency to keep certain sensitive and potentially embarrassing items a secret.
The Supreme Court said it does and so the Washington Post and the New York Times prevailed in their court battle over the Pentagon Papers.

Thank goodness, they did.

It’s a feel good movie that chronicles an era and has some eerie relevance to our current times.
The Graham family were powerful Washington players and were said to play strong behind the scene roles in D.C. politics. The legendary Bradlee was close friends with JFK and Jackie and Katherine Graham was close with Vietnam era Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara. It didn’t stop her from giving the go ahead to publish the Pentagon Papers which would lay bare the deception promulgated by several administrations regarding the Vietnam War.

As someone who has worked as a reporter, editor and publisher I can relate –on a small level– to having to report on people you know and like.
More than once during my career as a reporter I was asked to pull punches, hold off on stories and look the other way.
As Bradlee notes in the movie, people can be friends or sources but not both.
The Post is a great primer for any young person considering a career in journalism. It’s also a stirring reminder of how important a role the press plays in keeping citizens of a Democracy informed.

I’ve been in the unique position of having covered elected officials as a reporter and being covered as an elected official. One of my greatest frustrations of being on the other side of the notebook was I felt many local reporters were missing the larger stories happening in the community. I wanted more coverage, not less because I felt so much was being missed. Covering government meetings often devolves into “he said, she said” stories. Where journalists can shine is to provide the information or objective facts that can tell you whether he or she is telling the truth. Sadly, that’s often missed. But great local journalism does exist and its immensely important. I often wonder if our dismal turnout for local elections is in part caused by citizens not knowing what’s really going on and therefore missing out on how important it is to know and to cast a ballot.

If citizens saw a movie like The Post, they may be inspired to read, get involved and engage in the issues.
The Post is great storytelling. Essential history. A movie that reminds you of why a free press keeps us free.

 

 

I Loved Those Days

It’s not been a good moment for the news media lately.
Fake News has become a hash tag and public opinion polls consistently rank journalists low on issues of trust. But I’ve seen both sides.
I’ve watched lousy reporters botch or miss stories and I’ve seen great ones illuminate our understanding of the world. Broad labeling of people and institutions is the lazy way out–life is much more nuanced.
Readers of this blog know I spent my early career working—very happily– in newsrooms.
Today, I have an ownership interest in the Delray Newspaper and Boca Newspaper but because of a hectic schedule and a day job I don’t get to spend as much time as I’d like “newspapering.”
I miss it.
Especially newsrooms, which are just magical places filled with smart, funny, talented and colorful people.
My favorite newsroom was at the old Monday-Thursday Paper’s on East Rogers Circle in Boca Raton which was later relocated to Fairview Drive in Deerfield Beach.
Those newsrooms were filled with editors, reporters, photographers and assistants and they crackled with humor, activity, the clacking of keys and a fair amount of profanity.
I loved it.
The Monday Thursday Papers (later renamed the South Florida Newspaper Network) was one of the largest community newspaper groups in the country and the largest in the southeast.
We were big. We were good. We were relevant and we covered the news in a slew of cities from Dade to Port St. Lucie.
It was a blast because of the people. I loved coming to work because I was surrounded by talented characters who told stories that were often better than the ones we wrote. Why? Because the stories behind the stories were always better. We live in an area rich with characters and chasing them down often led to some great adventures.
Not that our news stories weren’t good.
They were and we regularly walked away with lots of hardware at Press Association gatherings.
We had grizzled editors, oddball reporters, incredibly inventive photographers and colorful people who designed the pages of the papers  on “flats” using glue, pica poles and exacto knives.
This was all before the advent of desktop publishing which revolutionized the industry and cost a few people their jobs.
We also had a huge printing press, a large circulation department and across the wall sat the advertising sales staff. We believed in a separation of church and state– so to speak– so while we were friendly, those of us on the news side were decidedly our own team.
We ate lunch together, gave each other space “on deadline” and served as each other’s human thesaurus when we found ourselves at a loss for words. After work, we hung together in places like Dirty Moe’s, sharing stories about the people and places we covered.
We had a managing editor named Tom Sawyer, who had a heart of gold but could be a curmudgeon of legendary proportions. We took pride when he praised us and also when we made him turn red with anger. He would chase us out of the newsroom with the famous words: “no news happens here. Get out of the newsroom. Go to your cities.”
And we did.
We hung out at lunch counters—the Green Owl, Ken and Hazel’s, bars—The Frog Lounge, Paradise Club, Powers Lounge, we rode with cops and firefighters, embedded ourselves in ERs and Trauma Centers and spent long nights at city commission meetings writing the first draft of local history. It felt like important work and twice a week our  stories ended up on thousands of driveways.
It felt like we were making an impact. And I think we did. We created a narrative for the cities we covered.
For me, covering Delray Beach, the narrative was of a fascinating and complex city that was determined to rise above its challenges and work together to build a brighter future. There were bumps along the way, but the arc was steady and it was fun to write about the progress and the challenges. It was my graduate education and what I learned from watching mayors, commissioners, department heads, business leaders, detectives, paramedics, volunteers and road patrol officers was invaluable.
Sometimes I find myself missing those days and especially those smart, vibrant and funny people who worked alongside me in the newsroom.
So I went online  to “hear” their voices, and I was able to find some of  their words on the Internet.
While it wasn’t ideal and there were many I couldn’t locate (Jim Baker, sportswriter extraordinaire, where are you?) I did find a few and I managed to enjoy their writing once more.
Here are a  few snippets:
From an editor I learned a lot from…

“As someone who loves history, particularly American history, I have long been astounded by the brilliance of our Founding Fathers. They gave serious thought not only to whether they were being unfairly taxed or lacked fair representation, but to the  question of what rights naturally fall to individuals of our species in the natural order of things — the very essence of liberty. They studied Greek and Roman history, read the works of those civilization’s great orators. And a central ingredient of the philosophical stew which became the spiritual and civil framework for our country was the inherent right to stand up against injustice — even to the point of taking up arms. Patriotism in their eyes was not flag-waving and anthem-singing, but taking bold action, whether on the battlefield or the halls of Congress, to ensure that every citizen be guaranteed fundamental rights associated with “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” (Those words were not just a political catch-phrase to the Founders.)  As an ardent fan of these great thinkers, I support every citizen’s right to protest in whatever manner he or she feels appropriate (and doesn’t physically harm others) and I consider those acts of protest patriotic. Even if it means allowing moral degenerates to peacefully espouse racial and ethnic hatred.”  

From another editor, who I thought was an exceedingly cool human:
“Summer 1985 and I have  press passes at SPAC to interview Aimee Mann and Til Tuesday. I wander off backstage to look around, make a quick turn around a sharp, dark corner, and run smack into this skinny guy with stringy blond hair, who I assume is a roadie until he says in a rich baritone drawl, “Hey, watch where you’re going there.” Realizing that it’s Tom Petty, I fire off an apologetic retort, something akin to, “Uh, oh, you homma, eya, yah,” and run away. I’m relatively certain he secretly dedicated “Even the Losers” to me later that night. (We get lucky sometimes.)
From a reporter who left for a big gig in The Keys.

“We are going to make it. We’re the Keys. We’ve done this before (though not on this level). We know our collective community character, and it is strong. We are going to make it, with all of us helping each other.’

From an editor who became a dear and lasting friend and confidant:

“Yeah, back in the day, there were no helmets or heart guards – just pure unadulterated playing. Our game was kickball out in the street. No helmets, no any kind of guards, and certainly no helmets when we rode our bikes. I actually had a hard time learning how to balance my two-wheeler, so I can’t imagine what it would be like if my head was weighted down with a helmet too. The only game I would admit could use some sort of protection was Dodge Ball – which I’m guessing is probably outlawed these days. Who would sanction kids throwing a big, round hard ball at someone – just for fun? And it was okay to get dirty, roll around in the grass and scrape knees. There wasn’t a lot of germ-a-phobic behavior – no hand sanitizer, for sure. But we all survived.”

From a reporter who spoke with a great Irish accent.

‘Time traveler’ says aliens are coming next year but he has no info on who wins 2018 world cup, clearly a fraud.’

 

I think my old friend from Belfast was reacting to a tabloid headline. He always had a razor sharp wit–most of the journalists I know do. Spend some time in that environment and you either develop one or get cut to pieces.

My great buddy Perry Don Francisco texted me last week to alter me to a story on NPR about community newspapers.

That’s how I met Perry, the legendary owner of Boston’s on the Beach.

I was a reporter. He was making news by doing great things in the community. He never wanted the attention but he liked that the causes got ink. We became close friends over the years and he has taught me a lot.

So following Perry’s advice I caught an NPR podcast last week about newspapers. It was a solid piece.

And it made me think about my newspaper days and all of those great voices who served this community so eloquently. Newspapers were better than tweeting, deeper than Facebook and the photos were better than what I find on Instagram (and I’m a fan and user of all three platforms).

And that’s why I’m so reluctant to recycle the old copies of those papers in my garage. I’m just not ready to say goodbye.

Prayers for Paris

Paris

Paris is on our minds today.

As it should be.
We ache for the shocking loss of life and we agonize over what’s happening in our world: violence, hatred, terror, extremism.
Paris is known as a city of villages and despite its distance from our shores we relate and connect.
Paris is a city of art, culture, freedom, beauty and romance. It’s an idea and an ideal.
And so we grieve when that’s attacked.
Saturday morning the board and staff of Old School Square met for a strategic planning retreat and Paris was on our minds. And we discussed–albeit briefly–concerns about security in our own hometown.
The terrorists targeted art and music and sports venues. They targeted vibrant restaurants and bars–where people gather to savor and enjoy life with friends. We built our own city around that vision. Boca Raton too.
And so this attack–sadly only the latest in a series of disgusting, despicable and ultimately cowardly acts–seemed to penetrate very deeply.
I read a lot of opinion pieces over the weekend suggesting what might be next and how we might combat the ISIS scourge.
The best piece I found was in The Atlantic because it delves deep into the ideology. We must understand it if we are to defeat it and we must defeat it. Here’s a link. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/03/what-isis-really-wants/384980/
Spotlight 
We went to see “Spotlight” at the Cinemark Boca.
It’s a must see film, expertly written with terrific performances by a stellar cast.
Why is it must see?
For two reasons:
1. The story of the Boston Globe’s investigation of priests molesting children and the cover-up by church hierarchy is an important story to tell and understand because the abuse proved to be systemic and worldwide.
2. The movie is also a primer on the importance of great journalism and the power of newspapers. Spotlight refers to the name of the Globe’s investigative team, three reporters and an editor who concentrate on big stories– the kind that take months to unearth.
As we move with blinding speed to the digital age, we seem to be losing this kind of journalism which is critically important to Democracy and societal accountability.
As much as we enjoy social media and the wonders of the Internet, we do lose something when there is no community water cooler.
Having spent 15 years in newsrooms, the movie touched a chord in me and reminded me why I fell head over heels for newspapers as a young man. There is no better job than to write and report and affect change as a result.
Sadly, the business model has changed and journalism–community journalism has taken a beating.
Technology can’t be blamed for it all, newspapers were complicit in their decline by failing to invest in writers and all but eliminating enterprise reporting the very thing that the Internet cannot do. It’s a real head scratcher because there is still an audience who wants and needs to know whats really happening at city hall and in their neighborhoods and schools.
An investment in relevancy may prove to be profitable but newspapers seem loathe to spend on the newsroom and so the decline continues.
The community loses when this happens, because important stories go unreported and innocent people are often victimized as a result.
Spotlight shows the power of old-school shoe leather reporting.
What a movie. Superb.