What it was like.

This made me cry, in every way it’s possible to cry:

It was a noisy place to work. Dozens of typewriters hammered at carbon-copy books that made an eager slap-slap-slap. Phones rang–the way phones used to ring in the movies. Reporters shouted into them. They called out “boy!” and held up a story and copykids ran to snatch it and deliverer it to an editor. Reporters would shout out questions: “Quick! Who was governor before Walker?”

There were no cubicles. We worked at desks lined up next to each other row after row. Ann Landers (actually Eppie Lederer) had an office full of assistants somewhere in the building, but she insisted on sitting in the middle of this chaos, next to the TV-radio critic, Paul Molloy. Once Paul was talking on a telephone headset and pounding at a typewriter and tilted back in his chair and fell to the floor and kept on talking. Eppie regarded him, reached in a file drawer, and handed down her pamphlet, Drinking Problem? Take This Test of Twenty Questions.

When you went on an interview, you took eight sheets of copy paper, folded them once, and ripped them in half using a copy ruler. Then again. Now you had a notebook of 32 pages to slip in your pocket with your ball-point. You had a press card. You knew the motto of the City News Bureau: If your mother says she loves you, check it out. You were a reporter from the Chicago Sun-Times.

By Roger Ebert, newspaperman. Sniff.

Posted at 1:20 pm in Media |

23 responses to “What it was like.”

  1. Dexter said on April 4, 2009 at 2:47 pm

    Royko would occasionally let us know about that scene, usually to set up a storyline for a column. Cigars, cigarettes, and pipes were prevalent in those rooms, and the men with a few whiskers kept a bottle of bourbon and two glasses in a desk drawer. Bars sold “to go” cardboard quart containers of draught beer for those reporters who preferred a liquid lunch.
    I am reading “Talking to Myself: A Memoir of My Time/Studs Terkel”
    1st Edition New York: Pantheon Books, c 1977

    It’s a rambling account of all kinds of big-happenings all over Chicago that Studs reported on. His account of being trapped in the middle of a street during the worst night of August, 1968 rioting (by the CPD) is riveting.

    Studs mostly worked in radio and TV, and wrote books from his Chicago apartment, but he was a helluva reporter. And of course I still have the personally inscribed copy of “Hard Times” he sent me after I hand-wrote him a congratulatory letter after his Pulitzer. Mr Terkel wrote: “To Jim—and all the other gallant survivors of Hard Times. Studs Terkel”

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  2. MaryRC said on April 4, 2009 at 3:37 pm

    I loved Roger’s anecdote about Ann Landers. She always seemed like she would be more fun to know than her sister, the “Dear Abby” columnist.

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  3. Jolene said on April 4, 2009 at 4:40 pm

    Great Ebert quote. I love the detail re making the 32-page notebook.

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  4. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on April 4, 2009 at 6:05 pm

    Detail is everything . . . just down the street from the once real City News Bureau, the not quite real County General — ER’s finale is re-running tonight at 8 pm for the non-basketball fns who missed it Thursday. It’s worth it, sez the guy who quit watching it three years ago, but is glad i saw the last three weeks’ worth.

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  5. Jolene said on April 4, 2009 at 8:59 pm

    So . . . no comments re the Obamas abroad? Barack’s speeches? Michelle’s outfits? Barack’s outfits? Michelle’s speech?

    Re Michelle, this piece by Tina Brown seemed to get the mood right. Also thought her speech at the girls’ school was terrific. Some of it’s here. I’m sure you’ve heard most of it. Best phrase: Whether you come from a council estate or a country estate . . . The contrast is exactly right and shows that she took the time to learn both about their lives and the local lingo.

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  6. Linda said on April 4, 2009 at 11:23 pm

    I’ll bet in that noisy old newsroom, they knew the difference between hononyms. Check this out from the online New York Times (OMFG)

    Ever since Michigan State clinched its improbable birth in this Final Four, Coach Tom Izzo…

    I’m sure the team was surprised, since they had mostly been born a long time before then.

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  7. Dexter said on April 5, 2009 at 1:47 am

    Linda, good catch…and talk about improbable…David slew Goliath. East Lansing campus is just 88 miles due-north of me, so I’ll pull for them…a hard thing to do for this UM sports backer.

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  8. Colleen said on April 5, 2009 at 3:18 pm

    Sounds like the “Back in the good old days at the Dayton Daily News” stories my parents have told….

    In fact, just this week, talking with the parentals, my dad said they were lucky, they were able to work for newspapers when they were still at their heyday.

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  9. Dexter said on April 5, 2009 at 3:52 pm

    On-the-street interviews with Boston-area readers at The Times threat to shut down The Globe:


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  10. basset said on April 5, 2009 at 8:33 pm

    Meanwhile, the owner of one of the better-known formerly-Chicago newspaper bylines gets paid, and I would assume pretty well, for crap like this:


    but it’s online instead of on dead trees, so I guess it’s edgy or modern or… something.

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  11. Connie said on April 5, 2009 at 9:51 pm

    Oh no, Bob Greene! Wasn’t he banned from any mention on this blog years ago?

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  12. Dexter said on April 6, 2009 at 2:56 am

    For any Bruce Springsteen fans, from LA Times:


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  13. beb said on April 6, 2009 at 7:57 am

    I’d like to see the Boston Globe’s union’s insist that part of any pay concessions, that all Management has to have their wages cut by the same percentage, and that any bonuses and extra conpemsation paid to Management be paid to union members as well. Since they are all in the same boat it seems only fair…

    I was wondering if the structure of the old style news room, opening floor, desks pushed next to each other didn’t contribute to the wide-spread alcoholism among reporters. I mean, that doesn’t sound like an exciting environment. It sound stressful, oppresive.

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  14. MichaelG said on April 6, 2009 at 8:57 am

    Greene is pretty awful but after all, it was he who brought me to nn.c several years ago. He’s one of Nancy’s faves along with Rick whatshisname who got canned from the NYT a few years back.

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  15. john c said on April 6, 2009 at 8:57 am

    I always like to see Bob Greene mentioned here, because that’s how I came to know Nancy (and how she and Alan came to be at our going away party Saturday evening and is therefore likely pleased to see that I am alive and able to formulate sentences.)
    I can’t say I cried at Ebert recollection. But almost. As a proud former Sun-Timeser, I miss that newsroom and all those characters.

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  16. Mindy said on April 6, 2009 at 8:59 am

    I once had a short temp job at a newspaper in Florida around 1991. Desktop computers were on most of the desks, but there was one smaller desk placed at an angle at the end of the line. A gray old school guy sat at it typing away on a huge IBM Selectric. He was working so fast that it sounded like machine gun fire, and the sound filled the huge room.

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  17. nancy said on April 6, 2009 at 9:09 am

    My new favorite passage in that essay is the part about Milton the Copyboy:

    One day an inspector from the Chicago Post Office came to our editor, James Hoge, with a puzzling discovery. Several hundred empty envelopes addressed to Ann Landers had been found in the trash behind an address in Hyde Park. With an eerie certainty, Jim called in Milton and asked him for his address. Milton, whose jobs included distributing mail, had been stealing the quarters sent in for Ann Landers’ pamphlet, Petting: When Does It Go Too Far? Discussing his firing after work at Billy Goat’s, he was philosophical: “Hundreds of kids can thank me that they were conceived.”

    It’s not just that it’s funny. I also remember Ann’s side business in pamphlets, which was copied by a number of other columnists, particularly doctors, who would use it to shirk their duty. Instead of explaining cholesterol, or excessive masturbation, or hair loss, for the umpteenth time, they’d write, “I’m sending you my pamphlet on…”

    Pamphlets — another great American institution destroyed by the internet.

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  18. Connie said on April 6, 2009 at 9:35 am

    John c, Bob Greene brought me here as well.

    On the subject of pamphlets, I was very pleased to find that all the state cooperative extension agencies have put all their great pamphlets online. The answer to my question was flour moths, and one of those extension pamphlets online helped me eradicate them.

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  19. moe99 said on April 6, 2009 at 9:43 am

    Well, I have to say that the Detroit airport, where I was at last night after spending 5 days with my mother in Lexington, is truly one of the nicest airports I’ve been through. The NWA/Delta ticket taker was wearing a Michigan State tshirt and after a raft of first class and other privileged travellers had been allowed onto the gateway, announced, “Now open for boarding: All Michigan State fans.” It got a good laugh. And as I was just in KY where Coach Calipari is front news all day, every day, I’ll have to go with Michigan State as my choice tonight as well.

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  20. mark said on April 6, 2009 at 10:40 am

    Bemoan the passing of the beautiful and interesting things once created, while cheering the destruction of the rough edges and irregular shapes and outlawing the friction and collisions that did the polishing and shaping.

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  21. jeff borden said on April 6, 2009 at 10:47 am

    The arrival of computers pretty well killed the old newsroom vibe along with wall-to-wall carpeting and the banishment of the wire machines to soundproof closets. My first job at a 14,000-circulation daily meant working in a building erected in 1870, where we could drop pennies through the cracks in the floor onto the circulation department below us. Where it seemed to be a rule that everyone must smoke. A lot. Ashtrays were optional since the floor always was littered with ash and butts. Where the UPI and AP machines were right next to the copy desk, clanging away constantly. Where everyone yelled and cursed and screamed. It was sheer cacaphony, but it was also a blast.

    At a paper later in my life, where the newsoom was as quiet as a chapel and any conversations louder than a stage whisper brought looks of reproach, I was munching on a bag of pretzels while working on my column when the reporter nearby asked if I could munch elsewhere, as the crinkling of the bag and the crunching of the pretzels was distracting him.

    I try to avoid that whole “those were the days” vibe. Bob Greene has that angle covered for the next thousand years. But when the simple act of biting down on a pretzel can distract a professional, you’re left to sit and wonder how this delicate hot house flower got to this newsroom without ever having to cope with a little noise.

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  22. Linda said on April 6, 2009 at 11:00 am

    “But when the simple act of biting down on a pretzel can distract a professional, you’re left to sit and wonder how this delicate hot house flower got to this newsroom without ever having to cope with a little noise.

    LOL. When I hosted a library conference at my under-renovation library, and apologized for the noise, someone said, “If you cant’ deal with that noise, you’re too delicate to work in a public library.”

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  23. john c said on April 6, 2009 at 2:13 pm

    I once sat across from a classic phone slammer. He was a wonderful, tenacious reporter. But every once in a while the combination of excessive caffeine and maddening bureaucratic frustration would put him over the edge. I still remember sitting there late one morning, listening to the tension in his voice rise through a series of outraged questions that culminated with something along the lines of: “Well I say the public has a right to know, goddammit! Your fax machine will be shitting out an FOI in five minutes?” Then he slammed the phone down so hard it left this lingering ring, like a note from a tuning fork, hanging in the air. He looked at me with his face clenched in rage. I gave back a sympathetic shrug. He inhaled deeply, blew the air out with a sharp burst and, in a tone that suggested he was perhaps having the most boring, uneventful morning one could imagine, asked: “You wanna grab an early lunch?”

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