Joel Achenbach, the WashPost blogger, is on vacation this week, and his substitute has gone spelunking in his career, via Lexis-Nexis. She posted a story of Achenbach’s from 1985, which was Twitter-flagged by the editor who handled it, none other than the legendary Gene Weingarten of the Miami Herald; from its tone and length, it can only be from Tropic, that paper’s Sunday magazine.
Got all that? Anyway, it’s from 1985, 26 long years ago, another era in the newspaper biz. The internet was confined to college campuses (and only the faculty offices of the computer-science department, at that), the Herald and its parent company, Knight-Ridder, were absorbing workers jettisoned from Viewtron, a failed experiment to deliver the news via computer, still a rare appliance in American homes. There would be a few more glory years in the newspaper biz yet, where a smart editor could find a local story (the opening of South Florida’s first sperm bank), assign a smart young writer (Achenbach), and come up with this long, meandering story about how it works and who the people are behind it, told through Achenbach’s visit to the facility, and his attempt to make a deposit.
I know a guy who had performance anxiety at a sperm bank — he tells it as a very funny dinner-party story — so every word of the long opening anecdote rings true:
Do sperm scream? wonders Mr. Posterity as he sits in the sperm bank. He is alone in a room so bright he cannot find a shadow. In his hand is a large cup. The doctor has asked him to produce within 15 minutes. He has already wasted five.
…The doctor at the sperm bank has been thoughtful enough to leave a girlie magazine in the room (it’s the only thing in sight with any trace of color). But when Mr. Posterity flips the pages he can barely focus, the Girls of Texas are bending over backwards to help him in this wretched moment, but all he sees is paper.
…Voices come from outside the door. It is the doctor and another person, laughing at something, probably something not very funny. Mr. Posterity makes a mental note that the door does not lock. He is trying to be cool about this whole thing, but he wonders if perhaps a lock would have been a good idea, a lock and chain and a hefty deadbolt, and maybe the room could have been down a long hallway or in the basement — jeez, he could have just mailed it in, no hassle.
Eventually cold logic takes over, and Mr. Posterity steels himself, realizing that there would be no greater humiliation than to exit the room with nothing to show for his time. He had vowed to be productive. He had vowed to be manly.
And so . . .
When he leaves the room he is wearing his dark shades. He is not proud. More than ever, the cup seems needlessly vast, a virtual bucket, mocking him. This is a tense moment and he wants to look slick, but the cup is proving awkward, he isn’t sure how to hold it. He decides to grip it close to the stomach, the way he holds a Bud at a party.
This is why I got into the newspaper business, to be able to write like this and get paid for it. This is what newspapers used to do — some of them, anyway. We would publish pieces like this on a Sunday, and no one would ask, as they would in later years, “But what’s the utility here? Can we include a sidebar on the sperm bank’s hours and rates? This seems awfully long. Are we being self-indulgent here? I mean, really, who cares?”
No one asked those questions because this was a Sunday-magazine piece, and that’s what Sunday magazines did. They gave people lounging in their living rooms, drinking coffee, surrounded by sections of the fat newspaper, something to read they wouldn’t get Monday through Saturday. Maybe people were busy then; I’m sure they were, in fact. But we figured, hey, Sunday — if it’s going to run any day of the week, this is when it should run. These were, to some extent, the experimental John Cage pieces. They required commitment from readers, a more sophisticated reader’s eye. They assumed at least a few Monday-morning phone calls, from some pissed-off old lady or evangelical, who simply cannot believe that in her newspaper, which she pays for, the thing she invites into her home, there’s a story about a reporter with a several-hundred word lede drolly detailing how he jerked off into a cup. And so on.
The day was dawning, however. If the Herald editors had looked to the east, they would have seen a pinkening sky as the new era approached. Or, to switch metaphors abruptly, Pandora had already opened the box, and the harpies were pouring out. Competition. Declining literacy rates. Something that was called, in meetings, “time starvation.” Falling ad lineage. The last ones out of the box would be the bean-counters, the number-crunchers, the people who could put an essay like this through an analysis and say, yes, while personally they had enjoyed this immersive visit to the sperm bank, really, research shows that the average reader only spends 17 minutes with the paper, maybe less, and was this really where the paper wanted to put its resources? When there was real news to cover?
For a while around this time, everyone wanted suburban readers, those wealthy boomers spending like drunken sailors on everything from home improvements to cars to dinners out, and so came the birth of Neighbors, zoned editions pegged to the compass points of individual metro areas. No one at Neighbors would scorn your suburban town board meetings, no sir, and we covered the crap out of them, but that didn’t pay off, either. Sunday magazines went first — rotogravure printing, long deadlines, scarce advertising, and those nice people at Parade and USA Weekend were offering their product practically free. Neighbors came later. Cut, cut, cut, trim, trim, trim. Retiring employees weren’t replaced, others were bought out, some laid off. Cut, shrink, deny, sell, consolidate, reduce. A new publisher arrived in Fort Wayne. When Alan, the features editor, met her, she asked how many staff he had in his department. Eight, he replied, and she made a face, like, are you kidding me? There are three now.
You’ve heard all this before. I’m oversimplifying. I’m telling the story from only one perspective. It’s boring. It’s ancient history. It’s water over the dam and under the bridge. Both Weingarten and Achenbach still have jobs, still write long-form pieces rich with style and detail, only they do them at the Washington Post, one of the tiny handful of papers that still swings for the fences from time to time. There’s still lots of good writing out there, and a lot of it — I’m always struck, on a day like today, how much I can be distracted by great pieces, on the web, in books, in Kindle Singles. I have too much to read, really; it’s hard to get work done sometimes.
But this one took me back. I should look forward. So that’s that.
Let’s get to the bloggage, which is scarce today:
According to one blogger who found this yesterday, it is “comedy gold.” I’ll say: Marcia Clark opining on the Casey Anthony trial, calling it “worse than O.J.!” Considering the O.J. case was booted in large part because of Clark’s prosecutorial missteps, that’s a pretty big contention. (If you haven’t read “The Run of His Life,” Jeffrey Toobin’s account of the O.J. case, I highly recommend it. Marcia might gain some valuable insight.)
The stolen babies of Spain. Taken, it seems, as political retribution, later just for cash, with the help of doctors, nurses and nuns. Unbelievable.
Outta here. Have a great Thursday.