I’m glad to say I never worked for Gannett, the giant newspaper publisher, but Alan did, until the News was sold a few years ago. He would come home with stories, most of which must remain marital secrets. I know there are many Gannetoids out there who have their own, and now that the man who made Gannett what it was for so long has shuffled off this mortal coil, please feel free to share a few. RIP, Al Neuharth.
Neuharth is best-known as the founder of USA Today, but it’s safe to say he also presided over a period in which many of the nation’s newspapers, which at their best should be unique reflections of the community they serve, became so many heat-and-serves from the chain kitchen. He wasn’t all bad, certainly; his stupid three-dot columns provided hours of entertainment, and while he was absolutely correct in demanding Gannett’s newsrooms be racially and ethnically diverse places, some of the heavy-handed ways such directives were imposed didn’t make him, or the rest of his management team, any friends.
Take “mainstreaming,” a policy that — please correct the details, Gannetoids, if I get any wrong — dictated that stories contain a diversity of sources. On paper, a wonderful thing. In practice? I recall a journalism-review story about a Japanese-American woman in some Kansas tank town who was always being rung up by her local paper to get her reaction to this and that. She was quoted over and over, on everything from her opinion of a new park to changes in education policy. From there, the policy spread to encompass communities where the chain felt they might have circulation gains to make.
This led to some desperate moments in newsrooms, as reporters scrambled to find people with the correct address and ethnicity to quote and photograph. I remember hearing of one newsroom-wide message: I NEED A JEWISH PERSON TO REACT TO THE DEATH OF THE POPE. MACOMB COUNTY ONLY!!!! CAN ANYONE HELP??? There were stories of bushes being beaten for African-American deer hunters and ice fishermen. But my favorite story may be from a friend who once covered a July 4 parade in a working-class suburb so white they might as well have been at a Klan rally for all the diversity it had to offer. Suddenly, the photographer spotted a unicorn — a black family! On the other side of the street!
He cut through a marching band, getting to them. Good times.
From my time news-farming, I recall USA Today didn’t really deserve its reputation for shallowness. They had decent Washington coverage and even an above-average health desk, covering everything from exercise motivation to the FDA. But the jokes about deserving a Pulitzer for Best Investigative Paragraph will likely dog them until the paper goes the way of its founder.
Alan and I were out to dinner when the cops in Boston — all the cops in Boston, plus a few more municipalities, it looked like — finally got their man. I woke up early and read the most reputable news accounts of the day, and didn’t come away any more enlightened. I was wrong about the common criminals stuff, but I think David Remnick nailed it with this elegant phrase:
… the toxic combination of high-minded zealotry and the curdled disappointments of young men.
That’s pretty close to perfect, and could describe any number of other victims of testosterone poisoning, including Tim McVeigh.
Finally, I’m sorry to report some more bad news among our commenting community: Brian Igo, who commented here under the handle “baldheadeddork,” died over the weekend. I knew he had been sick for a few months; he last posted something around the time of the Newtown massacre. We were connected via Facebook, and he posted very little there, other than very occasional updates. As I recall, his announcement of it came around the time Facebook started putting those stupid prompts in the text window:
Facebook asks, “How are you feeling, Brian?”
Well Facebook, since you asked, I recently found out I have Stage IV abdominal cancer, and today I learned I may have two years to live with chemo and 8-10 months without.
Anything else you want to know, asshole?
I gather, from subsequent updates, that he kept his sense of humor and grace to the end. Maybe, when J.C. gets back from his vacation, he can do one of his comment carve-outs, as he did for Ashley, Moe and Whitebeard. Then no more! Please!
Sorry to start your week off with a bummer, but it is Monday. Let’s hope the week improves.