What newsrooms used to look like, long, long ago

The sardonic Managing Editor Bill Sorrels presides at his desk in the middle of the newsroom (he had an office somewhere, too). You see Dave Hampton running somewhere in the background. Note the decor.

The sardonic Managing Editor Bill Sorrels presides at his desk in the middle of the newsroom (he had an office somewhere, too). He’s apparently reading one of the proofs I fetched. You see Dave Hampton striding in a blur across the room in the background. Note the go-to-hell decor — the unmatched linoleum, the rivers of proofs tumbling from spikes on the Metro Desk behind the M.E….

Having just wrestled with the new definitions of an old word, “reporter,” here are some images from the very start of my newspaper career, so very long ago. When reporters were reporters.

After I dug out those pictures from 1978 to go with this post, I started poring through some old negatives, thinking yet again about digitizing them (and again overwhelmed at the enormity of the task), when I ran across something I had forgotten existed.

Apparently, I took my camera to the paper one night during those several months I worked at my first newspaper job, back in 1974. I was a “copy clerk” at The Commercial Appeal in the spring and summer of that year, while a student at Memphis State University. That means I was a “copy boy,” with the title adjusted for the political correctness that was coming into fashion at the time (but which for the most part did not touch this newsroom). And indeed, we did briefly have one girl join us boys standing at the rail, ready to jump when someone called “copy.”

wire machines

Copy Clerk David Hampton, later longtime editorial page editor of The Jackson Clarion-Ledger, in the wire room.

We were among the last copy boys in the country, since new technology was doing away with the need for someone to run around doing the stuff we did. Which meant reporters no longer had anyone to lord it over.

I just found these three exposures, found on one short strip of 35 mm film in a glassine envelope. I don’t know whether I took more, or where the rest of the roll is.

Anyway, I appeared to be documenting what I did at the paper by taking pictures of my friend and fellow copy clerk David Hampton doing the same tasks I did every night.

You can see Dave hurrying across the newsroom on an errand in the background of the photo at top, which shows one corner of the newsroom from the perspective of the managing editor’s desk. This part of the room is mostly deserted, with a reporter casually conversing with an assistant editor over on the Metro desk. This is 7:15 p.m., shortly after most of the day side people have left. The place would have been bustling about an hour earlier. Dave and I would be running for the next six or seven hours. (I wish I’d gotten a shot of the whole newsroom when it was full of people — but I probably would have been yelled at. That would not have been a novel experience, but I preferred to avoid it.)

In the foreground of the photo is the late Bill Sorrels, the managing editor, with a characteristic smirk on his face. I had him for a reporting class at Memphis State. His “teaching” technique consisted of telling stories from his reporting days, and stopping in mid-story to go around the room asking everyone, “So what did I do next?” and smirking when they got it wrong.

Bill would look over the galley proofs I brought him with that same expression, and then call out embarrassing critical remarks to reporters and editors about the mistakes they had made. (This was the kind of old-school place where grown men were chewed out and ground into the floor in front of everybody by their bosses.) The only actual work I ever remember seeing him do was on Aug. 9, 1974. He called me over and gave me a piece of paper on which he had scrawled, “Nixon Resigns.” He told me to take it to composing (on the next floor) and have it typeset in our biggest headline type (probably about 96 points), then have them shoot a picture of that and blow it up until it went all the way across the front page — then bring it to him to approve before they set it in metal and put it on the page. Probably the most “historic” thing I did in that job.

Above and at right, you see Dave in the wire room checking one of the 10 or 12 machines there that chugged out news from across the world non-stop — back in the days when ordinary people didn’t have access to such via Twitter, etc. We were the nursemaids to those machines, making sure the paper and ribbons never ran out, that they didn’t jam, and that the stories were ripped off the machines and taken to the editors who needed to see them.

Below, Dave is in the “morgue,” in later more polite times known as the “library,” where he’s been sent to fetch something, probably a photo, that someone needs to go with a story they’re working on. Given the size of the envelopes, these are probably mug shots, or maybe metal “cuts” that were already made to run in the paper previously. We saved those, when they were of repeat newsmakers, to save time and metal. They were uniformly 6 ems (picas) in width.

Another world. I never again worked in such an old-school environment. This was the old Commercial Appeal building, torn down decades ago. The long-defunct Memphis Press Scimitar was up on the fifth floor, if I recall correctly. Most news copy was still written, edited and processed in the old way — typed on manual typewriters, the pages strung together with rubber cement, edited with pencil, and set in metal type by noisy linotype machines up in the composing room. Once the type was set for each story, individual proofs would be pulled of each story, before they were placed on the “turtle” that held the full page — which we would run down to the newsroom. There was a lot of running back and forth.

This place was already an anachronism; it would have been completely recognizable to Ben Hecht’s characters in “The Front Page” It was what the makers of “Teacher’s Pet,” which I saw on Netflix the other night, were going for in the newsroom scenes. (Nick Adams played the copy boy in that film, itching for his shot at becoming a reporter. He was excited to get to write some obits one night. For us, the transitional job was to be the copy clerk who did the “agate” — rounding up police blotter, marriages and divorces, property transfers and other routine list-type copy and typing it up to go into the paper. I got to do that once, when another guy was out, and felt I had taken a huge step up.)

But new technology was creeping in. The non-news departments wrote on IBM Selectrics, and their copy was scanned and set in cold type, and pasted up on paper pages. And maybe some of the news copy as well — I see a Selectric behind Sorrels on the Metro desk. And a couple more on the rim of the copy desk at right.

It was also a crude, rough place that was about as non-PC as anyplace you could find in the ’70s. It’s ironic that they called us “copy clerks” instead of “boys,” because there were few other concessions to modern sensibilities. Culturally, every other newsroom I ever worked in was as removed from this one as though a couple of generations had passed. Although it was 1974, this newsroom would have been more at home in the first half of the century. It was… Runyonesque.

In the following decades, I didn’t miss this place, and was happy to work in a more civil environment. But I’m glad to have had this throwback experience; it gives me something to feel nostalgic about when I watch those old movies made before I was born. Yes, I say, it was just like that — those few months at the Commercial Appeal, anyway….

Dave, fetching a "cut" from the morgue.

Dave, fetching a “cut” from the morgue.

21 thoughts on “What newsrooms used to look like, long, long ago

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Awhile back in a comment, I told an anecdote illustrating the place copy clerks occupied in the hierarchy of that old-school paper. Since it involved David Hampton, pictured above, I share it again here:

    It was our job to hop to whenever anybody yelled “copy.” We’d run to see what that person wanted. Sometimes it was to physically move copy — from a reporter to the metro desk, from the metro to the copy desk, from the copy desk to composing on the next floor (when it wasn’t sent via vacuum tubes!). Sometimes it was to run out and get a photo from the jail, or from some ordinary citizen. Other times, it was to fetch coffee, or run to the Rendezvous to pick up some ribs for an editor. We kept the paper moving, and were the only ones who really knew where everything was. But it was the lowliest of positions — sort of like Kenneth on “30 Rock.”

    There was this cop reporter who was typical of the kinds of colorful characters to be found in such a place. He fancied himself a real Beau Brummel, with his cheap, loud polyester suits. He was single, and lived in a room at the Scottish Inn. One day, his room was broken into and, as we learned from the police blotter, he lost 28 suits. He wasted no time in replacing them. We watched him, and for weeks after the theft, he didn’t wear the same outfit twice.

    One day, he yelled “copy,” and my friend Dave Hampton — who would later be editorial page editor of the Clarion Ledger in Jackson, MS — ran over to him. He gestured for Dave to lean in a little closer, and said, “F___ you, copy clerk!” And laughed maniacally. That’s all he wanted — just a brief indulgence in what power his lot in life afforded him….

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    Why did I bother posting this? Mainly because my journalist friends might enjoy it if they run across it — the older ones and the younger.

    If others among you find this bit of cultural history interesting, that’s fine, too…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Aren’t they, though?

      I had to go out and buy pants for that job, because in those days all I had was jeans, and they were strictly verboten. You wouldn’t think a place that looked like this had a dress code, but it did. Show up in jeans and the metro editor, Angus McEachran, would say, “Whaddya think this is, a ranch?” and send you home.

      Dave was more of a sharp dresser than I was, and probably had some double-knit pants before taking the job.

      But taken from the context of the 1970s, they ARE rather jarring. Reminds me of what Happy Gilmore said of a guy wearing loud golf pants: “If I wore cIothes Like those, I’d have to kick my own ass.”

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Actually, now I’m not positive that that’s Dave in the background of the picture above — the pants look different. But it’s hard to tell at that distance, and since he’s kind of a blur…

  3. Bryan Caskey

    “It was also a crude, rough place that was about as non-PC as anyplace you could find in the ’70s.”

    I would describe one of my first jobs in a similar way. Before law school, I worked at the Chicago Board of Options Exchange in the S&P 500 options pit with a similar job description (and status) as a copy boy.

    It was an entirely youngish, male dominated atmosphere, as the work environment was approximately 40-75 guys (in just our pit) standing up, yelling and screaming at each other while flashing the ubiquitous hand signals to indicate price.

    It was not a place for the faint of heart. I loved it even though I was at the absolute bottom of the pyramid. After the summer of Enron, the bank I was working for gave up their seat on the exchange and laid everyone off so there wasn’t anywhere for me after that. I decided to go to law school.

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      I did not know you worked at CBOE! I represented a few options traders who thought they could do real estate deals. I got a ride in the Porsche of one of them. Most comfortable seat ever. Crain’s published an article (this would have been 1987-ish–very Bright Lights, Big City) about a dealership in the northern suburbs that operated as sort of a pawn shop for high end cars–guys (and it was always guys) sometimes needed to cover their positions in a hurry, and cars were a more liquid option….

        1. Kathryn Fenner

          Then there was that unicorn guy: he actually quit while he was ahead (he was early thirties when I met him, and he’d retired a while back) and bought nice house for his family and invested the rest in sensible income-generating assets….set for life….

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Well, now, that DID have a lot to do with the nature of that newsroom.

      The only woman I remember in a position of authority at the paper was this young woman who was like assistant features editor or something. She was very nice to me — too nice, really. Our wedding announcement ran in the paper while I was working there. I asked her if I could see the proof before it went in the paper, and she said no, that was against the rules. I thought that was silly on something that wasn’t a news story, but fine.

      When it came out in the paper, the headline was “Bradley Warthen to Wed.” That was it. No mention of my wife, who did not particularly appreciate it. After all, she was the one who had grown up in Memphis and had all her friends there, who were likely to miss the piece since the hed didn’t mention her.

      Anyway, women played a larger role at every other paper where I worked after that, and on the whole the atmosphere was more civilized.

      For instance, that was the only place I ever witnessed something like this: There was a big breaking story that involved someone getting injured and taken to the hospital. The photographer who went back to cover it came back without a photo of the injured person. The metro editor dressed him down, cussing him out in the middle of the newsroom. This was a grown man of about 40 I’m guessing, and he was hanging his head so that he looked like he wanted to sink right through the floor. I don’t think he was crying, but his face was scrunched up like he wanted to. When he said, “But they took him into the hospital…,” Angus yelled, “So what? Your damn’ camera doesn’t work inside a hospital?!?!?” He just ground him into the floor.

      I’ve been chewed out and I’ve done some chewing out myself — but never in front of everybody like that.

      Also, at my other papers, there weren’t rituals such as this one: Charlie Cavagnaro, the assistant metro editor (who later became sports information officer and eventually athletic director at Memphis State) would yell “Copy!” every night and one of us would go running over, at which point Charlie would mutter — without looking at us — “Go get me some s__t to eat.” We were sorely tempted to obey him literally, but generally he had ordered ribs from the Rendezvous or something like that, and it was our duty to run fetch it. Which we did…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        This was my introduction to Charlie Cav: My first day on the job, a veteran clerk was showing me the ropes, with me following him through all the routines. Cav yelled “Copy!,” and this guy and I ran over.

        Without looking up from his work — Charlie had no time for looking at copy clerks — he slammed down a can full of pencils and mumbled something. I couldn’t make it out and said “What?” He slammed it down again and mumbled the same thing again, louder and with a more menacing tone.

        Before I could further incur wrath, the old hand grabbed the can and led me away. He told me that Charlie was saying, “Get rid of these nubs and get me some pencils!” I still looked blank, and he explained that meant sharpen all the ones that still had any length left, and throw out the short ones.

        So I did, as I did after that whenever Charlie mumbled the same thing…

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      Hot lead type was great when they used it for prospectuses and the like. You only had to proof the changed lines after the first try…

  4. Margaret Pridgen (Maggie)

    When I went to work for the Atlanta Journal in 1972, I was told I was the first female copy boy since World War II. I was passing time before law school (never made it – another story entirely) and “Copy Carrier” came shortly after “Cocktail Waitress” in the want ads. Which I read in the newspaper, of course.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      As I said, we just had that one girl join us boys for a time during the six months or so I worked there.

      She was the daughter of someone the executive editor or publisher knew. That’s about all I can remember about her except that I can ALMOST picture her. Pretty, in a studious, serious kind of way, with very straight long, blondish hair. Glasses, I think. Smart. Neatly dressed, not nearly the slob most of us were. Button-down oxford-cloth tops, as I recall.

      I remember one other thing about her because of a remark made by one of the boys in her absence. It illustrates the male-oriented nature of the place. It came from this guy I can picture, although I don’t recall his name. He was Chinese-American, and maybe that made him try harder than others to be a good ol’ boy.

      In the brief intervals when we weren’t stepping and fetching, it was our duty to stand along a rail near the copy desk. (The newsroom was sectioned off into groups of desks enclosed by a waist-high rail, into departments.) In slow times, there could be a couple or three of us batting the breeze. If I had a recording, our conversation would probably have interested an anthropologist.

      This was shortly after the young woman had joined us, and the subject of our new colleague. The guy I mentioned remarked upon the way she stood at her post — with her back very erect, and leaning slightly back against the rail.

      This guy speculated that she had to do that to keep herself balanced because of her unusually large breasts.

      I remember being somewhat scandalized that he was discussing her anatomy, particularly at a time when we were all supposed to have raised consciousnesses. I probably said something like, “Aw man, come on!” But I confess that it occurred to me that she actually DID seem a bit awkward standing there. But maybe that’s because she worked in a place where she thought with good reason that she might be discussed that way…

  5. Burl Burlingame

    Even though I started newspapering in 1974, I never had a male boss in my whole career. All smart and sometimes crazy women.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I had about four female bosses. The rest were men — I guess about a dozen or so of them, depending on which ones you define as bosses. If you were a low-ranking editor in a large newsroom, as I was early on, you could sometimes say that, like Peter in “Office Space,” you had a lot of bosses. Depending on the situation. A little like the military — a given colonel might not be your immediate superior, but he can give you orders.

      As far as being smart and/or crazy… I’d say that I was exposed to some of both, with both genders….


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