This piece examines my experience as a print journalist, beginning in the early 1990s before the advent of mass online distribution of the news and ending in the mid-2000s as digital news sources proliferated. The performance script focuses on the sensory experience of the newsroom—the sounds and smells, as well as the visual imagery and the tactile sensations—and how that experience was transformed as the industry changed over the course of my seventeen-year career. Ultimately, the piece is a reflection on what was lost over the years.
When I started J-school, CNN was six years old.
The whole 24-hour news cycle was new, and not particularly pressing.
People still read the paper then; we must have believed at least some of them always would.
The bigger issue was USA Today with its gaudy color and 12-inch stories. Was this where newspapers were headed?
Jesus, we hoped not.
I started as a sports writer at the daily in my hometown.
In the mornings, the newsroom was full of sound—phones ringing, reporters talking, the AP photo printer clicking out black-and-white pictures.
At night though, it was mostly quiet.
After the stringers wrote their stories and left, there were never more than a couple of us around. Sometimes I'd hang out in the darkroom with the photographer while she ran film.
Every now and then, I'd have to process film myself, and the complete darkness of that room always struck me.
With no other voice to orient me, everything became a matter of touch.
I had to feel for the church key on the counter to open the canister.
Then I had to fumble with the metal spool until I got the film connected to it.
Leaving the darkroom felt like stepping out of a cave into daylight.
Between the darkroom and the newsroom, there was a little area with a light table, where we would study contact sheets or negatives through loupes.
It was the brightest spot in the building.
Once the stories were edited and the photos were dry, we'd take everything into the composing room, where the hum of the wax roller lay just under the voices of Marty Brennaman and Joe Nuxhall calling the Reds game on the radio.
The walls were lined with paste-up boards, their trays full of pica poles, blue pens, and X-Acto® knives, and the room smelled like hot wax and cigarette smoke.
It all ran together in the daytime, but at night it filled your senses.
None of us could imagine ever doing anything else.
Drinking was a big part of it.
After deadline on Friday and Saturday nights, we'd go to a bar called Teeny's.
We'd drink until closing and then go back to my friend Henson's attic apartment and listen to Tom Waits until five or six in the morning.
During the week, we'd go to the Royal.
It was seven or eight blocks from the office, and after a few pitchers of beer, we'd walk back in the small-town, middle-of-the-night dark.
Sometimes Henson would fall asleep on the couch in the warehouse area where they kept the pallets of Sunday fliers while I pasted up the agate page at three in the morning, still pretty drunk.
Eventually, I moved to a bigger city and a bigger newsroom, and it was mostly the same for a while.
But already things were beginning to change.
One day I came to work, and the whole art department was gone.
Then the axe hit the newsroom.
I never got fired, but I had to go.
I started my life in newspapers in an edifice, literally. In a great, brick building that felt like it had been standing for a hundred years.
Seventeen years later, I ended that life in a suburban office park where everything felt makeshift and disposable.
There was no smell of hot wax or smoke, no light tables or darkrooms, no wire machine clicking out photos.
Sometimes in the evenings, if the sports guys were around, you could still hear Marty and Joe calling the Reds game, but the satellite radio signal cleared up all the static.
It was Joe's last season. He died in November.
It was my last season, too, though I'd go back in a minute if I could believe there was anything left of the thing I fell in love with in those early years.