Commentary: A love letter to newspapering

The Charlotte ObserverJune 18, 2011 

I didn't go into newspapers because I wanted to crusade for anything - not sunshine laws, or streetcars or sidewalks - or because I wanted to spend years interviewing politicians and police. I just wanted to become a famous novelist someday.

So I took a journalism class at UNC Chapel Hill and got a summer job at my tiny hometown newspaper, and by then it was pretty much love at first sight.

In college, after I fell in with the smart, quirky, beer-drinking Daily Tar Heel crowd, I had a summer internship at the old Orlando Sentinel-Star. Amazingly, it still used hot type in a clattering, wood-floored composing room where you had to check pages set out in upside-down and backwards lead type, and where Ludlow machines churned out headlines in heavy lumps, metal still warm in the hand. In the newsroom sat a bank of copy editors: men in white shirts and green eyeshades who "worked the rim" at desks arranged in a horseshoe, with a slotman in the middle, and who rapidly typed witty headlines on half-sized sheets of copy paper.

The hook was set.

Friday is my last day working at The Charlotte Observer, and unless life holds some large surprises (always a possibility) my last day working at a daily newspaper. It has been my career, and my joy, ever since the first time I saw my name in capital letters in black ink on beige newsprint. Lead type is gone, and except in newsroom jargon so are the rim and the slot. Gone are green eyeshades, pneumatic tubes, cropping wheels and the other paraphernalia that once upon a time helped produce words enough to fill a small novel every day, which landed on most of the doorsteps in most of the cities in the country.

It's my choice to leave, after 17 years in the same job, and no matter how wonderful that job was, I'm glad to find a new role where I can still focus on, and write about, much of what I have been but can be energized by using different mental muscles.

But pardon me if I feel, for a while, as if my dog just died.

Producing a newspaper is, at heart, an addiction. At first, like me, you may just be addicted to the byline. Then you get a daily hit from holding in your hand a product you helped write, design or illustrate. You get continuing highs from dealing with breaking news, and from the access journalists get to big stories, politicians and civic leaders.

Covering the news, you feel as if you're part of a very large soap opera playing in front of you: Who's cheating on whom? Who are the villains? The heroes and heroines? Whose heart has just been broken? Who's cheering? Who's hiding secrets?

I've spent most of my adult life at the Observer, learning the city and region and two states, seeing Charlotte move from being a big Spartanburg to being a peer of Atlanta and Dallas. At least, Charlotte thinks it's a peer.

Some 16 years ago, after joining the editorial board, I discovered that the story of Charlotte as a growing city wasn't being told, so I decided to try. I surprised myself by finding plenty to crusade for, or against, and I'm lucky to have had bosses who allowed and encouraged me.

It's funny. If at my first newspaper job, at the now-vanished Fayetteville Times, I had been told I would spend years writing about city planning and learning about traffic engineering and zoning standards, I would probably have asked to be put down right then, like a filly with a bad foot. The lesson here: Things change, and you do, too.

So now I'm closing a large and important chapter of my life. In the end I didn't write even a single chapter of a novel. Instead, I got hooked on news and - just as important - on the company of my fellow newspaper journalists. They are a vastly under-appreciated national resource. As a group they are fun, interesting and brilliant. Most prefer to shun the spotlight and won't toot their own horns. They work, through good times and bad, to give people something most take for granted - news as unbiased as humans can make it. The best can take mundane fact and turn it into prose so beautiful it makes you cry.

Your city and your country need them; it would be unspeakably tragic to waste this national resource.

The dirty little secret of this and any newsroom is that every last one of the people here is, at core, a hopeless romantic, a fool for idealism. We still believe - despite all evidence to the contrary - that maybe we really can save the world, and can do it with our only real weapons: a quest for beauty and a belief that truth matters. Mary Newsom is an associate editor at the Observer, mnewsom@charlotteobserver.com. After Friday reach her at marynewsom@gmail.com. Her Observer blog, The Naked City, ends after Friday. Her new blog will be at nakedcityblog.blogspot.com.

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