The local newspaper where I began my career was printed on presses in the back of a building that smelled of hot metal type and ink mist and oiled wooden floors that creaked.
You heard it coming; telephones ringing, a reporter ticking away on a typewriter, Linotype machines clanking like the engines of a river paddleboat to set lines of type that would be smudged with ink and pressed on a strip of paper to be sent to a proofreader before it was cleared for publication.
When the moment came a bell would ring and a hum would build from beneath your feet and travel through your bones and up your spine like the passing of a freight train and gather pitch with the speed of the spinning plates that kissed words onto newsprint. It would whine with urgency and certitude that the world would be better understood in the coming hours as the papers landed on the doorsteps and news racks of the community.
Anybody who was a part of that had a sense of pride and purpose. The paper mattered because it served the community, marking passages from the birth of babies to the obituaries of neighbors and you mattered because you were a link between the unknown and discovery. Once you understood that, you comprehended the value of free speech and truth that often was taken for granted by others.
Small jobs on small papers were incubators for life. Reporters learned things on the job that were missed in whatever formal education they brought to their first day at work. The lessons included the confirmation of ideals of democracy and the revelation that those ideals were constantly under assault by the forces of greed and domination of others. The most insignificant reporter might be called on to be David to the Goliath of commercial or political powers in the community. You learned that good and evil are interchangeable parts of every human soul, and some of the most respectable people were those who knew the manual of darkness by heart.
A job on a small paper was the beginning of a life-long education. There is no graduation ceremony this side of the grave.
Editors were usually plugged into 30 years of experience and powered by a weary cynicism, seeking each day to be rescued from the disappointments of life spent sparring with the dissonance of human experience up against spiritual and social ideals.
They could be inspired by a green reporter’s naivete and enraged by the sloth of a talented writer who no longer found value in their role. Many propped up their days with tobacco and alcohol and a few with religious fervor and resignation, but they were real people and the best of them were either home-grown or had carried their luggage through similar communities over the years and understood that there was honor in small town newspapers, if not fortune.
Most never courted fame. A few had been to the metro papers and came back around to the land of PTA meetings and bingo fundraisers. People who earn their pay covering the news of celebrities and powerful politicians and business leaders know that fame shines light beyond the walls of the palaces and boardrooms but a small fire in a cozy room has more value than a bonfire in the winds.
A friend told me there was something broken in me if I could be satisfied with a hometown paper after Hong Kong and Da Nang and Japan and the mysteries washed in the blue South China Seas and bylines across continents.
What neither he nor I knew was that the big papers and journalism as we knew it would devour itself with corporate ambitions and mergers, and the song of offset presses would give way to the whisper of computers and an electronic glow.
Media got bigger and faster and those who navigate it — story-tellers and users — would see more and understand less, perhaps, and be diminished by the inhuman hush of being alone in our pursuits.