Sunday, July 3, 2011
Every picture tells a story, don't it?: A melancholy tale of four dedicated young guys who loved newspapers
It may be my favorite picture of my newspaper career. It’s not one of the shots I got of O.J., Ali, Waylon and Willie. John R., Magic, Henry Aaron. It’s not even the one that Johnny Cash Kristofferson, Kris’ son, took of me and his pop singing one day at the corner where the Tally-Ho Tavern – which we both frequented lives ago -- once existed.
Nope, it’s a photo of a quartet of journalists – three guys I loved and me – sitting on a curb on a deserted downtown street. A bottle of cheap champagne by our feet. Likely a trail of empties followed us to that spot, like so many broken hearts.
We’d just finished screening a movie called “Flapjacks: The Motion Picture,” a crude-by-today’s-techno-standards Super 8mm film that chronicled the birth of The News Brothers. I don’t need to go into it here. Buy the book if one ever becomes available. (Yeah, Mr. Dylan, I am workin’ on it, so quit riding me about it. Damn, Zimmy....)
I write pieces of the News Brothers book now and then. Sometimes I laugh. But at times like this it hurts. The movie featuring those four men – including that dashing young man in the yellow Fedora – is a skewering of pop culture, society, ruthless authority and the korporate mentality. But for all of its rudeness and satire, it also is a love letter to newspapering.
Working as a newspaperman was my life’s goal. It was ripped from me a few years ago, although I still have the pleasure of writing for a living and for life.
Some of the fellows in the picture didn’t become journalists on purpose.
The guy in the white top hat, my pal and still-colleague in the News Brothers business, is Rob “Death” Dollar. He’d been destined for a job in the CIA when a newspaper job and family ties came calling. He had career setbacks, thanks to corporate politics and big money small-town bullying, but he went on to a distinguished career as a journalist. You’d probably not have expected that if you looked into the bleary eyes of the guy in this Saturday Morning, 2 a.m. photograph. Of course, you’d have to remove the shades to see those eyes.
News Brothers always wear shades because our futures are always so damn bright, as life has proven.
Rob was on my staff and he was the best police reporter I have ever known and, though I never worked for him, I’ve been told he was a good and fair boss, willing to go to the mattresses for his troops after he moved to his hometown to take over the daily.
Jerry “Chuckles” (damn he hates that nickname) Manley is the guy in the green tuxedo. I know you can’t tell colors in this black and white picture, but he’s the guy on the far right, his arm on my shoulder. And that tux is green.
He looked like a drunken and somewhat overweight leprechaun that night. Hell, many nights for that matter. I remember one night he and I went to see the Little Ole Opry – Jack Greene, George Morgan, Jeannie Seeley, Little Jimmy Dickens – in a not-very-secret after-hours club behind Pal’s Package Store in Clarksville. It was a joint that perked up at about 10:30 on Friday and Saturday nights and featured the Grand Ole Opry stars who came up to Clarksville after finishing their weekly shows. If I remember correctly, it was corporate Opry clout that caused this Little Ole Opry to close. Not surprising.
After the Little Opry show ended and Jerry dropped me off at my thankfully temporary home (another story), he drove back to his. When a dog came running out in front of his blue Prelude, well, he chose wisely. He left the road and rolled the car. “I didn’t want to kill the dog,” he explained to me the next day. News Brothers are, as we like to say, damn nice guys. I think he only took one sick day, but he looked like something the … well. .. dog dragged in…
Jerry was, like me, never planning to be anything but a newspaperman. It was his calling. As a writer perhaps his words didn’t sing. But as an editor who finds holes in stories, who asks the right questions, who writes headlines, who exercises humanity with staffers, he was among the best in the business. I love the guy like a brother.
Then there’s the dark-bearded Cajun in the purple Fedora, Thomas Anthony “Tony” Durr. He kinda stumbled into journalism by accident. His life, it turned out, was one big accident after another, leading to ultimate tragedy.
He had been a computer guru with a company out of Florida. When he sold his company’s products to the newspaper in Clarksville, he pretty much came along as part of the deal. I mean, early newspaper computers had a lot of problems.
What could be better than hiring an editor who helped hone the system and plopping him in the newsroom to try to keep things straight?
Of course, Tony’s greatest contribution as an editor is that he also liked to play golf, so he pretty much relinquished the control of the newspaper to me, coming in for conversations or calling in, but I was the associate editor and, well, he figured I could take care of things. (Actually I shared the authority with another sub-editor, a guy who had a face like a death mask and a personality to match.)
Tony was what they call an “idea” man. With the help of Rob and Jerry and a few other brave souls who lived hard but worked harder for the sake of good newspapering, we executed some of his ideas.
We also had plenty of our own, and Tony, to his credit, knew enough to step out of the way if the News Brothers were chasing a story, covering a tragedy or consoling a grieving mother whose murdered daughter’s skull had been mistaken for a milk jug when the dogs dragged it out of the woods.
Tony really wasn’t a News Brother, but he enjoyed the fruits of our hard work in his role as editor of the newspaper.
Jim “Flash” Lindgren isn’t in this picture, because he was young and went home by 1:30. He was like our little News Brother, among the original foursome. We loved him and took him on our outings and figured he’d carry on the tradition, which he did in Indianapolis, where he now sells bogus penny stocks to unsuspecting retirees. Nah, that’s not true. He’s distinguished himself in journalism and in academia at Butler University.(That's the school that keeps on almost winning the NCAA title, choking in the big games? Talk about "the curse of the News Brothers....")
But this is about the picture and I’m kind of getting off the track here. But that’s my right, as I am the writer of this piece and I no longer report to soul-snuffing corporate bean-counters and butchers of hope and dreams.
What this photograph represents to me is love of friends, for sure, but love of friends who also were in love with the act of committing good journalism.
Proud, hard-smoking, far from pure or Puritanical, these good and decent men prided themselves on being solid newspapermen.
At the time this picture was taken, that’s the way we all figured it would be. Newspapers would be around forever and we’d be able to enjoy the ride and the responsibility and, especially, serve our duties as members of the Fourth Estate.
This picture was taken in Clarksville, Tenn., where all of us worked together and where I spent the first 15 years of my newspaper career.
Tony had already gone on to his next job, weekend editor of the San Antonio Express-News, by the time we coaxed him to fly up to spend the weekend in my apartment and go to the movie. I remember him as a perfect house guest, a good gumbo cook and a guy who loved my old cat, Sly (“C’mon, get up and dance to the music.”)
Sometimes now Rob and I joke that this early morning after the movie premiere was at the peak of our careers and we should have driven off into the Cumberland River or disappeared like Jim Morrison after the police arrested us while the credits rolled. That statement may raise questions, but I’ll answer them another time, perhaps in the book. This is about newspapers.
It turned out it wasn’t our careers’ peak. For another decade or even two, there still was newspapering being committed around Tennessee and even in some of the other colonies and commonwealths.
Not too long after this photo, Jerry went on to a short stint at the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro (Yes, that used to be a helluva paper and not a shopper at all) before landing his dream job as a copy editor at The Tennessean.
He’d wanted to work there because John Seigenthaler was his hero and because he loved that newspaper, the one that was delivered to his home down in Petersburg, Tenn., when he was a kid and playing Tiddlywinks and Mumbly Peg, while getting sugar drunk on Nehi on the town square … Of course he may not have done that at all, but I never can figure out what he might have done in Petersburg. I think he kept his pants on most of the time.
He rose fairly quickly at The Tennessean because he is, was, remains, a great newspaperman. He not only was content, he was jubilant that he was going to spend the rest of his working days at the paper he had loved all his life.
I was still in Clarksville, sucking on smokes, listening to the scanner and minding the night shift when he’d call me and say “I just wrote a good headline and thought, man, a million people will look at this headline tomorrow.” Of course, there weren’t a million Tennesseans sold then. But there were probably four or five times more than the measly 55 copies they sell daily now. OK. OK. I’m kidding. I don’t know what the circulation is or how the “Internet” clicks factor into the equation. Mind you, there’s still good work being done there, but you can only stretch a staff of five so far…. Well, that’s an exaggeration, but bean-counting is the name of the game and they have continued to lop off staffers.
But Jerry was in his glory back in his early Tennessean days. Sometimes, as he still lived in Clarksville part time, he’d spin by my house at the conclusion of both our shifts and we’d chase the dawn. “C’mon, man, let’s go for a ride in this Pink Cadillac…” and Bruce Springsteen would scream from the speakers as we played chicken with deer and ran full-tilt on reckless adventure, sometimes to Nashville or Guthrie, Ky., once to laugh at death on an interstate overpass. But we don’t need to share that story here. Glory Days, indeed.
Rob’s newspaper career also was glorious for nearly 24 years as he became the backbone of the Kentucky New Era in his hometown of Hopkinsville, Ky. He helped turn that small-town, daily rag into a respected, hard-news paper. He made enemies.
But he earned a lot of respect from his staff and even from his bosses. That’s back when bosses in upper management showed respect to their staffs. And sometimes the bosses even deserved it.
Me, well, I was the last News Brother to leave Clarksville, taking a sip of brandy and turning out the lights on my last night in that newsroom. I had been hired by Editor Eddie Jones and Managing Editor Tony Kessler at the Nashville Banner and served a variety of jobs for the 10 years I was there. In whatever role, I was also the designated No. 2 man, the bullpen, if a decision needed to be made. I loved the Banner, which eventually was killed by greed, both corporate and personal. I went down with the ship.
Because I was in the middle of an adoption, I accepted the offer of a job that wouldn’t force me to move. I went to work for The Tennessean and served as a copy desk staffer, entertainment editor (about six years), senior entertainment writer, senior features writer and then, as they apparently -- at least I interpreted it that way -- were trying to make things uncomfortable enough for me to leave, I was moved to night cops. Almost a full-circle career.
I figured that buyouts were going to come, so I held on for the better part of a year, working the night shift, never seeing my kids. One of the few pluses of that job was that my boss was Jerry, who had been on my staff in Clarksville, but had been more of a comrade than an employee.
When my buyout did come through, Jerry could hardly stand it, keeping his head down and hugging me quickly before he went out the door. He was going to be night editor for another four years, but I was the last full-time staffer he’d ever have, at least as far as I know.
Of course, I survived and continue to squeak out an income but hold my head high as a freelance journalist, writer and even part-time news-writing instructor and journalist-in-residence at a local university. My family and my forays with Rob and the occasional other News Brother or Americana star help keep me sane (so to speak).
Rob finally left his newspaper job on his own terms, resigning as managing editor, after disagreement with the way his paper was going, his staff was being treated and his powerlessness to change it. He wouldn’t backstab his people. Money talks. Good men (and women) walk.
After reluctantly leaving journalism, he went on to serve as deputy mayor in Hopkinsville, and later had a pretty good temporary job with the federal government, responsible for overseeing public relations and community outreach activities in 21 Western Kentucky counties during the 2010 Census.
When he accomplished that task with great success, the Census Bureau gave him a lapel pin and said, "Attaboy." Now, in polite terms, he's in "transition" or "between opportunities." But, he keeps pounding the pavement to get a job, and he’d make anyone proud. Hell, I'm proud of him.
Tony left San Antonio for newspaper jobs in Chicago, back to San Antonio, Anchorage and Kodiak. He tried to recruit me for each one, but I knew he was never going to be at one place long enough to pin my hopes to his career. I did get trips to San Antonio and Chicago out of the deal, though.
It would have been my luck to have moved to Anchorage just in time for his firing there. Even if he’d taken me to Kodiak from there, he also got fired there.
I occasionally would talk with him after he left newspapers and joined the Coast Guard. He seemed happy, had survived his seventh or eighth divorce.
But there always was the hope he’d go back into newspapers. He didn’t know where or when, but he figured he would. I’m sure he would have wanted to come wherever I was so I could cover for him. But I loved him.
Tony’s Coast Guard career ended one apparently lonely night. An empty bottle of prescription pain-killers was found by his body after he didn’t show up for duty the next day.
It should be noted that the other original News Brother not in this picture, "Flash" Lindgren rose to great heights as a senior copy editor in Indianapolis, before his paper was consumed by korporate cannibalism and he exited rather than compromise his principles. Apparently his News Brothers training "took."
There were others who joined, proudly. Scott "Badger" Shelton was a correspondent for The Tennessean (by the way, Rob was for a time, too in his Hoptown days.) Scott also was a radio newsman, who became infected by the News Brothers and their enthusiasm while covering us as a news story.(Our movie was designed as a fund-raiser for a variety of worthy causes.) I don't know if Badger left journalism to go into a media relations job or if journalism left him. Regardless, he has ink in his veins. He is waging war with a deadly disease right now, but we hear he wears his shades during chemo treatments.
John "Street" Staed left Clarksville to pursue the heights of management superstardom in the news business. He reached them all right and even admitted once in a note that he was a "management puke" and no longer worthy of the News Brothers affiliation. Perhaps not .. until he was lopped from his lofty position and turned back into a reporter. Last I heard he was working part-time at a newspaper while training to be a respiratory therapist or Popsicle salesman.
I think Ricky "Dumbo" Moore has so far survived as a newspaperman. The sports editor in Clarksville back when the Brothers raged, he's some sort of high-falutin' copy editor or something in Chattanooga. I'm sure he worries, though, as he's not getting any younger, is overweight and has a variety of health woes.
There are others ... Harold "The Stranger" Lynch died long ago of lung cancer. Billy "StrawBilly" Fields left newspapering early enough to survive and he now is a high-ranking government official in Nashville (as if that's a good thing). David "Teach" Ross got out when he could and now is a schoolteacher in Erin, Tenn., and plays guitar in roadhouses at night.
I could go on, but I want you to scroll back to the top of this column for a second and look at the picture of four guys who just wanted to be newspapermen, who loved each other and loved exercising the First Amendment as well as helping the underdog and uncovering corruption and, always, sticking to their principles.
On the far left is Rob. As I said, he’s "between opportunities."
Then comes Tony. He committed suicide.
The happy fellow with the yellow Fedora is me. I left newspapering on my own terms, but I both regret and resent what has happened to newspapers since. My heart aches for my profession and its people as well as for the readers who no longer are fully served, for the underdogs who are ignored and for the fact big business and government go unchecked while a country is in despair.
You see, I got a buyout four years ago. In the months and years after that came a wave of buyouts and layoffs, shrinking a once proud staff to just a few. It's not just a Nashville malady. It has happened everywhere there is or has been a newspaper. The bottom-line is key. Sacrifice enough people so the CEO can get a $1 million bonus or whatever.
My old friend Jerry toiled in the trenches of middle management, a night editor without a staff, for almost four years after I left.
Last Thursday, while he was on vacation and bound for the annual Manley family pig roast and clambake in the countryside near Petersburg, he was notified his job was being vacated. Time to pack up your stuff old man.
I’m sure he was told “Thanks for all you’ve done.”
Several other good people – including an exceptional young journalist and rock drummer named Nicole Keiper (I put her name in here because she’s still young enough to hire, folks) – got axed. As did Ellen Margulies, who spent 25 years at the morning newspaper. There were many more corporate-wide.
Some didn’t expect it. For that, I am most sorry. I’d been telling them it was coming. But nobody really accepts that the worst will happen. Until it does.
By the way Larry McCormack -- the official News Brothers photographer (I'm not sure if he took this shot as it was 29 years ago and very late on a night when $3 champagne was involved) -- did make the cut and remains employed. At least last time I checked.
I could go on and protest what happened to the guys in the picture, but I’m particularly angry with the way Jerry was treated.
He had his dream job, and the corporate guys, who come and go, took it away from him.
I’m sure he’ll bounce back. Or at least roll back…. Maybe he can return to Petersburg to play spin-the-bottle with the local school marm. I don’t know.
All I really know is that when I look at the picture at the top of this column, it used to make me happy. Still does, until I realize that the four men there just wanted to spend the rest of their lives as newspapermen. And, for whatever reason, those dreams were crushed.
They say daily newspapers are dying. The reason is simple. People, not necessarily me, but I am a good example, are being dumped on the curb as the korporate juggernaut kills a most wonderful profession.
It’s not over yet, of course. So beware if you remain in a newsroom. George W. Bush never had an exit strategy, but you sure should. Does anyone want to be the last one standing in America's newsrooms? I don't know and I assume it would be some korporate type with a parachute, anyway. I do know that's one story no News Brother would want to report ... turning out the lights on what once was a noble profession.
There are a few things that come with a life spent in newspapers, triumphs and friendships as well as nightmares from tragedies covered, human beings in suffering.
One thing you never forget is the stench of death.