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On missing the newsroom, for so many good reasons

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SDSU Collegian and Jackrabbit staff, most of whom went on to work in professional newsrooms across South Dakota and beyond

The interview posted above is from SDPB's daily public affairs show, In the Moment with Lori Walsh.

At least once a week on this blog, I have something to say.

In writing, I mean.

I actually say something, in spoken words, most Thursday mornings on public radio, where I’m fortunate enough to chat about my blog topics with my friend and colleague Lori Walsh, the talented host of the In the Moment radio show.

I love our weekly conversations. On the radio. But this blog is a place for writing. And I write here quite a bit. Sometimes maybe too much.

I figured I was in danger of excess this week when I decided to write a reflection about newsrooms, what makes them such unique work environments and what I miss most about them.

Oh, and there’s so much I miss.

I loved the newsrooms I worked in, including those at the SDSU Collegian, the Chamberlain Register, the Brookings Register, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader and the Rapid City Journal.

Rarely will you find so many smart, challenging, iconoclastic, nosey, witty, neurotic and committed professionals collected in one work environment.

Rarely will you find a place of such high energy, collective pressure and shared sense of purpose in one work environment.

Or, as my long-departed newsman friend John Austin once said when we were both working for state tourism during a short hiatus in our news careers:

“What I miss most about news, Woost, is the illusion of doing something that matters.”

That was mostly just John Austin aiming his sharp wit at something we both loved. It was more than an illusion. Like me, Austin actually did believe that covering the news meant doing something that mattered.

Most of the time, at least. And most of the time, it mattered a lot.

It still does.

These days, I’m semi-retired from the journalism business. But my blog writing and radio commentary for South Dakota Public Broadcasting still gives me a seat at the news table, although hardly at the head. And I have a more manageable schedule, along with the freedom to not interview certain people — unreasonable, hateful, ignorant people, for example — if I don’t want to. And, mostly, I don’t want to.

Gosh that’s nice.

I write alone in the den of my home these days, not in a newsroom. It’s a more serene environment, and the food selection in the kitchen is much, much better. Healthier, too.

But I miss a lot here on my own. And I think about those days, weeks, months, years and decades of working in various newsrooms and, mostly, how wonderful they were.

There’s more I could say about all that — I mean, more I could write. But I’ve written enough for the purposes of this particular blog essay. Because I’ve asked a few other journalists and former colleagues whom I know and like (OK, I love a couple of them, too) and respect, to do a bit of writing for me.

About newsrooms. About what they mean. And about what has been lost and is being lost across this nation, as so many newsrooms shrink or close.

These are all talented, experience pros I’ve worked with at the Sioux Falls Argus Leader or the Rapid City Journal. One of them is my wife, Mary. Another is my brother, Terry, who covered 40 sessions of the South Dakota Legislature, along with some of the biggest stories in state history.

Let’s start with him.

Terry Woster

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Former AP correspondent and Argus Leader reporter/columnist Terry Woster in the Capitol press room

In my sportswriting days, I loved walking up the back steps at the Argus Leader, around the corner, past the water cooler and the door to the photo lab and on over to the sports desk where John Egan and Bruce Conley would be furiously writing stories and editing wire copy, all the while carrying on outrageous conversations that were lost on the general clamor of the rest of the newsroom.

Desks filled the whole space, and each desk had a reporter or editor. The pace was hectic, but often the mood was relaxed, if that makes sense. As the deadline for each press run neared, the voices rose, the typewriters clattered more urgently and the door to the backshop swung open and shut, open and shut, as editors went out to check page layouts and the backshop crew brought freshly inked proofs to be edited.

The Capital press room in Pierre was a miniature version of a newsroom - same yelling, keyboard chatter, nervous energy and awareness of approaching deadlines. I always thought the press room had a greater sense of intimacy. We were shoved in that small space under the front steps for 10 or 12 crazy weeks, almost sitting on top of each other.

We got to know a lot about each other in the brief conservations as we paused to think where stories were going or searched for quotes in notebooks. A newsroom is about as alive as a person can get. When I'm feeling nostalgic, I remember how the AP teletypes would clatter in the bureau up on fourth floor of the Capitol in my early days with the wire service. You could hear them as you turned the corner past the Speaker's office on third floor and started up the stairs to our place behind the House chamber.

I can't imagine any other sort of professional life.

Bill Harlan

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Former Rapid City Journal reporter/columnist/blogger Bill Harlan

The Rapid City Journal used to have lots of reporters, writers and editors—40 or so employees in our news department. The newsroom itself was a large, open-plan space—as big as three nail salons—most of it divvied up into cubicles separated by low dividers.

Clattering keyboards often made the only sounds. But there was talking, too. On the phone and in person. Lots of talking. A cacophony. Interviews. Conversations. Debates. Complaints. Disputes. Occasional profanity and even snappy (or nearly snappy) repartee. Most of this noise was within earshot of people born to eavesdrop. That's what made the newsroom environment unique.

Granted, what we heard was mostly fragments. But every so often, a snippet would become newsroom legend. Some examples:

I'll skip this first reporter's name because … well, just because. Let's just say he was a star at the Rapid City Journal who went on to a distinguished national career. One day, on deadline, he was on the phone with a reluctant source. His side of the conversation suggested he knew his source well but that he was not getting what he wanted. Back and forth they went. Finally, our frustrated colleague had had enough. With the whole newsroom listening, he said: "Look, it's time to shit or get out of the frying pan.”

Carve it in granite.

Next up is reporter Gordon Hanson, a veteran of Korea and later the Associated Press. A reporter's reporter. Gordon was on the phone speaking quietly, conducting an intense interview. Maybe that's why there was a lull in newsroom chatter when Gordon, in his made-for-radio voice, told his source, and the rest of us: "You can trust me. I'm a reporter.”

That one put coffee through my nose. But shame on me. I didn't think we were untrustworthy. Still, even by the late 1980s— decades before "mainstream media" and "fake news" were common epithets—we knew public trust in journalism was waning. Gordon, however, was serious. You could in fact trust him. Remembering this makes me little sheepish about my own cynicism.

Finally, even in the Journal's glory days (the ones in my head, anyway), our paper was small enough that at night, reporters and editors also fielded complaints from people who didn't get their papers. We all took the calls. Night editor Pat Dobbs not only answered them, he'd deliver the missed papers on his way home.

Editor Ron Bender, famously gentle and unflappable, took his fair share of calls, too. But one complainant shattered even Bender's Berlin Wall of courtesy. The whole newsroom listened to his repeated attempts to mollify this irate and rude customer. Bender's face might have gone from pink to red. Hard to tell with his beard. But it's safe to say, he was losing it. Finally, he snapped. "Blow it out your ass!" he shouted and hung up. Bender was mortified by his own behavior. We had a new, unauthorized customer-service motto.

Hansen, Dobbs and Bender are no longer with us, but they live on in our hearts. Legends from a noisy newsroom.

Steve Young

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Former Argus leader reporter/columnist Steve Young

I went into journalism because I liked to write, and because I thought I could educate, inform and entertain readers in ways that stirred their emotions and their thinking.

For me, that reality didn’t happen in a vacuum. It evolved in an Argus Leader newsroom where exceptional journalists through the decades showed me how to write better, how to report fairly, and how to meet deadlines with stories that were complete and unbiased.

Before the heavy influence of the internet and social media, I had the benefit of working with journalists deeply steeped in South Dakota history and knowledge. People like John Egan, Anson Yeager, Maricarrol Kueter, Terry Woster and Dave Kranz. On deadline in the newsroom, I knew immediately who to turn to get that one crucial source I needed because of the veterans sitting beside me.

I don’t know that such institutional knowledge exists in newsrooms anymore.

The newsroom I worked in had an amazing array of journalists whose work was succinct and yet often poetic. Writers like Kim Ode, Jon Walker, Kevin Woster and Pat Springer showed me how to frame my writing in ways that drew in readers and kept them there.

I miss the adrenaline rushes of election night coverage in our newsroom, slipping in the last period before deadline, then checking to see if any cold pizza still remained in countless boxes strewn about.

I miss the conference room conversations on story development — who you should call, the questions you should ask, the angles you should take — and the work that sprang from those discussions.

Mainly, I miss the people who became both colleagues and critics through the years. Like me, they were just as passionate about informing, educating and entertaining. People who wanted to touch if not change lives.

I’d like to think the Argus Leader newsroom I was a part of did just that.

Mary Garrigan

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Former RC Journal newsroom staffers Deanna Darr, Mary Garrigan and Heidi Bell Gease

Most of my working life has been in newsrooms, where reporters and editors usually work in large, open spaces without walls or tall cubicles separating work stations. But I also have worked in a few other jobs over the years that put me in more standard offices spaces, where I had my own room with four walls and a door that closed. I always hated those spaces.

I missed the open floor plan of a communal workplace, with all of its conversation and chaos and concentration challenges -- ringing phones, clacking keyboards and tuning into or out of one-half of other interviews that may be going on 10 feet away from you while writing your own story on deadline.

I have seen academic research that shows open-plan workplaces are bad ideas that reduce employee productivity and morale. Maybe that’s true for most, well, “normal” employees in other professions. For me, it is not. And I don’t think it was for most of the reporters I worked with over the years.

Which proves that most news reporters are not normal people. And thank goodness for that.

Brenda Wade Schmidt

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Former Argus Leader reporter Brenda Wade Schmidt

People can learn a lot in newsrooms. Journalists who are trained to do democracy’s work, strive pretty hard to do it right.

But journalists learn a lot in a newsroom, too. Younger staff learn how to find sources, how to ask questions and follow ups, how to know when you have enough that your story can be told without big holes in it. I think when people started working remotely, some of that natural mentoring was lost.

Some of my best days and worst hours were spent in a newsroom. Election night was always pretty fantastic with all hands on deck and waiting on late returns when deadlines were minutes away. And we got pizza!

On the biggest horrific stories, there was no joy in the newsroom, even after a compelling interview. We just did the job and decompressed when we were done.

Big stories brought out the best in everyone. Tracking down a piece or filing a sidebar to support a package of stories meant something inside each of us.

There is no place like a newsroom.

Todd Williams

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Former Rapid City Journal copy editor/online editor/editorial board member and writer Todd Williams

Great jobs require great people. There were so many, especially at the Rapid City Journal. Mentors, friends, and friendly rivals, but most importantly, teammates. It’s the job I have felt the most sense of common purpose. Even in complete disagreement, I rarely doubted my colleagues commitment to the cause.

Secondly, I was fortunate to have editors who safeguarded the process with vigor.

But probably most importantly, the newsroom engendered a great level of compassion— to our colleagues, to the people we interviewed and wrote about, and to the community as a whole.

I wouldn’t say the newsroom was representative of the community that it covered. But no other business worked as hard to empathize and tell its stories as the people I worked with.

Many I worked with have mourned the era when these things— to cover the most important stories and not just those that will be read or reach the proper demographics. I feel lucky to have had a career then, and to have found work afterward.

Ps — I really miss Election Night and Ron Bender riding the cub reporters to get him their copy.

Click here to access the archive of Woster's past work for SDPB.