Monday, May 13, 2013

Newspaper Days: The Groaning Board


I'm stealing the title of this post (before the colon) from H.L. Mencken, whose nostalgia rested on firmer ground and whose abilities dwarf my own. (That statement is so easy to check I can scarcely lay claim to a disarming modesty.)

The newspaper's ambiance in Mencken's day was close to that in most of my career, oddly enough.
But my nostalgia has a more ironic cast,  perhaps, because the days when newspaper companies put out mere newspapers for public consumption are forever gone. In Mencken's case, though  he had become a national figure in magazine journalism and popular scholarship (The American Language) years before, reminiscing about newspapers didn't require nearly the suspension of disbelief for readers just before World War II that it might today.

His lively accounts of a vanished world in "Newspaper Days" (one of three volumes of high-spirited memoirs) resonated in the lives of people in and out of the profession back then. Clattering typewriters and type-setting machines, roaring presses, mass circulation on street corners, newspapers tossed onto doorsteps or into bushes ran through the decades.

Leaving aside the immense technological changes that have overtaken newspapers since I got into the business in 1971 is easy; in the long run, technology very nearly did me in. So here I'll focus on the successful business model that made arts journalism viable even in the blue-collar middle-sized city where I started out: Flint, Michigan.

I'm alluding to the domination newspapers, including the Flint Journal,  used to have over their media markets, with several results: a spongy but pretty sturdy wall between the editorial and advertising sides, a firm enough lock on the advertising dollar to make editorial budgets comfortable (not usually reflected in reporters' salaries, though), and thus the ability to hire a large enough staff to really cover their communities, subject to the reigning prejudices of the time.

Thus, the predecessor who got me hired (a friend of my father's) had established the notion that the arts were worth covering. Traveling far from Flint, though scrutinized before approval, was then  practicable outside the sports staff.  Within three months of going through personnel and getting my parking pass, I was in Washington, D.C., covering the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

It was a big deal, and I don't mean just personally. The nation's presidential widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, had commissioned a new work from Leonard Bernstein, the nation's classical superstar, to open the cultural palace named for her husband. Spanking new cultural edifices were big news anyway, and here was one in Foggy Bottom on the Potomac, not far from the undulating facade of the hotel where I stayed, a place called the Watergate, with a neighboring office building extending its seductive design and unknowingly primping for its place in history.

Bernstein had been mocked the year before by an upstart New Journalist, Tom Wolfe, in "Radical Chic." The book set the tone for sneering at "limousine liberals" that persists to this day. The large, Catholic Kennedy family was a bit scandalized by the leaked information that the climax of "Mass," a theatrical spectacular built on the holy rite, included a symbolic desecration as the Celebrant goes berserk.

There was also buzz about the decision of President Nixon and his administration not to attend the premiere. Nixon, exquisite in his nursing of resentments, was still feeling 1960 too keenly. So he and the First Lady went instead to the inauguration of the concert hall the same weekend, where he subjected himself to a National Symphony Orchestra program including Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," a considerable stretch from his preferred idea of highbrow music, Richard Rodgers' "Victory at Sea." It's the only time in my career I've spent a couple of hours in the same room with a sitting U.S. president.

This was heady stuff, but the Flint Journal smiled benignly on a cub reporter's efforts and supplemented my coverage with a wire story and several photos, including a weeping Bernstein, overcome by the premiere after having hugged and kissed every member of the cast during the curtain calls for "Mass."

Over the years, nothing so spectacular came my way, but as music critic I would trek down to Detroit every time the Metropolitan Opera came through. In the summer I went slightly less far from home to cover the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in its summer home, Meadow Brook, a place with as good a natural outdoor amphitheater setting for classical music as any I've ever known. The very first classical concert I reviewed there featured piano soloist  Andre Watts, now on the faculty of IU's Jacobs School of Music.

Once I added theater to my other beats, there was the privilege of covering the opening week of the Stratford Festival in Ontario every June, sending back reviews in the cumbersome telephone-line technology of the time. This was the thinking: Though only a small fraction of the Journal's readers would be interested, it conferred some prestige on the newspaper to have its man on the scene, giving his  perspective on Peter Ustinov as King Lear, Brian Bedford as Richard III and Maggie Smith as Rosalind in "As You Like It." The Journal was also interested, officially at least, in what its critic had to say about late-career recitals by Vladimir Horowitz in Ann Arbor and Arthur Rubinstein in Detroit.

It's important to note that some of this privileging of arts coverage continued for years after I arrived at The Star in 1986.  Though there was much more of a reviewable arts scene in Indianapolis than in Flint,  I got to go up to Chicago to see the remarkable, chic production of Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" and down to Louisville to catch the Kentucky Opera's latest production and review Broadway tours of "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Miss Saigon" before Indianapolis had been favored with either of those hits.

I had benefited from another change in American journalism. Thirty years ago, newspapers were experimenting with changing their women's, or society, sections. The Flint Journal's was even called (boys, keep out!)  "For and About Women." They began to mix harder-edge features in with the advice columns and the fashion and society news. Our model in Flint was the Chicago Tribune's Tempo -- and guess what we called our renamed section.

In the late 1970s, the Journal's editor called me into his office:  "You're a good writer," he said,  "but I think you're being wasted in the arts." (All that waste had been so much fun, too.) I was transferred to Tempo, doing long-form features and profiles, while hanging on to my arts beats. Within  a few months, I got my first huge assignment: to profile a triple murderer after his sensational trial. Sentenced to life in the state prison way up in Marquette, he was the linchpin of the story, and we got approval to interview him. I had done extensive preparation, interviewing his friends, family, an ex-girlfriend and the trial judge, so I could make the most of my time with him. The company readily footed the bill for mileage, lodging and meals for me, my wife and our infant son.

The convict had said OK, but what if he clammed up or was hostile once I turned on my tape recorder? Well, as many of my colleagues know, people who have messed up their lives sometimes have a positive mania for self-justification and explanation, so I didn't have to worry. His narrative, which had many moments of pathos and unintentional comedy, flowed  out and filled in all the gaps in the story of 20-some misspent years. "Mike said your story made him look like a fool," his parking-lot attendant brother told me shortly after publication. I guess I must have nailed it, I thought.

And journalism nailed it for me more years than not. The self-perception of newspapers up until the digital age may have been a little complacent. We thought we were paid to decide what was important, interesting or just entertaining; we were fulfilling our obligations to The Reader (an allegorical figure, I suppose, like a character out of Pilgrim's Progress) as long we offered endless variety to fill  the news hole. The  newspaper should present a big banquet, a smorgasbord, to anyone who picks it up. You don't expect the hungry consumer to devour everything, but maybe he or she will try something interesting because it's next to the meat loaf.  And if you keep putting  out the same stuff and notice that nobody is touching the tomato aspic, OK, you remove the tomato aspic.

But you are proud of having set it out there in the first place, and you also are glad you can arrange on the groaning board such an appetizing feast. Of course, that requires the wherewithal to pay for the tempting abundance and compensate the people who prepare it. That depth of resources is a beloved memory in today's media world. The onrush of online competition can't easily be countered. It's ushered in by stunning digital technology and sustained by the public's short attention span and devotion to what each segment already knows and loves.

Small wonder, then, that journalists in my generation may feel uncomfortably closer to  Mencken's than the one we hope will figure out how to save journalism.