Wednesday, May 20, 2015
The Quarter-Century Club
Slightly modified version of an essay originally posted in February 2012.)
When you walked through the front door of the small-town newspaper where I used to work, you came into a lobby area with the main switchboard on one side and the newsroom on the other. On one wall was a set of sepia photographs that attracted almost everyone’s attention. As a young reporter I often looked up from my typewriter to see someone gazing at the wall in rapt fascination.
Above the photographs was the headline “The Quarter-Century Club.” They were pictures of the men (and one woman, Virginia Peixoto) who had worked at the paper for 25 years or more. Time spent in the military, if served after being hired by the paper, counted.
At the time of my hiring in 1972, the newsroom was represented by editor Frank F. Orr (hired in 1938), managing editor Ward Bushee (1946) and city editor Howard Sheerin (1931). Quite a few of the photos were of printers and pressmen, guys without a college degree who became damned good at a skilled trade and made a life’s work of it: Gordon Littlefield, Hank Senini, Dick Heebner, Cy Crawshaw, Bill and Tony Brazil. Others went up on the wall later.
You Got a Watch
One of them was Sam Vestal, the paper’s first photographer, whose pictures proved the connection between the district attorney and a notorious gambler and helped the paper win a Pulitzer Prize. Sam went on the wall in 1975, and I remember being out with him on a story a few weeks before. At one point he reached into his pants pocket, pulled out a beat-up wristwatch with a broken band and checked the time. I asked when he was getting it fixed. “Not worth it,” he replied. “I hit 25 years in a few weeks, and I’ll be getting a new one from the company.”
They gave watches in those days, too.
In today’s economic and employment environment, where two-way loyalty is an alien concept, the idea of a quarter-century club is incomprehensible. It wasn’t always that way. A company with solid roots in the community could provide steady, long-term employment at a decent wage, obtained, to be sure, with some coaxing from labor unions representing the printers and pressmen. If you had a high school diploma and the willingness to learn some skills, you could make a career of it.
Fewer and Fewer Producers
What happened in the newspaper industry is typical of what happened across America to businesses that actually produced a physical product. There are no printers any more because technology wiped out their jobs; computers enabled editors and reporters to do the typesetting and produce the pages themselves. The high cost of maintaining a press, coupled with satellite capability and the internet, has decimated the ranks of pressmen. Many newspapers no longer do their own printing; in more and more cases, stories are sent to another town where a desk of editors designs pages for several newspapers printed there. One community newspaper has even tried moving its newsroom offshore, outsourcing reporting work to people in India, who cover the city council meeting by watching a community TV broadcast on the internet. The printed newspaper itself will no doubt vanish during my lifetime, replaced by images flickering across a computer screen or smart phone.
For a long time I assumed my picture would be on the wall some day, but the company was sold and I left after 19 years. I remain grateful for having had the experience of working in such a stable and welcoming environment, forever gone. Newsrooms will have typewriters again before the Quarter-Century Club makes a comeback.