There are good newspapers, and there are bad newspapers.
Then there are the newspapers that publishers give away for free because nobody will pay for them. Most people don’t read these newspapers. They use them as rags to pick up dog shit. That’s the sort of publication I worked for when I was about 25 years old. A freebie dog-shit wipe that paid accordingly.
The thing is, I loved it.
I took it seriously, too. My work was my identity then, and as a professionally trained, post-Watergate-era journalist, I believed The Fourth Estate had bestowed me with a divine mandate to investigate and expose corruption. So I tore into the local government like a pit bull on a poodle, shitting out shit about the shits who ran the place almost as fast I could write it.
I like to tell prospective employers that I successfully exposed the city’s raw underbelly because I was a razor-sharp investigative reporter. A courageous crusader cut from the same rugged cloth as investigative reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who are my personal heroes because they broke the Watergate scandal and never had to work a full day again in their lives.
But the plain truth is that it was easy pickings. My editors could’ve given a pen and a notepad to a brain-damaged chimpanzee and had a front-page scandal handed back to them to every week. In fact, I’m pretty sure one of my co-workers was a chimp. Dude was hairier than Robin Williams, slept on the floor of his apartment, and—I kid you not—he smelled like bananas.
Despite that, I credit my good fortune to the city and the county it sat in.
The city was primed for scandal because it just didn’t have much going for it. Its main claim to fame was that it was due north of Denver on Interstate 25, making it an easy commute for the hard-working, lower-income men and women who lived there. To be perfectly fair and balanced, the city also had close ties to legendary actress Jane Russell. You might remember Russell or her ample cleavage. The brunette bombshell visited the city in 1953 to “christen” the model ranch-style homes in its new subdivision. City officials were so proud, they named the curviest street in town after her, Russell Way.
But let’s face it, that’s not much to be proud of.
The county, meanwhile, was mostly known for its gravel pits, seedy strip clubs, houses of ill-repute, shadowy mob bosses and Louisiana-style politics. Which is to say that from a reporter’s point of view, it was both delightfully spicy and wonderfully rotten. The sort of place that teaches newshounds how to spell “allegedly” in a hurry because lots of fun allegedly criminal stuff allegedly happened there.
One year, for example, a county prosecutor was allegedly caught red-handed consorting with a scantily clad “Caddie Cutie” on the county golf course at an annual tournament hosted by the colorful county sheriff.
By “red-handed,” I mean with his alleged penis allegedly hanging out of his unzipped pants.
By “consorting,” I mean allegedly getting a blowjob.
By “scantily clad,” I mean scantily clad, and not allegedly. I saw the photos.
By “Caddie Cutie,” I mean alleged hooker.
And by sheriff, I mean alleged Sheriff Bert “BJ” Johnson. I’m not shitting you here: His last name was Johnson and his nickname was BJ.
It defied reality, and had us hard-bitten newspaper reporters falling to our knees and thanking God for His good bounty. Or maybe it was high-fiving one another and tossing back cold beers and hot whiskey at the 24-hour bar conveniently—and perhaps deliberately—located next door, Bill’s Third Lounge: Last Stop Before Home.
I don’t rightly remember now.
I don’t recall what happened to Sheriff Bert, the prosecutor or the Caddie Cuties, either, and to be honest, I don’t much care. I think they were all acquitted of any wrongdoing in a court of law but had to resign in shame anyway. Whatever their fates, I wish them all the best.
What I do know for sure is that I miss that job. I miss the bitter smell of stale cigarette smoke and cynicism that lingered in the disheveled and dirty newsroom.
I miss the random assortment of broken-down, second-hand desks piled high with old newspapers, legal documents, notebooks, push-button telephones and empty beer cans and donut boxes. I miss the dark, faux-wood paneling and the constant clackety-clack of computer keyboards at deadline.
I miss my fellow reporters, even the guy who smelled like bananas.
And I especially miss picking up the phone and listening to the hushed voice of a county attorney, elected official or cop giving me a reliable lead on a hot story.
The adrenaline rush that followed.
The deadline desperation.
I loved it there, even if it was a dog-shit wipe newspaper.