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Wages: The Rim Pigs

Chapter 8: Anatomy of a newspaper.

John Armstrong 13 Sep

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[Editor's note: Having knocked about in job after job, John Armstrong realizes he is "filled with bile and cynicism, distrustful of all authority... a code of ethics that was at best situational and for the most part non-existent... all the attributes and qualifications of a journalist." And so he parlays his freelance writing work into a job the daily Standard Picayune. This is the eighth of 14 excerpts, running Tuesdays and Thursdays, from John Armstrong's memoir of the working life: Wages]

I was assigned to the cadre of general assignment reporters working the nightshift, 5 p.m. to 1 a.m., Sunday through Thursday. The newsroom was filled with lifers, and the much-desired weekday shifts were assigned by seniority. You needed at least 10 or 15 years in to have any voice in your schedule, so the nightshifts were manned by a combination of young reporters and veterans who had so little in their outside lives, they willingly worked nights in order to get the 10 per cent "night differential" bonus....

They arrived at the newsroom with their bag lunches about the time the wife and kids were eating dinner, and the house was dark and silent when they crept back in come the early morning. They slept most of the day, and the kids were still at school when they left for work again. Some of them worked the nightshift for that very reason, to escape their wives and children; others had taken the shift for the extra money and found that their household expenses had risen to match the cheque. Now they couldn't go back to days; they couldn't afford to. They were doomed to a life of dusk and dark, never seeing the sun, vampires on a chain gang. Either way, most of them had long since wearied of the job and did as little as possible.

Everything they were assigned was memo'd back to the desk with "No answer by phone to end of shift. Suggest a.m. call." You couldn't get them out of the newsroom to knock on a door or ring a buzzer with a pry bar and a shotgun.

Alf Sheehy, a grey-haired old fellow, was the "night cops" reporter, charged with phoning the various police stations to see if they had anything of interest on the blotter. He was King of the Briefs, the short news items collected in omnibus columns to fill space on the inside pages, and famous for having avoided a bylined story for over a decade.

Beating management to a draw

The rule of thumb was that any story over eight column inches qualified the reporter for a byline, and in most cases reporters were pleased to see their name in print. Not Alf -- that was entirely too much notice. He wanted to finish out his days in the cityroom as anonymously as possible. A byline would only remind the bosses that he was still there drawing a salary. Consequently, no matter the story, he never filed more than three or four inches. If he covered the Kennedy assassination, he would have kept it under five or memo'd it back as "Cops report a 'shots fired' near schoolbook depository. Suggest a.m. call."

Once every hour or so Alf would make his rounds, circumnavigating the newsroom like an old tugboat round the harbour, hands in his pockets jingling change. He was a cherubic figure, a pear-shaped old duck with rosy cheeks, a white moustache and heavy black glasses. The rookies laughed at Alf, the old duffer, but as the years went by, those of us who stayed came to see him as the heroic figure he truly was, a man who had beaten management to a draw through sheer force of will. He ignored them and they ignored him -- they had no choice.

Stories disappeared into Alf like errant space-probes into a black hole, never to be seen again. He was a refusenik, a Gandhi-like master of passive resistance who never once actually said he wouldn't do what the editors asked; he just smiled and nodded and then did it so badly and in such a half-assed, cursory fashion that the resulting story was little more than the assignment memo he started with....

Raped by a desk

There was a surprising number of editors who made up "the desk." Most young reporters were accustomed to having one editor at a publication handle their copy, a kindly soul, part teacher and part psychologist, who gently guided the author and encouraged him in improving his craft until the words glittered and twinkled like jewellery store diamonds on a velvet cloth. By comparison, the Standard's editing system was nothing less than gang rape.

You got your assignments at the top of the shift and kept the desk apprised of your progress over the hours. When you were ready to start writing, you gave them a rough idea of the story and how it had panned out, and your estimate of how many column inches it would take to tell it. The editors didn't care so much about words as they did about the real estate they occupied. Stories were referred to by their size more often than their content. It reminded me of the sex ads in the back section of the local weekly, placed by desperate size queens: "I Need 12 Hard Inches" -- now some grey, misshapen old bastard perched at his desk on an inflatable hemorrhoid ring was howling for the same thing.

It sounded like the last thing he needed, but here came the plea: "I need 12 inches for the Metro front." His neighbour down the line would holler back, "I just got 20 inches of city council. I'll ship it over." The first editor would see the story blink its arrival on his screen and open it up, run the cursor down to the desired length, then hit the delete key and lop off the surplus eight inches of prose. It wasn't necessary to read it. There was no time for such niceties -- he had a paper to get out. He shipped it away to its next stop on the circuit and moved on to another story. Murder mystery writers would have had a rough time at the Standard, and so would their readers -- "I've asked you all here tonight because I have deduced the identity of the murderer, and the name of the killer is…" -- ZIIIKTTTT! And the last page flutters into the wastebasket: "Sending you seven inches on the Holmsby murder."

Battlefield surgery

Great editors operate with the precision of surgeons wielding a scalpel, doing their work so skilfully they seem to have never been there at all, like ninjas dancing over a floor covered with rice and leaving the grains undisturbed. The writer knows his piece is somehow better but can't tell you how it was done without referring to his original draft.

At the Standard, the editors worked like surgeons as well, battlefield doctors driven insane by the constant pressure, and performing their drunken, frenzied lopping and sawing with chainsaws and a GI can opener for the fine work. If someone wound up on their table with a shoelace undone, they took the leg off at the hip and tossed it onto the pile out back. There was scant time for delicacy, and anyway, they'd long ago lost any inclination for a lighter touch. The oath to "do no harm" was a ghastly joke to them, the severed bits of prose running like offal down the gunnels and mad laughter echoing through the gut-slicked corridors of the abattoir.

The real slicing and dicing was done by a crew of senior editors who sat at workstations on the perimeter of the news desk. The rim pigs were a vile assortment of men and women, veterans who had never risen to any real position of authority and whose career path had stalled out and then detoured to a permanent exile on the nightshift. There were anywhere from six to 10 of them working at any one time, and although it was never spoken aloud, reporters knew by instinct that you did not talk to or even approach the editors working on the rim. They were rabid, shackled beasts and when you passed by it was wise to keep your arms and tender bits well out of the way.

Origin of the species

The bulk of them were refugees from London's Fleet Street, a distinction they wore like a badge of honour, although the rest of the newpapering world considered the British tabloids the most reprehensible form of journalistic life. They talked about the good old days in Blighty but never got around to just how it was they left those golden shores and landed here. They hated their jobs and they hated the reporters, although most of them had been so incompetent gathering news, they had been promoted to editing positions on the theory that they could cause less harm there. It was a theory practice proved utterly wrong. Protected as they were by the union, they could not be fired for simply being no fucking use at all and so continued on, gaining seniority every year until they had reached the rank of Senior News Editor and qualified for the highly paid job on the rim. In this fashion the least able and most dangerously inept were given the job of final control over the stories printed in the paper.

As it passed through the gauntlet, each story was finally delivered to the mercies of the rim pigs, and there its real sorrows began. They had their way with it, each in turn, like a virgin passed around the campfire by a motorcycle gang. They were brutes, pure and simple, with a combination of contempt for anyone else's work and a blind and completely unjustified arrogance in their own talents. By the time they had finished with a story, it was unrecognizable and largely incoherent, as if a baby had been torn to bits and reassembled in the dark by a retard with a staple gun. The last thing they did was affix the reporter's name to the top, so that those who had been misquoted and had their facts turned inside out and sideways would have someone to ask for when they called, howling with rage. For this reason older reporters knew to always print out a copy of their original and keep it in a safe place should the editing process so bugger the story that lawyers became involved.

The rim pigs for their part were inviolate, untouchable, protected by the union no matter what crimes they perpetrated. They smirked at their desks like vultures atop a mountain of rotting meat.

On Tuesday, John Armstrong discovers that the newspaper currency of greatest value has a pit bull on one side and a liver tot on the other.  [Tyee]

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