Pardon Me, Is This the Way to the Newsroom?
By the nature of our jobs and, I suspect, our personalities, reporters are spectators rather than participants--voyeurs, so to speak.
But one setting where our roles are reversed is our own newsroom at The Times. There we are exposed in our natural habitat for visitors to photograph and study.
A tour guide once made a sweeping motion toward the Metro preserve and warned a group of visitors:
“And this is where they keep the reporters.”
We are, of course, proud to exhibit our skills to the public, and one of the most frequently asked questions is what prerequisites are required of a reporter.
“The main qualification,” we once heard another tour guide say, “is the ability to type.”
Such is no longer the case, of course.
Now, the main qualification is the ability to use a word processor.
Still, no matter how fast our fingers dance across the keyboard, I fear that visitors feel a letdown when they’re brought through the city room, especially if they expect to see scenes out of a 1940s movie. You know--green-visored city editors with cigarettes dangling from their lips, tipsy reporters playing poker, a murderer or two looking for somewhere to confess. And all backed by an orchestration of clattering typewriters.
No more. Smoking is forbidden in the building, for one thing. And murderers would need an appointment to get upstairs to see us.
Nowadays when we hear visitors whisper, “It’s so quiet,” or, “It’s like an insurance office,” we reporters can’t help but feel a bit guilty, almost as though we are being poor hosts.
Even motion picture people find our newsroom lacking in reality.
One director filming a scene here tried to address the problem by installing four clocks that gave the time in various cities around the world. A real newsroom would have them, he seemed to be saying. The clocks, which were always out of sync so that when it was 11 o’clock in Los Angeles it would be 6:50 in Paris, stayed up for several years after the movie people left. Then they were removed by the Times interior decorator.
On another occasion, an actress researching a role found our carpeted, computerized city room so unremarkable that the only note she made in her notebook after an hourlong tour was: “Big red dictionary.”
Sometimes I’m tempted to renew the custom of a reporter at the old Los Angeles Examiner who, at the first sight of tourists, would pull out a large whiskey bottle filled with colored water, take a long gulp and smack his lips loudly.
Actually, the city room can be an entertaining place. But visitors are kept a safe distance from us by the tour guides and thus don’t have a chance to overhear some of the bizarre questions that reporters must ask over the telephone.
My personal favorites include: “Passion Flower, how was it exactly that you got that name?” And: “Are you sure the hippo’s dead?” And: “You say you changed your name because it sounded like a type of cheese?” And: “Why wouldn’t anyone ride Stinky?”
The other day, though, one elderly woman did break loose from the pack and lean over the desk of a colleague of mine. But she didn’t want to listen. She had a question. She asked: “Don’t you ever clean up your desk?”