Helen Chappell - July 2009


Out of Print


Helen Chappell

   If you read the newspapers these days, and I’m about one of the thousand or so people who still do, the news is all about how print journalism is on life support, and just about to go into hard copy hospice.
    These days, many people are getting their news from online editions, television, radio and dubious blogs. The days of the hard copy ink-and-paper broadsheet are gasping for their last breath. All over the country, traditional newspapers are closing down for lack of advertising revenue, bad management, corporate foolishness and an increased annoyance at recycling three tons of newsprint every month. Well, it feels like three tons to me, but I wait until the Star Democrats are about waist-high before I truck them off to the Izaak Walton League repositories, because I am a lazy procrastinator.
    I read three newspapers daily, and four on Sundays. And I have to admit I’m reading the Washington Post and the New York Times online. I also read the Salisbury Times daily, but that’s more for entertainment value and the fact that stuff happens on the Lower Shore that I couldn’t make up if I tried. I had to give up reading the online comments people make because I don’t want to believe anyone is that crazy, that uneducated or that stupid, and there can’t be that many trolls out there. But that’s another story.
    I’d read the Star Democrat online, too, except for a couple of things. First, the online site refuses to recognize my screen name or my password, and no amount of begging and pleading will budge them from revealing this top secret information to me.
    Second, I actually like the feel of real newsprint, as well as looking at photographs. Online editions are very stingy with their photographs, and dammit, I want to see who’s getting a grip-and-grin for donating time or money to something, and how the kids I once knew as babies are faring as they grow up and do various things in the community like plant shore grasses or ride in parades.
    I want to read those obituaries of people a generation ahead of me in the Eastern Shore sweepstakes, so I’ll know what funeral I need to attend and whether or not to make a casserole.
    What’s even more fun is seeing someone you actually know doing a well-deserved perp walk, especially if it’s a white collar crime. And in a small town, you’re more likely than not to know at least one person in the daily crime and accident reports. Since I’m almost too young for the obituaries, and long past the age of engagements, marriages and births, accident reports are how you can keep up with your acquaintances. And, if you’ve spent a majority of your career writing about this region, you probably know some of the crime perps and victims, too.
    I live for the trifecta of someone I actually know being in a grip-and-grin, then appearing in the same edition on the crime beat and in an unrelated accident report. If the grip-and-grin shot involves some ultra-respectable meeting involving Daughters or Sons of Something, a crime involving domestic violence and a DWI single-victim accident, why, I would die happy that very day. Especially if it was someone I didn’t much care for. My personal schadenfreude would well be over the moon.
    Also, I have a sentimental attachment to print journalism. I started my writing career as an intern on a paper that actually employed Dave Barry as a reporter at the same time. Dave went on to bigger and better things. My next foray was into something that was supposed to be a startup newspaper in a Pennsylvania steel town that turned out to be a front for something more sinister involving bales of organic plant matter.
    Later, when I lived in New York City, I spent a couple of weeks filling in for the astrologer on the Daily News just as it was being bought out by Rupert Murdoch, and taken over by Australians. One of the Aussies had a girlfriend who thought it would be fun to be an astrologer, and I was out on the street. In my fortnight’s tenure, I learned many things, like how Australians can drink until they’re violently ill, show you all the shark bites on their torsos, then regurgitate on their wingtips at P.J. Clark’s. I failed, however, to learn anything about astrology, but so did the Melbourne Mistress who took my place.
    Several years later, I was back on the Shore, fresh out of the hospital and desperate for work, any kind of work, when Anne Stinson, who knows a thing or two about writing for newspapers, put me in touch with the Opinion-Commentary Page editor of the Baltimore Sun. Hal Piper, one of the best editors that paper ever had, challenged me to write something about the Eastern Shore that didn’t involve quaint crab pickers and down-home goodness.
    Possibly in a manic state, I gave him essays on quaint crab pickers and down-home goodness, in the form of a series of short-short stories about a mythical Shore town called Oysterback, where anything could happen and frequently did.
    God only knows why, but Hal chose to run it. Suddenly, we had a hit on our hands, a column that ran monthly for nearly a decade, spawning a play and three books.
    I also made a few bucks freelancing features to the Sun during that period, and was never so proud to write in all my life. Hal taught me more about writing than any editor or lit prof I’d ever had. If it weren’t for him, I never would have learned how to write fast, short and accurate stuff in AP style.
    From there, I worked for a couple of years for a sad little newspaper in Cambridge, part of a large and incompetently run chain of other small mediocre small-town papers. It was the most demoralized newsroom I’d ever been in. During staff meetings, the handful of reporters would sit around dreaming up creative ways to kill the boss, who had been promoted to his highest level of incompetence, or so it was said.
    Once, while working there, I was invited to a luncheon over at the Washington Post, where I was freelancing and stringing. To me, this was the Big Time, the Show, the Majors. A major urban daily. I felt as if I’d hit the lottery when I started publishing in the Post.
    You can only imagine how shocked, shocked, I tell you, I was to find that the newsroom of a major urban daily was as demoralized, disillusioned and bitter as any eight sheet covering a high place in the road. This was where I learned that to be a reporter is to be resentful of authority, to mistrust anyone whose lips are moving, and most importantly, the first commandment from Above was: Thou Shalt Not Offend the Advertisers.
    It was also one of the best times I’ve ever had in my life.
    Covering the news meant you were never off deadline. You’d wrap up one edition and put it to bed, and already be off covering the stories for the next week. I became a courthouse barnacle, and was on great terms with everyone from judges and politicians to convicted felons. I also got to meet and write about a lot of ordinary, wonderful civilians. Watermen, artists, volunteers, caregivers, dreamers, people who weren’t afraid to get dirty or to speak out. And many of those friendships have carried on through the rest of my life.
    From my newspapering days, I created a mystery series about a reporter on a small town rag, and that ran into six books. It was a lot of fun to use what, and sometimes, thinly disguised, whom, I’d met as a journalist. And as I say, you can’t make that stuff up. You just had to be there.
    I suppose dead tree newspapers, like watermen and broadcast TV and trans fats, have reached the end of their line. No one will know what a widow is anymore, or a gutter or a slug. In time, no one will know the feeling of opening a broadsheet, feeling the crackle of fresh paper or the smell of soy ink. In my lifetime, we’ve gone from cold type to no type, and it’s all as ephemeral as yesterday’s news. But while I’m glad all those trees won’t die, there’s a part of me that is going to miss all that, even as I keel over, face down, into my keyboard, finishing my last sentence.