So let me try and set the scene for you.
It’s the late 1970s and the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Daily News are still the beasts of the city. They are loved (and hated occasionally) by the city’s millions of residents not to mention the suburban readers. They are feared by corrupt politicians and poorly-performing athletes but they are still respected by most as the watchdogs for everyone in the region.
The building on North Broad Street stands tall, its white crown shining brightly at night, a symbol of gritty yet refined journalism, the kind of stuff they make movies about. There are press workers with newspaper hats manning the giant presses which back then were cranking out millions of newspapers a week. There is a certain smell of paper and ink that only those in the news business can understand. It’s like the smell of the bakery as the baker makes the donuts; everyone who works becomes familiar with the smells and sight of their everyday surroundings.
At the PNI building as it was called way back when, there were literally hundreds and hundreds of people who worked there. News people, advertising people, truck drivers. And as an employee of the Daily News back in the late 1970s, it was an honor to be there.
I got my job there quite by accident. As a grocery clerk I came to know a woman name Lea who was a telephone operator at the Daily News as well as the person who put together the daily “lucky” numbers, not unlike our own Karl Sickafus here at the DLN.
One day I asked Lea about getting a job there and before I knew it I was a part time copy boy which at the time meant I got people their lunch, delivered paychecks to City Hall and even gassed up the company Chevy Nova or three used by dozens of different writers.
But I also had the chance to work with some of the greatest journalists in Philly including the likes of Stan Hochman, Thom Greer, Chuck Stone, Pete Dexter, Bill Conlin and yes, even Howard Eskin who was doing his Vegas Vic gig back then. As a college student at the time working another job as well, I would have paid the newspaper for the experience I got.
Reporters like Joe O’Dowd, Joe Clark, Jack McGuire and others were just so great at the craft that as a young newsman you just wanted to soak up every bit of their talent, knowledge and experience they had.
I got to know O’Dowd well and used to visit him at his Havertown house and sometimes in Sea Isle City where he and his wife Alice lived most of the time after he retired. This column was meant to recall the glory days of old school journalists who had come and gone so just today finding out that Joe passed away a couple of months ago (I didn’t hear about the sad news) was like a punch in the gut.
This business of journalism is in a transition time – we all know that. But really, we have been in transition for years and years. The way we print the paper, the way we take photos for example. Long time photographer Larry McDevitt probably never dreamed of using digital photo equipment back in the day.
So dealing with the Internet and all of the other news competition these days is just another in the longline of transitions albeit this web thing has been somewhat of a head scratcher for the business end of newspapering and news web sites.
The sad part of the story, though, is the passing on of some of the greats. And it’s especially sad since as a young buck I knew them – as their copyboy and an aspiring reporter.
Within the last couple of years I have seen the passing of Hochman, Stone, Conlin – sadly O’Dowd just now – and I and other veterans here started wondering about our own legacies. As young men and women in the business we learned the craft from these journalism gems. Dexter, Daily News mainstay until he figured out he could write terrific novels, was another of the gifted writers I came to know – mostly when he limped into the newsroom around 4 a.m. He would file his columns knowing fully that the editors would have no time to tinker with it. It was classic Dexter and I would be rolling with laughter knowing that the editors were steaming. Pete would just walk away with that smile.
With the passing of some of these writers and reporters, I and my colleagues in my age bracket realize that we are now the old timers, the “cranky” newsmen and women who are here to teach the younger folks the business.
At the Daily Local we feel badly as we witness one of our own – long time reporter and editor Jim Callahan – battle nature’s worst enemy – cancer. Jim was known for his feistiness and tenaciousness approach to news – especially politics. He brought a knack of showing younger writers the ropes – a smack on the hands and a pat on the head all at the same time. They learned some of the tricks of the trade and moved on to bigger and better things leaving Jim and the rest of us another crop of young reporters yearning to win a Pulitzer.
So what will be our legacy? How will our young writers recall their days at the Daily Local? Will they credit their success and love of the craft to me, Callahan, Managing Editor Bill March and others? Or are we in a completely different era of journalism and journalists? Ah, I suppose it doesn’t really matter except to some of our egos.
We can find satisfaction knowing we did our best to gather the news and keep the flow of solid reporters coming your way. That can and should be enough.