C.W. Gusewell

THE KANSAS CITY STAR

Like news, a newsroom constantly changes

The newspaper in whose service I have spent nearly all of my adult life is headquartered in a fine old brick building of classical design, constructed to the specifications of the paper’s founder, William Rockhill Nelson, and occupied in 1911.

During the subsequent century, the outer appearance of the structure has remained much the same. The newsroom, however, like those of us who have labored there, has endured continuing transformations – not all of them appealing.

The most grotesque of the changes, which occurred sometime in the 1970s, or possibly the ‘80s, can be attributed to a midlevel editor who evidently was thought by the higher-ups to be gifted in matters of interior design.

His contribution was to instruct that the pillars in the great open room, a space larger than a college basketball court, be painted in jarring shades of orange, purple, crimson, yellow and green.

Doing this, he claimed, would enable the paper to attract a better quality of journalists.

No such effect was noticed. What it did do was give the impression we’d joined a circus. That was by all odds the goofiest of the redos, but nowhere near the most damaging.

In an earlier time – perhaps even from the day the structure was occupied – I suspect the newsroom looked much as it does in the 1966 photograph that accompanies this column.

Crowded, cluttered with desks and paper and people, it was a place of great energy, alive with the racket of typewriters and teletype machines, the ringing of telephones, the shouted commands of editors and the urgent cries of “Copy!” by reporters writing on deadline.

There was a powerful sense of fellowship and purpose.

Looking at that photograph is like journeying back in time.

With a magnifying glass, I have managed to count more than 50 men and women in the picture, a great many of whom I can name. And what’s shown is only half the newsroom – the south half. In the whole room the number would have been nearly twice as great.

I have even found myself, at age 29 or 30, seated near the far back, in front of the last pillar to the right, with a map affixed to the pillar behind me.

Midway in the room, mounted high to be easily seen, is a big clock, the instrument that ruled us.

It registers the time as 11:15, with less than an hour left until the deadline for the “bus” edition – the one that would go to outstate readers – and another hour before the city edition went to press.

All those in the picture – the photo editors at the far right and the copy editors at the big central desk – are bending urgently to their work.

I’m guessing it was Roger Reynolds, a joyful and gifted little man, who made that exposure. To see it now is, for me, to be there again, at an age I scarcely can recall.

Then there began an avalanche of changes – ones far worse than gaudy pillars.

First came computers, stilling the racket of Underwood Standard typewriters. The room went silent, and got a faint blue glow from the monitor screens.

Some nameless manager – not wicked, just harebrained – got the notion that the quality of work would be improved if that great open space, in which there’d never been private offices, were chopped up into padded cubicles.

The result was something that resembled a telemarketing enterprise. The sense of community was lost.

Then came the economic woe of these recent years, and with it the ascendency of Craigslist and eBay, which cost newspapers their dependable staple, classified advertising.

So here we are, wounded but soldiering on, determined to give our readers the product they deserve.

Stopping in on a recent day to pick up my mail, I was surprised to find the newsroom once again a work in progress.

Half of it was plastic-curtained off. Behind the plastic, the furnishings were gone and the floor’s carpeting had been removed, exposing a previous tile surface.

I can’t say what provoked this latest transfiguration. But it’s encouraging to know the plan now is very much toward renewed openness.

I’m confident, at a minimum, that when the work is finished, the pillars will remain a subdued color, the padded cubicles will be a distant memory, and there will still be that big clock on the wall.

What’s even more certain is that the reporters and editors who work there will believe with passion in the importance of their craft, and will come to it each day determined to bring their very best.