In Pursuit of the Elusive Happy Plate

Journalism that leaves you hungry

As a journalist I was at my best when I had nothing to do.happyplateman

Creativity is stifled when you belly up to your desk to find yourself gazing at a calendar cluttered with interview appointments, special assignments, staff meetings and deadlines.

Sadly, rigid scheduling has become the norm in a profession that has come to value productivity over product.

Journalism has suffered for it. Ask any reader. They’ve become cynical and for good reason. Readers can tell when a journalist is writing from the heart, when he has a passion for his subject. They can also tell when he’s churning out stories to fill space. It was the beginning of the end for newspapers when newsrooms became copy mills.

When that happened, it sucked the life out of newsrooms. They no longer had character — or characters.

When I retired, my editor lamented that I was the last of a dying breed. He called us “characters,” old-school beat reporters who brought plenty of attitude to the job and weren’t shy about wearing it on their sleeves, reporters who kept things lively in the newsroom.

We used to call our newspaper archives “the morgue.” These days that also describes the newsroom.

Or, as my editor would say, “Newsrooms have become more like insurance offices.”

The lack of competition is partly to blame. Competition breathed life into the newsroom. It created camaraderie among co-workers bent on scooping the competition or, better yet, pulling pranks on them.

Sadly, competition has gone the way of the typewriter and pica stick. The advent of the one-newspaper town killed competition; the concentration of media ownership drove a stake into its heart. It was bad enough having only one newspaper in town, now one corporation will own newspapers in many different markets. Welcome to the era of the news franchise — McNewsbites.

In our fast food world, we now have fast news. In order to compete with electronic media, newspaper reporters have been relegated to the role of hash slingers. They’re compelled to dish up the same bland gruel, not just day after day but minute to minute. Which makes the news even less palatable — for them and readers.

For journalists, the workload keeps piling up — more meaningless interviews, more assignments, more meetings, more deadlines. This is known as having a full plate in contemporary newsroom jargon. Your worth as a writer is gauged on how much they can heap on your plate and how fast you can chew it up and regurgitate it.

Reporting was a far more fulfilling profession when our plates were nearly empty. We walked into the newsroom at the start of our day hungry to stay on top of breaking news and eager to go out and pursue fresh stories, stories we could sink our teeth into.

When we finished writing articles, we traditionally typed the number 30 to indicate that it was the end of the piece. These days it might be more appropriate to type “WYLFWT” — shorthand for “Would you like fries with that?”