Former editor waxes poetic

Saturday December 1, 2012

Wow! That was a great Centennial issue (printed Oct. 27) and congratulations to all involved. I particularly enjoyed the pieces by Howard Weiss-Tisman and Pat Smith which captured the spirit and essence of the 20 years I was there.

So much has changed from that time to the present. When I first went to work in the American Building on Main Street, the Reformer was produced the old way -- with hot type (molten lead), linotypes, lead cylinder plates that curled on that old press that was so lovingly maintained by Paul Hescock. The sound of composing room music was the click-click of the metal letters as they returned to their slots after contacting hot lead and making, of course, a line of type.

Newspapers had been produced this way since the invention of modern times. Then we switched to "cold type," which was produced by paper tape running through a computer. The sound then became the shiiiish of computer-generated sheets of type being trimmedsize, waxed and pasted to lay-out pages which were photographed and sent to the press room.

Then came all sorts of good stuff which led to the Internet which monumentally changed reading habits. This, in turn, led to such goodies as the iPhone and the iPad. Now the sound of newspapers is the sound of silence. The print industry is being replaced by digital electronics, proving once again that George Orwell was a prophet.

I participated in these seismic changes that occurred in my lifetime. But I don’t know if the final result is a good thing. We have such an overload of instant information that we don’t have time to contemplate. We have to make great decisions now, not an hour from now. The 24 hour insanely competing news cycle is beginning to make me yearn for linotypes.

Your supplement’s sources had nice words to say about my years as editor of the Reformer but, truth be told, an editor is only as good (or bad) as his/her staff. And the Reformer staff in those years was spectacular. The list of awards and prizes is long and distinguished. Some of the alumni still make their living at the top of the profession -- Chris Rowland as Washington bureau chief of the Boston Globe, Lisa Pane as southern regional chief of the Associated Press, and more.

I also was fortunate to work for two fine publishers -- John Hooper, who hired me in 1969, and Pete Miller whose family bought the paper from Hooper. Both had a laissez faire approach -- hire an editor and then get out of his way. Pete never told me what to write. He once said he would suggest things to his editors but it was their decision whether to accept them. He called me twice to suggest editorial endorsements. I rejected him both times. No big deal.

Where the Millers fell abysmally short was in pay for all who worked for them. I twice rejected pay raises for myself so that the meager money could go to other people. The beloved Julia Park worked for eons for this newspaper but was making less than $100 a week when she retired. The Millers tried to make up for it by giving Julia a roundtrip ticket to Europe on an ocean liner, which she loved.

But the basic attitude was stated by business manager Paul Major, otherwise a nice guy, who told me, "You’ll never convince me that a woman is equal to a man and should get the same pay." That attitude today would, happily, land him in so many lawsuits that he would lose count. I wonder what Paul would say to Jil Abramson, executive editor of the New York Times

A final couple of points. We were constantly inundated with job applicants, to the point sometimes of comic absurdity. Partly this was due to the attraction of living in Vermont. But some of them were really weird, such as a retired businessman who wanted to live in Vermont. He said he didn’t know how to type and that I should hire him a secretary so he could dictate his stories and she could transcribe them. That, he said, is how it’s done in the business world. We suggested he buy his own newspaper and go from there.

Then there was a kid who wanted a job because Vermont was so cool. "Hey, man, look at that scenery." He had no qualifications. When I said we didn’t have any jobs, he asked if I knew of any that might suit him. I told him that the hospital had an opening for a brain surgeon.

In the ‘70s we had a flood of people inspired by the Watergate legends Woodward and Bernstein. They would show up in trenchcoats wanting to impeach someone, anyone.

Lo and behold, in one day walked Carl Bernstein himself accompanied by a cousin who lived in Brattleboro and wanted to show him the Reformer newsroom. I suggested we hire him and assign him to cover the board of selectmen/people, where I would walk into the meeting room, introduce Bernstein as a Pulitzer Prize winner for exposing corruption in high places, inform everyone that he’s been hired by us to cover municipal affairs, and walk out.

Alas, Vermont being Vermont, there is no corruption in our high places.

Norman Runnion was the editor of the Brattleboro Reformer for 20 years. He writes from Brookfield.


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