June 16, 2012
A phone rang in the newsroom at around 8:30 am, and the caller had a problem. He was a shift worker who got off a half hour before and had been in the nearby tavern long enough to get into, first, an argument and, second, a wager.
This was happening in Perth Amboy, long before the advent of the Internet or, for that matter, desk-top computers. The reporter taking the call was surrounded by mechanical Royal typewriters. But none of this context was of interest to the caller. He needed an answer, and he needed it soon. The question: “Is a giraffe’s tail as long as its neck?” There was money riding on the answer and, one suspected, paper money.
The reporter didn’t promise to resolve the question, but he did promise to call back one way or the other.
The reporter riffled through the meager reference materials in the newsroom but did not find the answer. With an air of futility, he called the nearby Staten Island Zoo, and located a person who provided information that may or may not have settled the wager. The giraffe’s neck is about six feet long. Its tail is about three feet long, but the tuft of hair at the end could double the length. The reporter called the pay phone at the tavern, repeated the data and hung up, praying that there were no weapons on the premises.
I recalled this incident the other day when I heard on National Public Radio that a listener had complained about a report on All Things Considered about a round of layoffs at a group of newspapers in the South. The listener wanted to know why the NPR news staff thought the layoffs of journalists was any more tragic than the layoff of anyone else. I didn’t hear the broadcast the listener was referring to, so I don’t know if the NPR staff exhibited some disproportionate sympathy for people of their kind, but the exchange reminded me of something I don’t hear much about in the reporting and commentary on the decline of newspapers in the United States.
The giraffe incident was a lighthearted example of the role local newspapers have played in their communities, a role that usually dealt with far more serious issues than animal anatomy.
The local newspaper was the last resort for many folks who were trying to settle wagers, finish their homework, or save their homes, their families, or their lives. There is no way to calculate the number of questions that were answered or problems that were solved by personnel at the newspapers that employed me for more than 40 years. Occasionally these matters resulted in stories; sometimes they were very big stories. But in countless instances, the news staff acted as exactly what it was, a surrogate for the public, and might spend hours or days or weeks wrestling with an issue that never generated a word in print. “You are the voice of those who have no voice,” one of my publishers once told me, and we all took that seriously.
The news staff, cumulatively, had skills, knowledge, and contacts that many people did not have. And in the days when newspapers had significant circulation and influence on public opinion, the voice of a journalist on the other end of the phone was, for many, especially those in public authority, vox Dei.
But for those who called, whether readers or not, we constituted the only place to turn.
A friend once told me about a young woman, an immigrant, who was working in New York City as a translator. Her grandmother had come from the Old Country to visit her, and never went back. The grandmother’s visa had long since expired when she started to show signs of dementia. Because of the grandmother’s immigration status, the granddaughter was afraid to seek help but at the same time was afraid to leave her grandmother alone during the day. What, my friend wanted to know, did I intend to do about it? These folks had no connection to the newspaper; they lived in another part of the state. I called whom I needed to call and soon had a promise that the elderly woman’s immigration status would be normalized so that she could get the care she needed.
That’s one example. The women and men I worked with for four decades could contribute dozens, scores, of stories of that kind. I don’t know what will replace that resource, that safety valve —that friend who won’t turn away—in the life of a community.