I was stunned. Because that’s exactly how I did see spending the rest of my life — newspapering.
I got to thinking about that the other day when The Times-Picayune announced that it will be printing only three papers a week beginning sometime in the fall. On the other days you will be reading the TP content online, on Nola.com. It seems that’s how the younger generations prefer it.
We all saw it coming — but it still hurts. I will miss that daily presence on our breakfast table, but I’m thankful I got to spend my life — from age 17 to 65 — at four newspapers on the floors above the presses and the composing rooms; the best places in the world to work as far as I was concerned and fully as interesting as the outside events and people I was writing about.
I came to New Orleans in the late summer of 1958 only two months after one of the city’s afternoon dailies — the States — bought out the other — the Item. The States-Item was owned by The Times-Picayune, and shared space with it in the old building on the downtown side of Lafayette Square between St. Charles and Camp streets.
Hired by the wonderful S-I city editor and later executive editor, Walter Cowan, as a general assignment reporter, I was used to newsroom culture, but this was the big time with political journalists like Iris Turner (later Kelso) chasing a partially unhinged Gov. Earl K. Long around the state, staking out with a photographer the many motels from which he gave press conferences clad in his pajamas and a sheet. And entertainment reporter Bob Sublette was reporting on Hollywood siren Zsa Zsa Gabor’s visits to the city to date N.O. Mayor Chep Morrison — a handsome widower.
I was covering stories as varied as the rushing of a polio victim to Charity Hospital and life in an iron lung, which was news because everybody was supposed to have gotten the Salk vaccine by then, and rehearsals for a New Orleans Opera Association production that had a fledgling tenor named Placido Domingo in it’s cast. When Sublette was on vacation, John Wayne and William Holden came to town for the premiere of “The Horse Soldiers,” shot in Louisiana before we became Hollywood South, and I got to interview them.
Since features were a personal favorite, the editor sent me up the west bank of the river road as far as Donaldsonville with photographer Vernon Guidry, who invariably wore a fedora, to see the sights along the way and do a story on day-tripping. My first front-page byline came after I interviewed a woman weeping in front of her smoldering house, which had burned down on Christmas eve. I think my editor liked my lead; it went something like this: “Everything happens to me at Christmas time,” said ———, as she sobbed over the ruins of her shotgun double at —–.”
I wasn’t a star, but was supremely happy to be making my United Cab rides around New Orleans and just as much so when I got back to the newsroom and, stories completed, could socialize with the likes of the S-I’s feisty little fashion writer and prankster Rose Kahn; T-P business writer and years later restaurant critic Gene Bourg; the witty and wicked Frank Gagnard, who went from the T-P editorial department to covering the symphony and the opera; the wonderfully woeful S-I reporter Herman Drezinski; Jack Dempsey, who was our police reporter and sang “Every Man a King” at the finale of all our newsroom parties; columnists Pie Dufour and Tommy Griffin; and tiny Mabel Simmons, who was book editor until she was 85..
Eight years later — after marrying and staying at home with our two kids until they were 5 and 7 — I replaced Betty Guillaud as a part-time reporter in the States-Item women’s section. I remember a spat with moon-landing astronaut Buzz Aldrin about whether I could talk to his wife (I couldn’t), an interview with Eunice Kennedy Shriver in the stands during Special Olympics, a moving conversation with Mahalia Jackson, a quick interview with Lady Bird Johnson in front of her hotel, and an acerbic Ella Fitzgerald, who did not like the new, politically correct way of referring to people of color as black.
Guillaud was hired back as social columnist when I became editor of the section. Renee Peck and Sharon Litwin, co-founders of Nolavie, later came on board, and then there was the merger with the T-P, and — under editor Charlie Ferguson — the birth of the Living section. Editing was just as much fun as reporting, and I got to work with Mary Lou Atkinson and the Vivant staff when they became part of Living, then with former courts reporter Dale Curry when she came off the mommy track to become food editor. By that time my editor was Jim Amoss, who okayed my idea for this column in the first place. And then there were the publishers — Ashton Phelps Sr. and Jr., whose many kindnesses I will never forget.
I was going to tell you that I grieve for the young journalists who won’t know the fun and challenges of meeting daily deadlines, the give and take between the editors and reporters and makeup men (they disappeared a while back along with linotype operators) and the columnists and photographers and just plain characters with whom I was privileged to spend nearly 50 years.
But that would be silly: Young journalists will carve — are carving — their own challenging niches within the technology that exists today.
The working life will be different, perhaps someday the presses will cease to roll altogether, phased out like the linotype, but I imagine that 50 years from now they’ll remember the good ol’ days just as fondly as I do.
Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.