A Journal of the Plague Year–chapter 127

Sweet potato pie.

Tuesday, August 4

A spate of newspaper downsizings and closings has prompted lamentations from that bit of the press that is still standing.

The pandemic’s hit to newspaper ad sales, media giants’ takeovers, and industry consolidation have definitely led to a diminution of information about what’s going on in small-town and rural America. These may even represent a threat to democracy.

But not to get too carried away, the focus of many now-defunct newspapers was often not very profound. The Memphis Press-Scimitar, the afternoon paper that I have been writing about, was frequently viewed as a “scandal sheet” that gave exaggerated emphasis to the gaudy and sensational. Commercial pressures, a lack of resources, and the prevailing conventional wisdom stood in the way of better journalism.

Still, it was a journalism that some observers of American folkways would likely have found intriguing. It responded to the everyday concerns of the citizenry—especially when these concerns weren’t particularly weighty.

It was not unusual for a few of these citizens to show up each day at the entranceway to the Press-Scimitar’s large, open-space newsroom. And often, they’d come with stuff to show and tell—particularly, oddly shaped fruits and vegetables.

This was the oddball focus of one columnist in particular. It was a rare week that didn’t see a column by this writer accompanied by a photo of a weird veggie: a summer squash that happened to resemble Abraham Lincoln, say, or maybe a tomato that bore some resemblance to a mallard duck. The photo and profile of the vegetable would, of course, allow the writer to elaborate a bit about the life and times of the people who’d sired the veggie. What did they think of this and that? 

Other inevitable fodder for stories included society fetes at the antebellum mansions of one or another grande dame; whatever-happened-to profiles of schoolboy athletes of years gone by; and reports on the current doings of famous Memphians including golf pro Carey Middlecoff and Metropolitan Opera diva Marguerite Piazza.

Memphis was just an overgrown country town, many of its citizens said proudly. Why, it was a town that had more churches than gas stations!

For a while Memphis aspired to rival big-city Atlanta. But when financial pressures prompted the Memphis government to consider shutting down its bus lines, you’d start to hear: Well, Birmingham, Alabama did that and got along just fine. So which was Memphis to be: Mid-America’s big new city—or a nowhere-ville that envied a place where Black churches got bombed by the KKK?

The Press-Scimitar closed in the 1980s—a decade that was hard on such late-in-the-day publications.

Between the growth of the suburbs, where delivery was more difficult, and the rising popularity of television news, there seemed to be little future for an afternoon newspaper in the view of The Press-Scimitar’s parent company, Scripps-Howard. The paper’s best decades had been the 1930s and ‘40s, when it sided with the uprising against Memphis’ political boss E.H. Crump and helped get Estes Kefauver elected to the U.S. Senate.

By the 1980s, though, both Crump and the newspaper’s crusading history were very distant memories.

Dinner: Pasta with asparagus pesto and a lettuce and avocado salad.

Entertainment: concluding episodes of Britbox’ policier River.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 126

Linotype machine operators in Chicago.

Monday, August 3

More thoughts about my summer job at the daily Memphis Press-Scimitar in the 1960s.

Coming from a family that consisted only of my mother and me, I found one of the hardest things about the job to be learning the names of all the staff members—maybe only 40-odd people. Nor had I as an 18-year-old spent much time conversing with actual grown-ups. So I learned a lot on the job about getting along with other people, figuring out their expectations, and even putting up with the outrageous blame-shifting attempts of colleagues. Somebody was always looking for someone to blame for their own screw-ups—and that’s where the underlings came in handy. You don’t get much more “underling” than a copy boy.

Memphis in the late ‘60s was still a very racist, segregated city. It was the site of a spring, 1968 sanitation workers’ strike and the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. One of the hottest stories in town should have been the explosion of talent at Stax Records recording studios, where Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, Sam & Dave, Booker T. & the MGs, and others were turning out soul hits by the dozens. But the Press-Scimitar largely ignored this: It was a paper aimed at the burgeoning white suburbs. 

Accordingly, a lot of attention was paid to sports (golf and football, primarily) and to “society” events. A half-dozen beefy guys were required to handle the former and a half-dozen women, the latter. Local politics and crime commanded the attention of only two or three reporters, while business news got only one.

Another amazing fact: There was no air conditioning in the paper’s large open-space newsroom. Temperatures on most summer days would be in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but we didn’t know any better. Nor were there electric typewriters: Everyone hammered out copy on manual typewriters that would be an embarrassment in any thrift/junk store today. 

This was also still the age of “hot type.” Typed and marked-up stories would be shipped from our floor via pneumatic tube, down to the composing room on a floor below. This area was much like a factory: Guys worked at linotype machines—keying in the stories all over again in order to produce the “slugs” of metal words that would then be used to make up pages of metal type. (If a story turned out to be too long for the space—well, the last few paragraphs would just be thrown away. Hence, the “inverted pyramid” form of journalistic writing.) These metal pages, in turn, would be used to make the cylindrical, rotary drums that would print the finished newspaper. Today, hot type is all gone—almost all printing is done via the chemical process known as offset lithography. 

And soon, even that will have vanished, as more and more reading is done on electronic devices. The trees—at least those that survive climate change—thank you.

Dinner: chicken salad with apples, celery, and walnuts along with a lettuce and avocado salad.

Entertainment: more of Britbox’ crime series River.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020-chapter 125

Supreme Allied Commander Eisenhower.

Saturday, August 1

Maybe it’s a condition of rural life or something, but I seem to fall asleep early and wake up with the dawn. Rarely can I sleep as late as 7 a.m. and I am often up at 5. And that reminds me of summers in the 1960s, when my job as a copy boy at the daily Memphis Press-Scimitar sometimes required that I report by 5:30 a.m.

I was privileged to have this union-wage job—acquired strictly via nepotism—although I didn’t much like it at the time. I wanted to have the summers off as I had during my childhood. Only later would I realize that the newspaper was interesting, and that I had been exposed to a vanishing way of life at one of America’s soon-to-be-extinct afternoon papers.

Reporting at 5:30 meant going in to the paper’s downtown office at an hour when few people were around. If I turned on the radio while I downed a little breakfast, I’d hear the farm report, consisting of news about the latest commodities-exchange crop prices and advertisements for herbicides. 

(An aside: During my childhood, schools in neighboring Mississippi and Arkansas had springtime cotton-chopping holidays. Rural kids had to join in the workforce to help rid the cotton fields of weeds. But before long, herbicides would do this work. That had a profound effect, even expediting the migration of rural laborers, most of them African American, to Midwestern cities.)

On the drive in to the office, I’d see few people around other than milkmen or other early-to-rise laborers. Once at the office, my work largely consisted of getting stuff ready for others who’d arrive later. That meant sorting mail or attending to a variety of machines that few remember today.

For example, there were the wire-service teletype and photo machines. In those pre-Internet days, Associated Press and United Press International teleprinters—which seemed like ghost-operated typewriters—would run all night, knocking out printed copies of stories generated around the world. There’d be foot after foot of printed-out news stories, which I had to rip off of the machines and deliver to the desks of the editors who’d consider using them in the Press-Scimitar.

I don’t remember what outfit was behind the photo machine, but it produced reams of photos of global news coverage. Newspapers are always trying to anticipate newsworthy developments, so when the photo machine wasn’t busy delivering shots of such happening events as civil rights protests or Vietnam combat, it would fill in with other stuff. And in the summer of 1968, that meant photo after photo of former President and Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower. 

What was going on? Ike had long suffered from heart problems, and news outlets imagined that he might well expire that summer. He didn’t die until the following spring, but the papers were sitting on ready just in case.

Dinner: a mozzarella-cheese and sliced tomatoes salad, with asparagus on the side.

Entertainment: Episodes of Netflix’ Tabula Rasa and Britbox’ River.