A few weeks ago, an article in The Atlantic by Daniel D. Snyder examined the clash between being a superhero with a secret identity and the ethics of journalism, namely being open and honest about who you are and how you got the details for your stories and photos.
It reminded me in a tangential way of a short story I wrote a few years ago after seeing “Superman Returns.” In that movie, despite being set in the modern world, the Daily Planet’s newsroom seemed culturally excavated from the 1950s — there were big, flat TVs and everyone had a computer, but it was as though the Internet didn’t exist. Reporters wrote. Photographers shot still photos. No one worried about minute-to-minute deadlines. And the more those thoughts stewed inside of me, I came to the conclusion that no superhero would find it possible nowadays to hold down a job as a journalist, which led to this story …
No Place for Heroes
As I left the news building for the last time, the breeze fluttered through cards in the Rolodex atop the box I carried. The old Rolodex had been with me since I started, filled with contacts made over more than two decades. It used to be every reporter had one, but over time you saw fewer of them around the room. Now it’s almost as much a relic as the lead spike sitting in the bottom of the box with my other things. No one has actually “spiked” a story since the day the last typewriter left the newsroom, but Ed, one of the old copy editors, couldn’t bear to take it off his desk, and when he retired a couple of years ago he handed it to me as a parting gift. Maybe I should have handed it off myself when they told me to clear out my desk, but as I packed the box, it was as though memories were piled deep on that spike, so I picked it up and placed it on the box to carry home.
News has been my life. Well, at least my work as a newsman made me feel a part of humanity in a way that nothing else did. There was electricity to working a story. It made me feel alive, charged. Not as charged as flying out and being in the action itself, actually catching the robbers or putting out the burning skyscraper, but being a reporter on the scene was always the next best thing, and there were plenty of times I could tell the trouble wasn’t so bad and the police or fire department could handle it while I took notes and shot bull with the other reporters.
Now, here I was, laid off, downsized, holding a box with a Rolodex, some personal files, cubicle knickknacks and mementos. A stuffed Cartman doll. A few photographs. A signed cartoon from the editorial cartoonist, who had been laid off a few years ago. A copy of the first A1 story I was part of, about a corrupt senator. A fragment of the rocket that narrowly missed hitting the city, last year’s biggest story. A Mason jar of river water, first captured and sealed up for an environmental story 17 years ago that became both mysteriously browner every year and also somehow now was a little more than half its original volume; a newsroom legend, and now it sat here, in my box, out in the sun for the first time in 17 years.
I just stood there by the car, looking down at the box. I hadn’t been unemployed since that first time I arrived in the city. Once, when unemployment rates were high, a man I interviewed told me how he remembered every detail about the moment he was fired – the ticking second hand of his boss’s clock, which snagged a half-beat near the 9 every time; the smell of cigarettes that clung to his boss’s shirt; the way his boss looked almost afraid of him. I understood him now in a way I didn’t before. Though truly what I think I will remember most is the powerlessness. I had never felt that before. I saw the end coming, as I had countless times before outside that building, but this time, sitting in that chair in human resources, there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.
About two dozen of us were let go today. Some simply left everything behind. Most, like me, gathered their things and walked out holding a box and trying to keep a brave face. A few I had seen leave were angry. Michael, for instance, strode out muttering loudly, punctuating everything with curses as his wiry, brown hair bounced around him. When he reached the sidewalk, he turned and drop-kicked his box at the building, then turned back and kept walking to the parking lot.
Walking toward my car, I passed Betty loading her box into her car. She looked at me and paused just a moment. “Early retirement,” she said, shaking her head. “I guess I’m lucky for once that I’m old.”
“Old” was the common denominator in the layoffs. Not old age. “Old” as in “old ways.”
Betty’s work habits had been the same for 37 years. She was careful, thorough and conscientious. That used to be enough to make her a model around the newsroom. But it wasn’t enough anymore. She refused repeated requests from the editors to participate in the newsroom’s expanding number of webcasts. She insisted on holding on to her stories until the absolute final deadline, polishing the words, and didn’t care about getting the story out early enough for the social media team to link to it before Facebook traffic peaked. She never got the hang or the habit of posting her stories to the website herself. She wouldn’t use a digital audio recorder. She never even included Web links – an editor looked them up instead – and she gently scolded colleagues who used “Google” as a verb.
Like all journalists, I had recognized the business was changing. More and more, reporters kept in constant contact with the newsroom and filed updates throughout the day, just a paragraph or two by email or cellphone or even text message. A reporter on a major breaking story in a city as big as this one often had to take a few minutes for at least a phone interview for use on the Web and TV.
All of this was exactly why I found my possessions in a box. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to change with the times or didn’t know how to do all those things. I just couldn’t. You can rescue a crashing airliner and later write about how it was saved, but you can’t interrupt the rescue to post a live update. Even once it’s on the ground, you can’t just whip out your phone and write a bulletin. The marauding alien bent on destruction won’t simply pause for a couple minutes just because you need to step aside to call the newsroom with the latest on which buildings have been seriously damaged and where traffic is blocked by debris.
Back when I started with the paper, you had a deadline. One. The job was easy. Whether I was in uniform part of the day or always playing the reporter, all I had to do at the end was write everything I knew was true and turn it in before Perry blew his top. I could type so fast I’d break the keyboard. But even if you’re fast enough to dodge a bullet, you can’t be in two places at once.
The company began offering multimedia training a year ago, and I signed up. But something always came up. Once I was headed for a session on recording and editing video for the Web, but a man in Chicago had set a bomb protected by lasers, so I had to skip it. Once I was in a session, but then a meteor was about to wipe out Fiji, so I pretended to be sick and excused myself early. Other times I showed up late.
Perry called me and several other reporters into his office a few months ago to preach to us about the “new media universe.” Afterward, he grabbed me by the elbow while everyone else walked out. “Jesus, Kent,” he said, “the whole world could be yours if you’d just reach out and take it. What are you thinking?”
That rolled around my head a few times as I stood outside my car, looking down into my box. I had heard it before, but not quite like that. I opened the back door of the car and slid the box onto the seat.
Out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw someone coming, then I turned and realized it was my reflection in the window of a van parked beside me. For a moment, the figure I thought I saw looked frail, slumped. I straightened my shoulders.
Looking up at the building again, I saw Perry come out on his way to lunch.
I hope a meteor lands on your house, buddy, I thought. See if I lift a finger to stop it.