The decrepit newsroom is a relic from the turn of the century. Rats scurry under and through desks, the paper’s archives are stacked in precarious ceiling-high piles behind reporters’ chairs, harried hacks peck away at their assignments on old manual typewriters or fight over a handful of “tubes” (computers) in the center of the room–computers that routinely crash to a chorus of swearing and the occasional thrown typewriter or keyboard.
Welcome to the Los Angeles Chronicle, a hellish yet painfully authentic vision of author and veteran daily journalist Rip Rense, whose brilliant first novel The Last Byline (Xlibris, $24.99) was recently published by Xlibris Books.
Rense, who scrivened for years at the Los Angeles Daily News, back in the days when the San Fernando Valley daily with its puce-colored first page was known as the Green Sheet, and also at the Herald Examiner during its death throes, has a knack for spotting the bizarre little quirks that made daily journalism what it was during its heyday.
The Last Byline’s hero, Charles Bogle, a feature writer at the Chronicle (fondly known to its staff and readers as the “Chronic Illness”), is a prematurely cynical reporter who is watching his financially troubled paper morph into just another demographically targeted, market-driven infotainment rag. His defense against the efforts of the new, corporate editors is that he basically doesn’t care any more.
When they send him off against his will on a strange police case involving a loopy self-styled guru who was found to have a house bulging with weapons and high explosives, and then try to undermine his story when he actually delivers, he just keeps going through the motions, in the process getting deeper and deeper into the story (and nearly murdered in the process) and then angrier and angrier at the way his work is being deep-sixed.
Along the way, we’re treated to a delightful cast of characters scarcely to be found anymore in today’s sterile, cubicle-infested newsrooms: the aging besotted pro, Shag, who has seen it all and gets through his days by stopping off at lunch for a liberal ministration at a bar in the nearby Veteran’s hall, Rhonda, the journalism school grad sleeping her way up well past her competence level, Max, the token black reporter, relegated to “black” stories, Lenny, the city hall reporter, who, though perpetually blotto, knows more about what’s going on than the government officials he covers. But it’s the high-velocity madness of the newsroom that really gives this story both its verite and its laughs. Like when Bogle continuously receives misdirected calls from the paper’s congenitally fouled-up switchboard:
“You forgot to airbrush the nipples!”
“In my Broadway ad. You forgot to take the nipples off my lingerie models! They’re showing through!” “Uh–This–this is not display advertising, ma’am.”
“How many times is this going to happen?”
“May I suggest that your models investigate the possibility of acquiring opaque undergarments?” “What? Who is this? What’s your name?”
“Titsling. Inventor of the modern brassiere.”
Or his meeting with the executive editor, Louise Abigail Adams Francis or LAAF, about his request to get a column:
I sat down, smack in the middle of the LAA sanctorum, a world of cheap wood paneling and hairy red shag carpet. It reminded me of the inside of a pothead’s ’73 Ford Econoline van–absent only the righteous stereo and bitchen babe. There was a window, apparently, but the blinds hiding it hadn’t been opened anytime since the Korean War. I took note of a framed sign on the wall: No sniveling.
“There are several things that make this problematic,” said LAAP. “First, you and everybody’s second cousin in this city wants a column.”
She rolled her eyes and smiled again. An upper and lower teeth job.
“Right. But I come from a different family.” My turn to smile. “Well that may be — and may not be,” said LAAF, swiveling sideways in her black leather chair.
“Another reason is that you have been known to disagree with editing decisions.”
Yes and I talk back to people who dial wrong numbers.
“Uh–yeah. That’s correct. I didn’t know that was a crime in journalism. I thought that was my duty. When an editor inserts something inaccurate, or chooses a phrase that I think is hackneyed, I point it out. I lobby on behalf of accuracy and freshness.”
“Never make excuses for your behavior.”
“Huh? Well, uh, I wasn’t really making excuses. I was offering an explanation. Besides, you should see all the times I don’t question editorial decisions. Why I’ll bet it’s nine our of ten, or at least seven.”
I chuckled. I thought it was kind of funny. After all, I was in the managing editor’s office, and had been asked to come in and sit down. We were being convivial. We were colleagues. We were chums.
“Also, as a columnist, you might sometimes be asked to write about subjects you wouldn’t want to write about.” I actually thought she was kidding, for a second. Hadn’t she just finished that sentence with a wink?
“Well, um, forgive me for saying this, but what do you think I’ve been doing for a living for the last nine years?”
I laughed, then I laughed some more, mostly to make up for the fact that she wasn’t. I guess we weren’t as convivial as I had supposed. Maybe I should have phrased that last point more diplomatically.”
“Forgive me again,” I continued, “but you invited me to write these sample columns. Weren’t you able to read them? I worked very hard on them and –” Again the high beams.
“Of course I read them! Thank you very much for writing them. It shows you care about our newspaper, and I appreciate that. In fact, I’ll be happy to cut you a bonus for them. Fifty bucks a column — $250.”
In the end, Bogle doesn’t get the column:
“Here’s the truth of the matter. You lack grist.” Her teeth sliced the words neatly, and spat them out. “Other columnists have been through more than you have. Maybe it’s because they come from tougher cities, like New York, and have had more of the bejeezus knocked out of them, or maybe it’s just — of whatever. But you lack grist. You’re a California boy. Things are slower and easier here. That’s it. Come back and ask again in a couple of years.” LAAF looked at me without blinking and smiled. Or rather, she peeled back her lips so that most of her teeth were displayed. I wouldn’t call it a smile. It was too bestial. It jumped off her face and chased me out of the office. I lacked grist.
The Last Byline will be read with a smile of recognition–and perhaps an occasional wistful sigh –by journalists wizened enough to remember the days when many newspapers were still family enterprises with a history and a culture, back before marketing and demographics gained the upper hand in the newsroom. It is also sure to entertain younger journalists who missed that era of copyboys, vaccuum tubes and spikes for copy. In an era where giant corporations now own almost all the print media in the country, The Last Byline should be read by anyone who cares about news. If that sounds too much like work, rest assured, this is an excellent read–funny and biting at the same time.
Dave Lindorff is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. A collection of Lindorff’s stories can be found here: http://www.nwuphilly.org/dave.html