Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Blue Girl Murders. Chapter Ten: Nick and Dewey in Hearst's Old City Room

This should be fun to read for lovers of newspapers. It also is the last free chapter of The Blue Girl Murders that I will be posting until the book is published.


The name on the door made Nick think about the golden days of journalism, when newspapers competed for readers who had no other source of news. Before radio and television, every major city had several newspapers, and powerful chains of newspapers influenced national and international events. Etched in the smoked glass of the door was "W.H. Hearst." It seemed hard to believe that 50 years ago the great William Randolph Hearst, often blamed for fomenting the Spanish-American War, might have been in that office, barking orders to the editors in the now vacant city room.
At midday on Tuesday the week following the murders of Crawford and Billingsley, Nick stood in what once had been the city room in the old section of the News American building that dated to early in the century. He just unloaded 200 rolls of the bureau's news report in a small storeroom on the fifth floor, behind the elevators. The only "official" copy of the news stories that the Baltimore bureau transmitted over the local broadcast wire was the bureau's copy of its daily transmissions.  If any lawsuits or subpoenas ever were filed against UPI involving a story transmitted from the Baltimore bureau over the local broadcast wire, the bureau would have to produce its copy of the story in question.  Each day's transmissions were kept on a clipboard until the end of the night shift when the night staffer rolled it up and put it in a metal bookcase by the door. The shelves were overloaded, and having some time that morning, Nick decided to clear them.
The News American's publisher and general manager, along with supporting staff, occupied the executive offices in the north section of the fifth floor, facing Lombard Street. The south end contained what once had been the city room. Although completely empty and dark because the power to that section was shut off, Nick could see ghostly outlines of the desks on the dusty floor, and no longer operating pneumatic tubes, once used to send copy to the composing room, hanging from the ceiling. One corner was walled off into the office with the door that he had just noticed.
Nick visualized what the room might have looked, and sounded like, when Hearst ruled his empire. In his mind's eye he saw editors yelling at reporters, and copy boys racing around, and Hearst stomping out of the office to berate an editor. He almost could smell the newsprint, the sweat, and the cigarette smoke. The city room now on the third floor still had some of the character, but no longer the glory and romance, of that earlier time.
Nick thought how the emergence of radio and television caused several waves of consolidation and mergers. The News American resulted from several mergers of newspapers, including one that dated to the 18th Century.  Only a few cities like Baltimore still had competing newspapers. The Sun, with an illustrious past of famous journalists and Pulitzer Prizes, remained one of the few American newspapers still operating its own bureaus in major cities in the U.S., and in a number of foreign countries. Because of its own stable of reporters, the Sun did not subscribe to UPI's services. That was a constant frustration to Nick, and the reason why the Baltimore UPI operation was not larger and more important.
The News American was UPI's largest and most important subscriber in the state. It was the industrial city's blue-collar paper, and as such, it competed reasonably well against the Sun's duller afternoon paper, the Evening Sun, which was denied the benefit of its morning sibling's national and international staff. The News American also had the rights to a number of the most popular comic strips, and Parade Magazine, which helped to keep its Sunday paper viable, despite the Sun's far greater circulation.  There's a lot to achieving success in the newspaper business beyond the city room, Nick thought.
 In his reverie in the silent room, Nick noticed a change in the smell he was imagining, an odor that didn't belong. It took him a few moments to realize that it was the strong odor of Dewey's cigarettes, and as he realized that, Dewey's voice startled him from behind by saying what he had been thinking:
"If you imagine the desks in place, this looks just like it might have in 1920. Hearst only came here now and then, and half the time he was here, he probably was chasing whores, but that office had to be maintained for him. He was the man. There hasn't been anyone like him in the newspaper business since. Maybe that's why newspapers are dying."
Nick spun around. Dewey was just three feet behind him, holding a newspaper, slightly smiling.
"I didn't realize you knew so much about the newspaper business," Nick said, when he was able to speak.
"It's become a new interest," Dewey said, "and when I get interested in something, I have to learn all I can about it."
"Of course," Nick said. The shock had worn off, and now he could joke with Dewey. But Dewey was in a serious mood.
"Have you ever thought about the economics of the newspaper business, about the enormous expense of publishing a newspaper, and the huge economic benefits a newspaper brings to a city?" Dewey said.
"Not really," Nick said.
"Well, look around this building," Dewey said. "Look at all the complex equipment, all the people employed to make it run, to get the information, sell the ads, organized the classifieds, compose, print, and deliver it. Think of all the different skills that are required to publish and distribute a newspaper. Hundreds of people make their livings from it. Businesses all around the city depend on their ads in it. A newspaper is a major enterprise. A huge amount of capital is expended to deliver a package of words and pictures printed on newsprint.  It's actually pretty amazing."
"Yes, I guess it is," Nick said.
"Newspapers are the record of our existence as a species, almost every aspect of it, every day, and dated so that if you want to know what happened on a specific day, what we humans were doing on that day, all you have to do is find a newspaper from that day," Dewey said.
"Look at today's paper," he said, holding up a copy. "Let's see what it says about us."
"There are two stories that I think present the perfect irony that people in the future will see about this time. There's one story about us increasing the bombing of North Vietnam because they are refusing to give up. Ho Chi Minh says they will fight forever to free their country.
"Then there is a story about the candidates in the Democratic gubernatorial primary in September, illustrating our exercise of our democratic rights that we had to fight to get, just like the Vietnamese. We don't see it that way, but people in the future will see it, especially after we have lost the war, and Ho Chi Minh is presiding over a unified Vietnam."
"You really think they can defeat us?"
"Absolutely, we haven't got a chance," Dewey said. "We've been on the wrong side since we double-crossed Ho after World War II. In return for him helping us against the Japanese, we agreed to support his goal of an independent Vietnam. Instead, we let the French go back in, and then, when they couldn't defeat him, we stupidly got involved. We're blinded by him being a communist when we should have known that he is an ardent nationalist. He just wants his country free from foreign domination, all foreign domination.  And, believe me, it will happen."
"It's going to take a while," Nick said.
"Yes, and we're wasting our money, and even worse, the lives of our men," Dewey said. "It's a crime, but I digress. Look what else is in the paper.
"One copy of a general newspaper gives you get a snapshot of our culture, today," he said, opening to another page. "Here's an ad by the discount store Korvette's. They have a sale on diamond rings.  If you're planning to get engaged to Joan, here's a good chance to get a ring cheaper."
Nick smiled. That wasn't a bad idea, he thought.
"Then," Dewey continued, "Hutzler's has an ad for swim suits. Those in the picture are pretty modest, but they say they have the new bikinis. I wonder if we could get Susan and Joan to go there and model the bikinis for us?" He said, and then laughed.
"And here is Jack Luskin wanting to sell you a color television at the lowest price ever.  See, it's only a matter of time. We'll all be glued to our color televisions, and not reading newspapers.
"Towards the back are the official records of our lives, all in agate type. Here are the engagement announcements, including a picture of a pretty girl. She, or her parents, will clip this out, and it will find its way into a scrapbook that someone in the future will see, with the date. This newspaper captures this moment for her, forever. What else can do that?
"Then, there are the wedding announcements, the birth announcements, and finally, the death notices.  Who's going to publish these when the newspapers are gone?  Will we still care enough about each other to bother? Maybe there'll just be periodic governmental announcements that 425 babies were born in Baltimore in April, and 370 people died, but without names. People will just be statistics.  In this document, this newspaper, our lives as individuals are recorded. They mean something to somebody. Do you have any idea what it feels like to mean nothing to no one?"
"I don't," Nick said.
"I do, and that's where we all are headed," Dewey said, "and it is against human nature. Man always has wanted life to have meaning. Individuals always have wanted the things they do with their lives to mean something to others.
"Did you know that those Mayan paintings I showed you were dated and signed by the artists? They wanted the future to know what they had done, who they were, and when they did it. They were doing for their culture what newspapers do for ours.
"Look at all the various kinds of information contained just in this newspaper, a record of this day in the history of humans. What will do this for us when newspapers are gone?"
"What makes you think they will disappear?" Nick said.
"It's inevitable," Dewey said. "Look at what television has done to them already. In a very few years we've managed to get the mass of the population to sit and do one thing all together - watch television shows. It is so convenient to have information fed to us over the tube, but mostly to be anesthetized by silly comedy and crime shows. It is far more work to read a newspaper, or a book. Color TV is just the beginning. It will only get worse as technology finds even more convenient ways to entertain us. What you see in this room is what you will see on the third floor in a few years."
"That's a depressing thought, Dewey. What's gotten into you?" Nick said.
"It's just the way I think things will go," he said. "It certainly isn't the way I would like them to go. When I discovered Hearst's old office up here, it really got me to thinking. There's a great view from in there. Come, let me show you."
Dewey opened the door to the Hearst office. The view over Baltimore's harbor was spectacular. There was a huge dark wood desk and chair, a credenza built into one wall and an empty bookcase attached to another, but they were not dusty like everything else on the floor. Dewey sensed what Nick had observed.
"Apparently they built this office around the desk," Dewey said. "It's far too big to get through the door. I've sort of adopted this office as my getaway when I'm at work and there's nothing to do. I've taken to coming up here, sitting at the desk, and thinking. It's very peaceful."
"Have you thought about Susan since the dinner on Friday night," Nick said.
"I'm taking her to dinner tonight, to Tio Pepe's," Dewey said.
"That's great," Nick said. "That's one I haven't taken her to. You two should have a good time."
He had been to the Spanish restaurant for a couple of business lunches, and he liked it. He intended to take Joan there, but the right occasion had not presented itself.
"Why don't you and Joan join us?" Dewey said.
"Truthfully, I can't afford it," Nick said. "I'm just barely covering my expenses right now."
"I understand," Dewey said. "The drop in the stock market is really putting a crimp in my wallet as well."
"Dewey," Nick said, "there's no comparison between my circumstances and yours. I don't own any stocks. I live from paycheck to paycheck."
"But you have something I fear I never will have," Dewey said.
"What's that?"

            "You have the love of a woman Actually I think you might have the love of two women, but, whatever, it's something I really never have had. Sex I've had. I've had a lot of sex, but never real love. You have that. I'd give up a lot to have it."