Several times at work in the past few months, I’ve paraphrased Russell Baker’s story about his first encounter with the concept of a rewrite desk. As a young, newly hired police reporter for the Baltimore Sun, he asked the day city editor where in the newsroom he’d be sitting.
“Sitting?” the editor asked, perplexed.
The editor explained the system to Baker: Police reporters didn’t sit. They didn’t even have desks in the newsroom. Their job was to go out and report. If they had stories, they were to call those in to the rewrite desk.
I included the story in a column today about the impending closure of The Sauk Prairie Eagle’s office on Water Street in Sauk City. The column gives some detail about the mobile devices we’re going to put into reporters’ hands — laptop computers, smart phones and more — that will help them maintain coverage without having a fixed landing spot in town.
I’ve acted as a “rewrite man” several times in my career, including a few months ago when our public safety reporter, Shannon Green, went to the scene of a terrible motorcycle crash on the outer edge of our coverage area. I wanted a story on the website quickly, so I asked her to feed information to me over the phone. She did so, going from her scribbled notes as did reporters of three or four generations ago. At times, I’d be asking her questions: How much traffic is there? Can you see the motorcycle? The tarp on the road — is it covering a victim? That’s “rewrite.”
I like Baker’s story because it shows a separation between reporting and writing. The two skills are connected, but they are not the same. In Baker’s day, it was possible to be a reporter without ever banging out a written piece on a typewriter.
Baker’s story, told in his book “The Good Times,” is from 1947, and too much has changed in journalism to do more with the story than marvel at the then-clear demarcation between the acts of reporting and writing. The line surprised Baker even in 1947; he’d taken the job thinking he’d be writing, which is what he wanted to do. But it’s been on my mind as we’ve been preparing to close the physical office of The Sauk Prairie Eagle.
We’re not closing the newspaper — only the office. As with reporting and writing, there is a difference, though it’s usually blurred, just as “The White House,” “Wall Street” and “Main Street” have multiple meanings.
Sauk staffers won’t have a dedicated rewrite desk, but they’ll have less need for a set of walls on Water Street than before.
I also have been thinking of something a friend of mine, Mark Thompson-Kolar, said about his experience at the University of Michigan, where he recently earned a master’s degree. The university, he told me, isn’t in the buildings. It’s in — I’m paraphrasing from memory here — the phone calls, emails and other conversations among professors and other members of the university community that go on every day around the world. That’s the real university.
The word “newspaper” calls forth images of inky paper, grand buildings and typewriters. But a newspaper is so much more.
Now that the decision has been made to close the grand building — actually a small 1800s house with a living room just large enough for a few desks, file cabinets and a printer, we’ll have an interesting time navigating the next several months and working to keep up our coverage.