Tuesday, October 04, 2011

"Nobody laughs much..."

One of these days someone will get around to writing a book about the passing of newspapers.

Somewhere in the first chapter, the author will list all the reasons for their demise.

If you're reading this and you're the person who plans to write such a book, give me a call.

I'm fairly certain I know at least one reason why newspapers are failing.

The people who run them and work at them have forgotten how to laugh.

Just the other day, in a piece about the New York Times, Peter Preston wrote, "The offices, from department to department, are closed, silent places. Nobody laughs much.
"No one talks about what will sell more copies, make bigger waves, kick over hornet's nests."

The New York Times wasn't always so stuffy. A Times reporter once attended a presidential press conference dressed in a chicken suit.

That was then, this is now. These days, they're not laughing much at the Times.

Closer to home, there's not much to laugh about at Miami's last remaining daily paper.

It wasn't always that way.

In the 70s and 80s, a visitor to One Herald Plaza might have encountered scenes right out of "Animal House" if he or she picked the right day to visit.

Back then, the Miami News and the Miami Herald occupied the same building.

Staffers relieved tension and boredom with never-ending rounds of pranks and practical jokes.

And sex. Lots of sex.

Without too much prompting, veteran Herald photographer Tim Chapman will tell you tales of photo darkrooms being used for bawdy activities having nothing to do with photography, editors taking "pot breaks" in stairwells and photographers occasionally sending dead pigeons through pneumatic tubes to the women in the Living Today section.

Chapman remembers one fellow photographer paid him back for a prank by letting the air out of one of his tires. A few nights later, Chapman drove the 35 miles to the guy's home in Pembroke Pines and let the air out of all four of his tires.

One retired Herald reporter recounts a prank he once played on a young colleague:
This is back in the earliest days of using word processors, soon after they were introduced into the newsroom.

I was pretty new myself, but sometimes the night shift could get boring and on one of those nights, someone mentioned that if you rearranged the switches on a certain component, you could arrange to type on your own keyboard and have the words appear on someone else's screen.

So...a few nights later, things were slow again, and - lo and behold - these words appeared on a newbie's screen. "Please touch the 'S' key."

A pause. "Please touch the 'S' key."

I see the kid hit a key.

Now, these words appear on his screen: "God, I love it when you touch my 'S' key."
And so on.
And back in the 70's, staffers at the Herald were much more "friendly" towards each other than they are today.

One staffer told me of seeing a car rocking back and forth and squeaking ever so slightly in the Herald's parking lot late one night.

Curious, he cautiously approached but wasn't able to see inside because the windows were fogged.

He tapped on the the passenger window and waited for a response. Soon, a hand started wiping away the condensation in a circular motion and out peered a fellow journalist who had been getting "friendly" with a female Herald staffer.

But, the hijinx weren't just confined to the fifth floor.

The sixth floor of the building was occupied by the Miami News.

Bradenton Herald reporter Richard Dymond, worked in the News sports department for a year in 1979.

In January 2010, Dymond reminisced about the News. "In its heyday and beyond, The News was a raucous, feet-on-the-desk kind of place, known for its highly competitive poker games (sometimes in the newspaper's conference room), merciless pranks and beer breakfasts after a long shift. It was also famed for its colorful characters, such as the critic who wore leather pants and ballet slippers in the newsroom and the staffer who, kicked out by his wife, set up housekeeping in the back of a hearse."

St. Petersburg Times
reporter Jeff Klinkenberg also worked at the News in the 70's.

He writes, "Newsrooms are serious places today but decades ago I had a colleague at the St. Petersburg Times who cut his reporting teeth at the Miami News where anything went, including fistfights, gambling and drinking. He put a load in the cigarette of an extremely tough city editor. The jokester was put on probation. He was gone six months later."

The two main practical jokers at the News were photographer Charles Trainor and columnist John Keasler, both now deceased.

Someone once caught "Trainor putting marbles into the hubcaps of [cartoonist Don] Wright's car," wrote Dymond in 2010. "What's up? Trainor was asked. 'That's to distract Wright,' Trainor explained, so the cartoonist won't notice the mullet that had been placed on his engine block."

But, the one practical joke that's still talked about 30 years later is the one pulled by Keasler on cartoonist Wright.

Simply put, it involved Don Wright's key ring.

Here's how Keasler described it in a Nov. 5th, 1982 column.


  1. I am an avowed reader of print media. I grew up in a city at a time when there were 3 morning dailies, a couple mid day dailies an early evening edition and a couple of evening editions, most in Spanish and a couple in English. My father used to read all of them and made me sit with him to practice my reading skills. I have kept up with this habit that used to enrage my family because of the time involved.

    In the 50 years I have been in Miami, I have seen The Miami Herald go from a first class publication to an irrelevant, immaterial publication. What a shame!!

  2. All true, and the tales could go on and on. There are enough News and Herald pranks to fill a book, which would be a much better read than any "death of newspapers" tome. I wrote Keasler's obit for The Herald and included that keyring prank in it, but there were dozens more I could have used. I especially liked the time Keasler locked Wright in his office, then papered over the office window with newspapers except for one small gap, over which he wrote, "See the captive cartoonist." People lined up to peer in the window at Don hunched over his drawing board. Don was oblivious for a long, long time - and then he was apoplectic. And we must not mit editorial page editor Lou Salome, who used to hide a highly fragrant onion in the office of Executive Editor Howard Kleinberg, and who liked to move reporters' trash cans from the left side of their desks to the right side, for the simple pleasure of watching them pile up great mounds of crumpled paper on the floor.


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