Haunted by a ghostly photo of a once lively newsroom

To be honest, some mornings I come here, write something and leave thinking: Gee, it would be neat to write again for a newspaper. Maybe as a columnist.

Some dreams die harder than others, I guess. Even the dreams that would look and feel dystopian in reality.

A Facebook friend made sure the other day that I saw this blog post by Zachary Oren Smth, a former reporter at my old newspaper who now works at a newspaper in Iowa City. Zachary and I have never met. He came along at the Muscatine Journal after my departure. I hope he doesn’t mind that I’m using the photo he took of the newsroom on his last day at the Journal in 2018.

For many years, that newsroom was a lively and fun place even though the photo says otherwise. My office from 2007 to 2012 was behind the darkened window in the upper-right corner of the photo. The staff’s three reporters sat at the work stations along the wall. The copy desk and sports staff sat in the middle of the room. The two missing desks were occupied back then by News Editor Rusty Schrader and Sports Editor Roger Bates and his successor Matt Coss.

It was a newsroom that worked hard and did a lot of good work. I always will be proud of what everyone there did and grateful for the sense of personal redemption that came from their efforts. We won more than 100 journalism awards during my time there and filled a wall in the front office with plaques and trophies. (Side note to the powers that be: When the day comes you shut down the Journal or move out of that old building, contact me before you throw away the awards. I’d love to have some of them.)

Those awards recognized our effort to cover the community in a way that was aggressive, accurate, comprehensive and fair. I didn’t want readers to finish a story and still have questions we hadn’t answered. We sometimes may have fallen short, but it wasn’t because we didn’t try hard.

One example, in particular, sticks in my mind as I think about my Journal days. The father of a state legislator was investigated for an alleged wrongdoing. The case has since been expunged by the Muscatine County District Court. But while it was in the news, when Journal reporters wrote about it, I had them include a sentence that identified the subject of the story as the father of the state representative. They had the same last name and I didn’t want readers to think we either didn’t know they were related or that we were trying to cover it up.

While all of this was going on, the legislator ran for re-election and was opposed by a local business owner whose grandson got into some trouble with law enforcement. When the Journal would write about that case, we would include a sentence that mentioned the relationship between the grandson and his grandfather, who we viewed as a public official because of his political ambitions. Again, I didn’t want readers to think we either didn’t know they were related or that we were trying to cover it up.

Let me just say, neither of these families were pleased with me or the newspaper. They sometimes had plenty of company as we tried to aggressively cover all issues in a relatively small community. It could make life uncomfortable. I was in a service club with the business owner mentioned in the previous paragraph. The parents of the then-legislator owned a popular bed and breakfast where I paid for family and friends to stay when they came to visit. These were all people I liked.

All of this happened at least 10 years ago. At least for me, it’s water under the bridge. My life is totally different today and I wouldn’t go back for any amount of money.

But the photo of that empty newsroom really struck a sad note for me. I haven’t read the book Smith refers to in his blog post, Margaret Sullivan’s Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy.  I’m pretty sure it applies to Muscatine today and that the day is coming when there won’t be a Muscatine Journal — not even one that is a shadow of how I remember it.

And Muscatine won’t be better off after such a loss.

5 thoughts on “Haunted by a ghostly photo of a once lively newsroom

  • Hey Chris. I remember coming to see you late in 2011 on a top secret mission. We closed the door to that office so I could tell you that the future president of China was coming to Muscatine in a few months. I made that appointment with you at a time when everyone who was “in the know” had been sworn to secrecy. Fun times!

    • I remember that as well. His visit and the Journal’s coverage was a definite highlight of my time there as editor. I’ll always be grateful to Sarah for insisting that her hometown newspaper would be allowed in her house during his visit. Of course, about two weeks later, I was let go …

  • Wow and so very sad..The Journal was a great paper. I remember when all the weddings, engagement, and anniversary pictures were in the paper. I do not believe we paid anything when our engagement and wedding pictures and write up were in the paper in 1987….I think it started going downhill when it changed from evening to morning. I stopped it once…only lasted 2-3 days. Now I only pay for the cheapest version that gets you a paper to hold in your hand.

  • In the summer of 1981, I was an intern at the Journal. I graduated from MHS in 1976. My mother briefly wrote a column for the paper, and it, The Quad City Times and Des Moines Register all were in my house every day when I was growing up. The decline of local newsrooms is a tragedy.

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