How the Times-Dispatch done me dirty

Part One: Sour Grapes and Inky Fingers.

Once again I find myself on the outside looking in on a schoolyard rumble between the Richmond Times-Dispatch and… everyone else.Okay, maybe ‘rumble’ isn’t quite the right term, but there’s definitely anonymity in the air. The tension is not new, but it’s getting worse. It could have something to do with the fact that every single day the Blogga-verse expands and gets better. At the same time the wide world of newspapers falls apart like a leper in a wind tunnel.

People take issue with the TD’s coverage (or lack thereof). They complain that the paper is not representing the common man or calling the big boys on their bullshit. When all else fails, critics just reach for that most damning of 21st century slurs and call them “corporate.”

Things are still civil, but just you wait. All it takes is one ugly word and a shove. The next thing you know, it’s broken bottles and busted skulls as far as the eye can see.

I used to be a hater. But once I made it inside, I realized what it takes to do what they do every single day. I worked in the newsroom and all I saw were good people working hard to do their job. So I changed my hater ways. It even got to the point where hearing people call it the “Times-Disgrace” hurt me in my soft, doughy center.

But now I’m back off the wagon. Since I have the added emotional baggage of feeling like a woman scorned, I can really feel the hate flowing through me. I can feel it flowing from all the other haters too. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds our galaxy together.

Once my employee-discounted subscription ran out, I didn’t bother to renew. I can’t say that I’ve missed it. I’ll slip up every so often and buy a Sunday edition, but find myself cursing when the five pounds of coupon guts spill out on the floor. What’s left feels like an empty soft taco skin and takes about 15 seconds to get my hands filthy black.

It seems like only yesterday I was pressing my nose against the glass, desperate to get in. When I finally broke through the TD bubble, it was as a part-time copy editor for Flair. After a few months of proofreading Soap Opera recaps and TV listing grids, I got hired as a features writer.

As writing gigs go, the job was hard to beat. Most of the time my “story ideas” were thinly-disguised manipulations designed to get me out of the newsroom and into weird, cool places. I got to loiter with artists, musicians, fireworks experts, brewers, bikers and wrestlers. I got to ride with the ice cream man, bum around Brooklyn and play poker… all in the name of journalism.

When they needed a serious reporter to cover the opening night ticket line for “Star Wars: Episode III,” they called me. What’s that? You need a hard-hitting 400 word piece on the hot new toys for Christmas? I can be at Toys R Us in 20 minutes.

I’m not too proud to say I was a goddamned fool for giving that up.

But I also remember part of the reason why I did. It had a lot to do with the morale and the mood of that 300 East Franklin Street building. Change was coming and for many folks, that was scary. Their fear led to stress and the stress led to anxiety. And all that negative emotion rained down on everybody like a tsunami of suckage.

You see, a lot of people had been working at the TD for an awfully long time. At least once a week at the urinals, I’d get caught in the middle of a conversation. The guy on my left would say something to the guy on my right like, “Yep, coming up on my 35.”

That would be his 35th year… of work.

Three and a half decades. At the time it was as long as I’d been alive. I walked away from those conversations spooked.

You see, I come from a very impatient, impetuous generation that considered employment disposable. We would rather lose a job than miss a music festival. We would quit because “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” was coming on cable (keep in mind this was pre-TiVo). The idea of sticking with one company for decades sounded like a jail sentence. But at least in jail you could lie around and read without getting yelled at.

Once top-level folks started dropping, brows became perpetually damp and fear stunk up the joint like slow-baked road kill. What’s going to happen? What changes will come? Is it normal for an entire conference room full of adults to sob uncontrollably?

Soon my wide open reporting spaces got smaller, my assignment leash got tighter and I was asked how I’d feel about doing a profile on strippers. You know, get to know how they really are… behind all that nakedness. I told them exactly how I’d feel: dead. Because my wife would put two forks in my eyes and set me on fire if I told her I had to hang out at Paper Moon to do “research.”

The weird story ideas kept coming and the daily routine got even weirder. They wanted us to shoot video and record audio and think about the forty different ways a subject could be pulled like taffy to fit the mold of the almighty MULTIMEDIA. If the TD was the Church of Scientology, then MULTIMEDIA was L. Ron Hubbard.

I understood that there was pressure to produce “buzz-worthy” content and get hip to the internets, but I was fond of writing. I didn’t want to become Robo-Reporter, weighed down with low-tech “digital content gathering devices.” I didn’t want to be behind the camera and I didn’t want to be in front of the camera.

The way I figured it, if I stuck around the newsroom, getting fired for insubordination was inevitable. One day someone would send me to cover Arts in the Park with explicit instructions to “get plenty of video of that guy who makes Tree Faces.” I would laugh a little, then a lot and then I would use a whole bunch of bad words in a row.

It’s likely that pepper spray would come into the picture.

So instead of padding my arrest record I went for the job of putting together the “alt-weekly” that became Brick. They shipped me to the basement where it was empty and quiet. I was alone with my thoughts and away from the sadness.

But one day I stopped typing. I turned down my rock music and listened very closely. And I heard the screams and carnage coming from upstairs. It sounded like a dryer full of kittens.

Right then and there, I knew my days were numbered.

Next Week: Perfectly Nice People Get Kicked in the Balls

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Pete Humes

Pete Humes is a husband, father and writer who lives in Richmond’s North Side. He enjoys coffee and owns way too many records.

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