James Werrell

Journalism has changed over the last 40 years


Newsrooms used to be noisy.

When I started working as a cub reporter for the daily paper in the dusty West Texas town of Big Spring, we used manual typewriters, and the din of clicking keys was constant. My typewriter was a gunmetal gray Royal with a red button that popped the top open to let me clean the keys or change the ribbon.

As the pages rolled off the typewriter, I would glue them together with a pot of rubber cement with a brush in it that all reporters had on their desks. A long story could stretch across the newsroom.

In addition to the click of the typewriters, there was the constant clack of the Associated Press wire machines that churned out copy around the clock. And if a big story was coming over the wires, like the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan or the explosion of the Challenger, bells would ring to alert editors, adding to the hubbub.

Newsrooms also were smoky then. This was before people worried too much about second-hand smoke, and many desks had ashtrays brimming with cigarette butts – right next to an ever-present mug of coffee, the fuel of journalism.

Newsrooms also were still a bit sexist in the mid-1970s. The Big Spring Herald still had a women’s section back then, always edited, of course, by a woman. The section featured club news, gardening tips, recipes – you know, things that only women were interested in.

At that time, photographers working for papers along the coast routinely sent pictures across the wires of bathing beauties in bikinis to fill space on inside pages on a slow news day. Funny, we never got beefcake shots of guys.

But this also was the beginning of an era of change, including in the gender politics of the news business. Women soon would become mainstays not only in newsrooms but also in editors’ and publishers’ offices.

The nation had just endured the Watergate scandal, and Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were journalistic heroes. Many young people, male and female – including English majors like me with few other prospects – saw the life of a reporter as glamorous and exciting.

And you know what? In many ways it was.

Sure, there was the drudgery, the boring council meetings, the ribbon cuttings, the obituaries, the routine cop news, the dumb feature stories. My editor in Big Spring assigned me to do a story on why more people were using gravel in their front yards instead of grass. (Basically, because you don’t have to water gravel.)

But we also got to cover bigger stories, the cotton gin and refinery fires, the tornado aftermath, the murders and bank robberies, the financial scams and government mischief of all kinds. Over the years, I met reams of politicians, many of them well known, some future presidents.

I got to ask President George H.W. Bush a question about Pentagon spending, which he deftly evaded, at a news conference. I met his son George W. when he came to the Abilene Reporter-News, where I worked then, to campaign for his dad. I interviewed both Bill and Hillary Clinton, as well as Barack Obama while working for The Herald.

I met Richard Nixon’s brother Edward, who looked eerily like Tricky Dick.

Over the years, I got to meet movie stars, oil tycoons, authors, athletes, professional cheerleaders, artists, inventors, entrepreneurs, scientists, soldiers, lawmen, musicians, ranchers, record breakers of many kinds, preachers, professors, rodeo clowns, experts on every subject under the sun and an endless assortment of eccentrics and weirdos. What a way to make a living!

The same editor who assigned me the gravel story used to say that best thing about being a reporter was the privilege of listening to other people’s stories. He had something there.

But I would add, part of that pleasure is not just listening to people’s stories but also crafting them into written form and sharing them with hundreds, maybe thousands of other people. Even as journalism undergoes enormous upheaval and transformation in the way it is disseminated, the fundamental practice of gathering and reporting the news remains essential to a free society.

I have been involved for over 35 years, most of them here at The Herald, in the stew of conjecture, invective, chin-stroking, impassioned speculation and occasional reason that goes with being an opinion page editor. While everybody has opinions, I have had the privilege of having some of mine and many of those reflecting the views of The Herald’s editorial board printed on the pages of this newspaper.

With privilege comes responsibility. We – the imperial “we” who address readers from on high in our editorials – work diligently to hew to the facts on which we base those opinions.

While we must respect everyone’s right to freely express his or her opinion, that doesn’t mean we have to respect the opinion itself. We can’t abandon the debate to those who yell the loudest or offer the simplest solutions. And that’s another important reason that fact-based journalism must endure, whether you’re reading it in a newspaper or on the screen of an electronic device.

At the end of this month, I’m retiring. Plenty of younger people with better digital skills will be there to replace me.

The communities covered by The Herald are full of wonderful people, and I have been lucky to meet or interact with many of them. I also have been privileged to work with an array of terrific fellow employees. I will miss that.

I won’t miss deadlines or the days when coming up with something to write about was like pushing rope – uphill.

So, will retirement be fun? That remains to be seen. Needs further study.