Here’s something I didn’t learn in journalism school: a newsroom can be a surprisingly noisy place.
That’s what I discovered when I joined the staff of the late great Charleston Daily Mail in 2009 with my newly minted communications degree.
One of the first things I noticed was the constant squawking of the police scanner, over by the window near cops reporter Ashley Craig’s cubicle.
Then there was the ever-ringing phone on the city desk, the mission control of a newsroom. Sometimes a phone call meant breaking news. Often it was just a reader wishing to file a grievance over an error in the crossword puzzle or wondering why today’s “Ziggy” comic was a rerun.
The city desk was also home to the newsroom’s only television, an old CRT model. It came on only occasionally, to follow breaking news or a midday WVU basketball game. More often you’d hear the radio switch on, as statehouse reporter Ry Rivard or Jared Hunt tuned in to hear Hoppy Kercheval interview a lawmaker on “Talkline.”
A lot of times you’d hear the sizzling of hot dogs on an electric griddle as our office manager Tina Taylor got ready for one of our regular potlucks.
The Daily Mail staff loved any excuse for a party. Longtime editorial page editor Hanna Maurice, daughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Jack Maurice, said this habit of feeding one another is what created the family atmosphere our newsroom enjoyed. There’s truth to that, as any attendee of the Daily Mail reunion picnics can attest.
I often joke the only reason my internship turned into a full-time job was because of the Oreo truffles my wife Whitney sent to these get-togethers. No one has yet to correct me of this notion.
All these sounds combined to create a soothing din, almost like white noise. Others were more jarring. You’d often hear a loud crash that reverberated through the building — created by giant rolls of newsprint rolling into the press downstairs. I never figured out their schedule, so these loud booms always made me jump a little.
Most of the noise in the newsroom came from me and my fellow reporters.
You’d hear us on the phone working our sources, digging up news that would fill the next day’s paper. You’d hear us chatting with the city desk editor, talking through stories or begging for another day to work on something.
When I first started I noticed that Mary Childress, a veteran reporter who sat directly across from me, would don a set of headphones and begin clacking away at her keyboard. Every day, without any warning, she would burst out into laughter. I had no idea what was going on and was too embarrassed to ask, but no one seemed disturbed by this behavior. It took me weeks before I realized she was transcribing reader voice messages for the Vent Line column.
But most often, the reporters were talking to one another. We expressed our frustrations. We volleyed jokes back and forth. We asked each other for advice, for phone numbers, for the correct way to spell “barbecue” according to Associated Press style.
There was a time, though, when all this sound died down and was replaced by a different noise.
It usually came in the late afternoon. Deadline was approaching. There were stories to write and pages to design. The sound of talking was replaced by the sound of keyboards clacking.
The clacking would grow louder and louder before it finally crescendoed and faded away, like a wave crashing on shore and slipping back into the ocean.
I loved this sound, even more than the sound of hot dogs on the griddle. It was the sound of a group of people joined together in a singular pursuit. In just a few hours, the fruits of our labor would land on your doorsteps. And we all wanted everything to be exactly right.
I will never hear these sounds again.
I left the Daily Mail, its newsroom and its beautiful cacophony in 2015, just months before the paper merged with the Charleston Gazette. Almost everyone I worked with has either retired or moved on to another job.
I miss all those people and all of those sounds. But I will be forever grateful that I was part of that ebb and flow.
And like the phone on the city desk, it is still constantly ringing in my ears.