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Sam Smith: Throwing Out The Library

Throwing Out The Library

By Editor Sam Smith

The best course your editor took in college was covering the local city council for the campus radio station, sitting at the press table as three crusty old Boston reporters conducted a sotto voce seminar in urban politics and journalism.

Once in the trade I befriended older reporters who could tell me how it was and how it was supposed to be. Waiting for a news conference to begin or over drinks, I would learn the stories that were too true, too libelous, too funny, or too dirty to print.

Most journalists hadn't even been to college. You didn't learn that way. A friend of mine, starting out at the Washington Star, spent his first six months just taking dictation from reporters as they called in their stories.

And even publishers understood that their experienced writers formed a human archives, a living morgue of memory and wisdom, and a live-in journalism school for the younger staff. Even publishers understood that to get rid of such people would be like burning down your own library.

Now it's different. Recently, the Washington Post spent a large sum of money to buy out 56 of its most experienced staff in a move ascribed to efficiency. Experience, quality, and wisdom are apparently no longer efficient.

After all, how does one quantify the value of learning about the civil right movement from Bill Raspberry, what the city government used to be like from Linda Wheeler, how to stand up to bullies like Joe McCarthy from Mary McGrory, or how to write like Henry Allen? And if you can't calculate it, it can't be worth all that much. So Post just threw it away.

Their tenures ran from 19 to 52 years. Among those who left were Pulitzer Prize winners like Raspberry, Michel Dirda, and Henry Allen. There were former copy boys like Bob Asher, who ended up on the editorial board. And there were names that everyone in town knew, like Bob Levey, who remembered before that was true: "It was the afternoon of 4/6/68.

I had been out on the streets for nearly 48 hours, covering the riots. I was grabbing a break on the steps of the old number 2 precinct (6th and NY Ave. NW) when some guy sauntered up and tried to sell me a stolen LP. I waved him off.

He noticed the press credentials around my neck, and started raving about how much he hated the press. I just stood there (one of my great skills). Then he pulled a butcher knife and said he was going to show me what was what. I told the baldest lie of my life. I said he'd be more sorry than I'd be if he did that. Whereupon he wandered off, muttering to himself."

It is not only the Post that is the worse for those it has lost. The city also depends upon such experience, skills, and stories to build its own sense of itself, of where it came from, of what mistakes it made along the way, and where it might be headed right now.

The National Endowment for the Humanities should give someone a grant to interview this magnificent mine of memory, these reporters who saw and examined parts of the city, its soul and its stomach, that most only get to read about. The Post may not think it needs their stories any more, but the rest of us sure do.


MAR 1, 2004

SINCE 1964, Washington's most unofficial source
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