The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia


January 31, 2014

Though changed over time, newspapers' qualities remain

I’ve been working for newspapers for most of my life. I’ve worked full time, part-time and freelance. Most of my work has been with Beckley Newspapers, a publication I joined nearly 50 years ago.

Before that, I worked for a couple of small town dailies and weeklies. I hark back to a time when typesetters worked in hot lead and wore square caps of folded newsprint to keep the ink out of their hair.

It was a time when stories were written on manual typewriters, typed on reams of copy paper, edited with pencils and cobbled together with foul-smelling glue.

The folks who wrote and edited the news were a ribald, coarse, vulgar and bawdy bunch. They were a lewd, funny and generally an insensitive lot.

All in all, though, it made for a rousing place to work. The newsrooms of the past featured a kind of dramatic spirit that’s chiefly missing from today’s informational centers — with their confined cubicles, mute compartments and stern manner, all of which seem to discourage the facetious and silly side of human nature.

One of the first assignments I got as a young reporter was to go down and photograph a man who had been severely beaten up and robbed at a local junk yard. When the film was developed and pictures printed, the images failed to disclose any of the rips and gouges in the victim’s scalp and forehead. So my superior sent me out to do the job over again.

“You idiot!” the editor snarled from behind his paper-cluttered desk. “Either get a shot of the man’s head wounds or don’t come back; you got that!”

My next photo effort ran on page one. It was a close-up of the victim pointing to his skull injuries that required a veritable army of needlework to mend.

Soon after that, I landed a job on the police beat, but I was fearful of going near the police station. Several of the policemen had threatened to shoot me on sight if they caught me on the premises.

In one of my stories I had noted that a squad car had run over a woman fleeing the scene of a traffic stop. She suffered third-degree burns on her legs from the cruiser’s exhaust pipes and I deemed the incident newsworthy.

The investigating officers didn’t agree. After the story ran, the reaction I got from the local police bureau was, “We don’t need any reporters around here; you got that!”

Besides, back in those days, some cops would mirthfully pull their weapons out and point them at young reporters in an apparent effort to intimidate them. I complained to the chief of police, who took a dim view of the practice, but said it wasn’t up to him to tell his patrolmen when to draw their weapons or where to point them.

“I try not to interfere with the force doing its job,” he said cheerfully.

Eventually, I managed to win over the city police department with my fair and accurate reporting style and often was invited to go out on drug and gambling busts in the city.     

It was a romantic world that lured me in my youth and one that still has a hold on me today — although newspapers have changed greatly since those early days of my career. Computers have replaced the typewriters and typesetting is a lost art. The printer’s hats, the copy paper and glue pots are gone and editors and policemen, in particular, seem more civilized than their counterparts of the past.

Still, the most important qualities of a newspaper remain the same: record the events of the day, chronicle the issues, entertain, inform and provide fodder for discussion and debate. It’s the town crier, the mirror and sometimes the conscience of the community.

I have worked with many talented editors and publishers, and I am grateful for their faith and their care. I look forward to a few more years in a profession that is often described as one of the most interesting jobs on earth.


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— Blankenship is a columnist for The Register-Herald. E-mail:

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