In the Pleistocene epoch of journalism, the newspaper telephone operator did a hell of a lot more than merely direct calls to a reporter or editor [Hot Type, May 20]. She–it always was she–also tracked down people with whom a reporter wanted to speak, saving him or her (it wasn’t always a him) considerable time. These operators were darn good at, for example, locating a sheriff or deputy in a remote county so the reporter could find out about a shooting, traffic fatality, or what have you.
And a caller always got through to a reporter or editor. One such was the Radar Lady, who used to call a newspaper where I worked in the 1960s. She would complain to an assistant city editor about the “Communists’ radar,” which she could feel pulsating throughout her body. Sounds funny, but it was torment to the poor lady.
One night an assistant city editor told the lady, “You can’t feel the Communists’ radar. What you feel is the FBI radar, because it has to be very strong to jam the Communists’ radar.” The woman sighed in relief, thanked the editor, and never called back. (Note: In the interest of complete disclosure, this happened shortly before I joined the copydesk of that newspaper, but the assistant city editor still was there.)
In the 1970s, after I exited newspapering, I heard Steve Isaacs, who had just been hired as editor of the afternoon Minneapolis Star, talk about newsroom unapproachability. As an example, he noted that only one PR person–for a suburban school district–had thought to call him to talk about his new job and approach to the news. He blamed this, in part, on academic elitism that began separating “us” from “them.”
There also was a time when citizens would tell a store or official that “If you don’t solve my problem, I’ll take it to the newspaper,” which often got results–or bad publicity. As you describe it, that avenue too often is closed, and it is no wonder that journalists have lost public respect. (E-mail may be reestablishing the link between newspapers and readers, since many articles, such as this one, contain an electronic address.)