The Newsroom Of Old ‘Wasn’t A Place Of Comfort’

In its March issue, Smithsonian magazine takes a look at the newsrooms of a half-century ago.

It’s a reminder that some things haven’t gotten worse with the advent of TV and the Internet.

Says writer Michael Shapiro: “The furnishings look as if they had been plucked from a garage sale—scarred wooden desks, manual typewriters perched on rolling stands, hard-backed chairs. The congestion borders on the claustrophobic; note the proximity of one man’s cigarette to another man’s ear. Everyone sits within shouting distance, which was imperative, considering the ambient din—ringing phones, typewriter keys, calls for the copy boys. This was a factory floor. The man who manned the telephones—there were few women on the staff—began his shift by wiping blown-in soot off the desks.”

It was not a place of comfort. It was a place for work, said former journalist Richard Piperno.

Job descriptions were different back then, too: there were “legmen” who did the reporting and “rewrite men” to do the job of turning facts into prose. “The rewrite men usually got the bylines; the legmen were widely believed to be functionally illiterate.”

The newspaper in this photo, the New York Journal-American, closed in 1966. It didn’t live long enough to see the smoking and drinking disappear and ergonomic chairs make their debut.

Which was a ways off, if you believe one commenter, who remembers a newsroom filled with “the pungent unforgettable ‘smell’ of ink, smoke and sometimes a whiff of an uncorked bottle of cheap bourbon whiskey.”

This commenter retired in 1995.