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Episode 322

Newspaper Reporters

04/28/14
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Posted by Mary Ann

The heroine in Debbie Macomber’s new book, “Starry Night,” is a newspaper reporter. I have worked at newspapers for 30 years (and counting), and I can certainly relate to this young journalist’s ardent desire to get off the society beat in favor of something more exciting.

This got me to thinking about novels set at newspapers. There are so many novels set at newspapers, or featuring journalists, it made me briefly wonder why….because there’s a lot of unpleasant tedium in a reporter’s job. Calling up people who really, really don’t want to talk to you, sitting at your desk at 10 p.m. at night, waiting for that last source who will nail the story to contact you. The persnickety copy editors. The low pay. I could go on and on.

But the job of newspaper journalist does provide one element almost irresistible to any novelist – access to just about anybody, regardless of class and position. Like cops, journalists are among the few with a profession that can cut across the many layers that make up contemporary society. And newspaper offices can be such a collection of eccentrics, they can provide a ready-made cast of characters.

So…without further ado, here’s a list of some of my favorite newspaper novels. Some of them are set in newspapers of the past; some in newspapers of the present.

“The Fly on the Wall” by Tony Hillerman. Everybody knows Tony Hilllerman as the author of the great mysteries featuring Navaho policemen Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn. But before all that, Hillerman was…a newspaper reporter! This 1971 book, a mystery, is one of the best I’ve ever read at demonstrating the reality of a reporter’s life.

John Cotton is a statehouse reporter; he covers state government. This is one of the most grueling jobs at a newspaper; the hours are endless, the coffee is terrible, and people lie to you constantly. Cotton is working late when a colleague, pretty inebriated, comes in and tells him he has the story of a lifetime. Then same colleague turns up dead.

This is a masterfully plotted and executed book; some things about journalists and politicians have changed, but a lot stays the same. Such as the tedium involved in getting a good story. Here’s an excerpt:

“Cotton hurried past the Game and Fish Department offices, past the doors of the State Veterinary Board, the Funeral Directors and the Embalmers Commission, the Contractors’ Licensing Office and the Cosmetology Inspection Bureau. He reminded himself, as he did almost every day when he used this route, that there might be good hunting among these obscure agencies forgotten in the Capitol catacombs. In fact, he had a tip about the Veterinary Board. An anonymous caller had told him the director was letting his wife use agency gasoline credit cards. When he could find time he would check it out.”

“A Family Trust” by Ward Just. Ward Just is one of my favorite novelists, period. He was a journalist for many decades in many places, including Vietnam; he worked for the Washington Post for several years. Not many journalists make the leap from journalism to top-flight novel writing; he is the exception.

“A Family Trust” tells the story of three generations of a family who own a newspaper in a Midwestern Town. It starts in the early 1950s, when the town is a bastion of complacent old-style Republicanism (pro-business, don’t rock the boat). The paper’s owners support that view.

Of course, no one lasts forever, and when the patriarch dies, it sets in motion a chain of events that involves his daughter, Dana, a spirited young woman who has been swept up in the changes wrought on the country in the 1950s and 1960s. As the family changes, so does the town, and as the town changes, so does the newspaper.

Another wonderful Ward Just novel set at a newspaper; this one in Chicago, at a bigger city newspaper, is 2004’s “An Unfinished Season.”

Another book set in a small-town newspaper, but quite a different book, is Annie Proulx’s grand 1993 novel “The Shipping News.” This book, set on the Newfoundland coast, remains one of my all-time favorites. The protagonist, Quoyle, retreats to a small town; he gets a job at the newspaper, where a collection of eccentrics possibly unmatched in newspaper history clings to a place and a profession that can actually tolerate them. The editor puts Quoyle, whose wife has been killed in a car wreck, on the car-wreck beat: As it is put to him by Editor Jack Buggit: “We run a front-page photo of a car wreck every week, whether we have a wreck or not. That’s our golden rule. No exceptions.”

Despite Annie Proulx’s black humor, this is an ultimately hopeful novel, as Quoyle finds acceptance and healing in a town and a newspaper populated by some very weird, hilarious and compelling characters. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Finally, I want to mention a bittersweet novel that came out in 2010: “The Imperfectionists” by Tom Rachman. This novel is set at an English-language newspaper in Rome with an international focus. Founded in the 1950s, the newspaper is dying, and Rachman casts a wonderfully pitiless eye at the forces that are killing it. And what a cast of characters! The obituary writer. The corrections editor. The editor in chief, who has just discovered that her husband is having an affair. And the funniest pairing : a green-behind-the-ears stringer in Cairo whose life is turned upside down by a glib, sly, on-the-make war correspondent. And finally, the CFO, whose job is to fire everybody, and who gets her just desserts in a supremely satisfying way.

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