Looking Back at Some Columnists from the Golden Age of Column Writing Who Inspired Me to Always Write from the Heart and Strive to Make a Difference

The other day as I was pondering, “over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,” as Edgar Allan Poe would say, I was reminded of some of the columnists who inspired me to get into the column writing field.

Throughout my career as a journalist I have written from the features desk, the sports desk, the news desk, the opinion desk, and pretty much any other desk that could be found in a newsroom. While I have written stories of all types and interviewed countless people, columns have always held a special place in my heart ever since I wrote my first column for my high school newspaper. From an early age I dreamed of one day becoming a syndicated columnist whose words were read coast to coast.

Growing up in Orlando, FL in the days before the internet, my exposure to columnists mostly came in the form of the Orlando Sentinel. The two columnists I followed the most were Sentinel columnists Larry Guest and Bob Morris.

Thanks to the newspaper arriving at my parents’ house each morning, I was able to read their columns while eating breakfast and getting ready to head to school. Years later, despite the availability of electronic forms of news delivery, my parents still receive a physical newspaper each morning.

Throughout my career as a journalist I have written from the features desk, the sports desk, the news desk, the opinion desk, and pretty much any other desk that could be found in a newsroom. While I have written stories of all types and interviewed countless people, columns have always held a special place in my heart ever since I wrote my first column for my high school newspaper.
Photo R. Anderson

If I trusted my neighbors to not steal my newspaper each morning, I would likely get a physical newspaper delivered to the Gigaplex.

There is just something about the tactile feel of folding a physical newspaper and getting ink transfer on one’s fingers as they read the paper.

Speaking of neighbors, Larry Guest, the long-time Sentinel sports columnist would always end his column of observations with a witticism from his fictional neighbor, Wolfgang. One such entry that I still remember all these years later is, “My neighbor Wolfgang sez he’s in shape. Round is a shape.”

While I do not have a neighbor named Wolfgang, I do have a neighbor named Niko. The other day my neighbor Niko asked, “Why is it that people will spend hundreds of dollars a year on virus protection for their computers, phones, identifies, and other devices, yet they refuse to wear a $10 mask to protect themselves and others from a virus called COVID-19?”

Why indeed, neighbor Niko. Why indeed?

Sports, like most of the rest of the country, are in unfamiliar territory thanks to the COVID-19 virus and the wide path of destruction that has killed over 202,000 Americans.

In the past, sports have served as a distraction to world events when tragedy strikes. In fact, the coliseum in Rome was built in part as a distraction to prevent civil unrest within the empire.

While I agree that sports have served to soothe the nation in previous times of unrest, it seems like the rush to return sports to full stadiums in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic is an attempt to return false normalcy while Rome burns and a man tunes up his fiddle.

Many sports columnists are taught in sports school that sports and politics should never intermingle just like the fans of the Cubs and White Sox know to keep to their sides of Chicago. However, it has become clear in the course of human events that keeping sports and politics separate in 2020 results in a fan base equivalent of ostriches with their heads in the sand since there are people who only read the sports news and ignore the other news of the day.

How much news to include with the sports is something I have struggled with this year. I am from that generation of journalists who were told that news and sports needed to be treated with the same level of separation as church and state.

Although that may have been the case in the past, this year in the middle of a global health pandemic, economic uncertainty, and social justice movements, one cannot just say that sports and news are two separate things.

Sports, COVID-19, and all of the other challenges we are facing in 2020 are strands of the same rope. A slew of recent events are trying to separate those strands, but the more one tries to pull on the thread the tighter the knot gets.

I am a journalist first and foremost and I would be doing a disservice if I tried to pretend that college football conferences who had delayed the start of their seasons reversing course and now planning to play is a good thing.

Shortly after announcing that restaurants and bars in Florida would open up to full capacity, and masks ordinances will no longer be enforced, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis showed further disregard for the COVID-19 pandemic by stating that it was his desire that the Super Bowl in February be held in a full Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, FL. Sports writers have a duty to call out the foolishness of that statement in terms of public health instead of cheering the announcement as a return to sports as normal. Photo R. Anderson

I would also be remiss if I did not point out that opening all of the bars and restaurants in Florida to 100 percent capacity in the middle of a global pandemic is also an ill-advised idea.

Speaking of Florida, the tone-deaf remark the governor of Florida made about wanting a completely full Super Bowl in Tampa, FL is downright criminal.

Additionally, Major League Baseball appears to want to have fans in the stands when the World Series is played in Arlington, TX. Fans in the stands for the World Series basically cancels out any benefits the MLB gained by using neutral sites for playoff games.

To be clear, none of those things are good, and they all have the potential to make a bad situation even worse.

The COVID-19 virus thrives in large gatherings. As someone who was fortunate enough to cover a Super Bowl in person, I can attest that the Super Bowl is a week-long large gathering that would be the perfect storm for spreading COVID-19.

And a World Series with fans? Come on MLB you are better than that. Try to set an example of responsibility for once during your 2020 fly by night and make it up as you go 2020 season.

Going back to the question asked by my neighbor Niko, masks work. In fact, masks are one of the biggest defenses against the spread of COVID-19. Yet there are still people who refuse to wear masks because they think it infringes on their freedom.

As I have noted before, being dead because someone didn’t wear a mask infringes on freedom.

All of this is common sense, yet looking at some sports stories online some of the columnists are merely complaining about how much they miss full stadiums and how much the fans need to return. These same columnists also are cheering the aforementioned decisions of those college conferences deciding to play football despite no real improvement in the overall virus numbers that led to the postponement of fall sports to begin with. In fact, one could argue the situation is worse as many college campuses are having COVID-19 outbreaks which has led to the cancellation of many college football games.

Worse still, there are politicians who instead of trying to develop a national strategy for battling COVID-19 are doing victory laps for convincing sports leagues to return to action in an attempt to unfurl a “Mission Accomplished” banner.

No mission is accomplished. We are still very much in the thick of it. As bad as 2020 has been, unless people start taking things more seriously, 2021 will be just as bad. COVID-19 will not just magically disappear like a miracle when the ball drops in Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

Besides Guest and Morris, other journalists that helped shape my columnist world view, were Bob Verdi, Red Barber, Red Smith, and Dave Barry. While I had the opportunity to read Verdi and Barry while they were still writing, my exposure to Smith and Barber came through books of their collected works and on the radio.

The columnists I grew up reading are mostly retired now. Since they are not actively writing, I have to wonder how they would handle the current conflict of conscience within the world of sports writing. Would they tackle the issues of 2020 with the tenacity of a hard-hitting news reporter, or would they jump on the bandwagon of let them play and fill the stands consequences be damned?

I want to believe that they would shout from the rooftops that there are more important things in life than sports and that sports will return when the virus is under control. Since they are not here to answer that question, I will answer in my own way and say, there is a time and place for full arenas and stadiums. The middle of a global COIVD-19 pandemic is not that time and place.

I miss injecting humor into my writing, but COVID-19 is no laughing matter. It cannot be ignored no matter how much people try to sweep it under the rug, or drown it out with crowd noise piped into empty Ballparks.

Now if you’ll excuse me, my neighbor Niko needs some help installing virus software to stop all of those trolls on the other side of the world from trying to hack into his computer.

Copyright 2020 R. Anderson

As COVID-19 Continues to Impact the Newspaper Industry Five Tribune Newsrooms going Fully Remote

Last week I noted that many journalists are working remotely from bookcase filled mini newsrooms as a result of COVID-19.

For some print journalists, those remote at home locations will turn into their permanent bureaus as some newspapers look to jettison their brick and mortar holdings in favor of an all remote workforce.

This week, Tribune Publishing announced that the physical offices of five newspapers it owns will be closed permanently in response to COVID-19, as well as a changing newspaper climate.

In making the announcement Tribune Publishing noted in a statement that, “Out of an abundance of caution we do not anticipate having employees that can work remotely coming back into the office for the remainder of the year and into 2021. With no clear path forward in terms of returning to work, and as the company evaluates its real estate needs in light of health and economic conditions brought about by the pandemic, we have made the difficult decision to permanently close these offices.”

The five newspapers going fully remote are the Daily News in New York City, The Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, the Orlando Sentinel in Orlando Florida, The Morning Call in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and the Carroll County Times in Maryland. The papers join a growing list of newspapers that are rethinking their business model.

At a time when solid journalism is needed more than ever to bring facts to the masses and debunk false claims from people in power, more than 50 local newsrooms in the United States have closed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the journalism think tank the Poynter Institute.

For years the Orlando Sentinel has had a remote newsroom at Kennedy Space Center’s Press Site. With the announcement that the Sentinel’s parent company is moving out of the main headquarters, one has to wonder whether a move out of remote bureaus like the one at KSC can be far behind.
Photo R. Anderson

Additionally, a UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media report discovered that, “since 2004, the United States has lost one-fourth, or 2100, of its newspapers.”

The study went on to state that these resulting “news deserts” mean that “more than 200 of the nation’s 3,143 counties and equivalents now have no newspaper and no alternative source of credible and comprehensive information on critical issues.”

Consider that fact as people try to figure out whether schools are safe enough to send their kids back to, or if the COVID-19 virus is getting corralled, or is still raging out of control.

Granted, there are still television networks and online news sources to fill some of the void, but for many people the local newspaper is their lifeblood for getting the news that matters to them.

The newspaper industry is far from the only business segment that is likely to consider the cost benefits of shedding their real estate holdings in favor of a remote workforce. However, the announcement that newsrooms would be closing permanently hit me particularly hard.

I grew up reading the Orlando Sentinel, and at one point thought I might work there. Although to be fair, I totally preferred reading Florida Today and the Tampa Tribune over the Orlando Sentinel.

Still, the Sentinel building was a beacon of First Amendment freedom whenever I would drive by it. It was empowering to think of all of the journalists inside those walls working hard night in, and night out, to deliver the truth.

When I was growing up my dream journalism job was to be on the space beat for Florida Today and work out of their press site at KSC. In 2015, the building that I had wanted to work at for so long no longer bore the newspaper’s name on it.
Photo R. Anderson

I even worked with, and competed against, many of the members of the Sentinel’s Sports Staff in my years covering high school and college athletics in and around Orlando.

So although I was never an employee of the Sentinel, I knew many people who were, and still are.

The mighty offset presses inside the Sentinel building went silent about three years ago. Like many papers, the Sentinel outsourced their printing to third parties as a way to cut costs. For the Sentinel, that meant a switch to a printing press about an hour away from downtown Orlando.

I know that the heart of a newsroom is made up of people, and not a building. However, it was the proximity of the people in that building that created the buzz and collaboration that makes journalism work.

When I was 16-years-old, I got my first professional newspaper job as a sports stringer for the Sanford Herald. For an aspiring journalist such as myself, the Herald newsroom was like walking into Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory without all of the chocolate and the singing.

Most of the reporters had already gone home by the time I got to the newsroom to write my stories, but the building was still alive with the sports staff, the photographer, and the team that ran the presses.

All these years later, I can still picture the cluttered desk of my first editor and the stacks of paper and other things that he had accumulated through the years surrounding it.

Looking around the cluttered desk I am sitting at while writing this, I suppose I subconsciously picked up that trait.

Aside from memories of cluttered desks stacked high with newspapers, I can still close my eyes and smell the unmistakable odor of newsprint and ink that filled the air. If the First Amendment was a cologne, to me it would smell like newsprint and ink.

The hands-on instruction I received from at the Herald proved invaluable to me in my writing career. Aside from learning the craft of writing on deadline, thanks to those Friday nights in the newsroom I also cannot listen to Edie Brickell & New Bohemians without thinking of the deep thought meditation quote taped on the wall above the editor’s computer.

Through my own years as an editor, from press box to press box, and newsroom to newsroom, I have sought to impart knowledge the same way to the reporters and other people I have managed as the way it was imparted to me all those years ago in a dusty and cramped newsroom in Sanford, Florida.

While I am all for the ability to file stories from the press box to avoid a long cross county drive back to the newsroom, there are definitely times when meeting face to face in a newsroom is critical to honing one’s craft.

It is hard to think of remote video calls having the same impact as actually seeing one’s colleagues face to face.

Of course, I realize that sounds somewhat hypocritical of me to say since I have been basically working remotely for years, and have loved every minute of it.

If the rate of newspaper closures continues at the current pace, it is quite possible that soon the only newspaper boxes one sees will be in Christmas villages and old movies about the glory days of print journalism.
Photo R. Anderson

Still, it is different to work from home and know there is an office to go to from time to time, versus having the office sold and knowing that working from home is the only option.

When I first heard the news of the Sentinel closing their offices, I did what any good reporter would do and researched whether any of the newsrooms I had worked in were still in the same buildings that they were when I worked there.

I already knew that one of the newsrooms I worked in was gone. That newspaper merged with another paper and closed. As a result, I was laid off since the merger made me a redundant employee.

The paper I worked at before the one that merged is still in their same building. That led me to dig deeper and explore the weekly newspapers I worked for at another community chain.

Much to my surprise the entire 20 newspaper chain went from having newsrooms in each of the communities it served, to having one office and half the staff. They also sold the building that had the only printing press in the chain and joined the outsourcing trend.

That brought me back to the Herald, where my professional newspaper career began. Like so many of the other papers I had worked for, the Herald also left their long time building for a smaller facility that did not have a printing press attached to it.

The results of my research revealed that only one of the six newsrooms I worked in is still in operation at the same location it was in when I worked there.

The consolidation of the newspaper industry, and the media in general, will have long lasting effects on the ability to deliver impactful stories that make a difference in communities both small and large.

I know I am biased towards the need for a free and independent press to perform the duty of the Fourth Estate and hold leaders accountable, while also printing the scores of the local youth sports leagues.

COVID-19 has taught us that the need for clear and honest journalism is needed now more than ever. Unfortunately, with so many local newsrooms counting on funding from local businesses to operate, many more newsrooms are likely to go dark in the weeks, months and years to come as advertising revenue shrinks.

I can take solace in the fact that although Tribune Publishing closed five newsrooms, they did not fully shutter the newspapers altogether. Unfortunately, not all newspapers will be as lucky.

COVID-19 did not create all of the funding issues for local print journalism, but it definitely didn’t help slow the spread of the demise of independent voices.

Now if you’ll excuse me, in honor of that quote on the wall in the first newsroom I worked in, I am off to ponder whether what I am is what I am, and whether you are what you are or what.

Copyright 2020 R. Anderson