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From glue pots to grumps, Greene gets it right

The time was the summer of 1964. The place was downtown Columbus, Ohio.

A kid named Bob Greene walked into the most exciting office building in the city, and on the merits of a story he wrote in high school, he somehow got himself hired as a copyboy at his big-city newspaper.

The office was a lot smaller than he imagined. Crumbled-up sheets of cheap off-white copy paper covered the floor near the wastepaper baskets. Mostly men in ill-fitted sports jackets and ties stared at clunky manual typewriters, drank coffee, cracked bad jokes and waited for the next police call.

"It was love at first sight," says Greene.

Forty-five years later, Greene, a Chicago syndicated columnist for 30 years, and a contributor to ABC's "Nightline," National Public Radio and CNN, relives his summers as a copy boy and cub reporter at the Columbus Citizen-Journal.

What he sees is one boy's dream come true. Not only did they let him work in the newsroom, they paid him to do it.

"Late Edition" is a nostalgic, almost quixotic look back at the newsrooms of the '60s. It dwells upon everything that was good about the decade: Its attitudes, its innocence, its excitement.

Romanticized? Yes. But even if the closest you ever got to the newspaper office was reading your local paper at the breakfast table, you'll love Greene's new book. If you were alive in the '60s, Greene's view will strike all the right chords. And if you weren't, you'll wish you had been.

What struck this crusty old copyboy-turned-editor was how similar newsrooms were in cities across the nation. Greene writes about the newsroom in Columbus, but he could have been describing the Detroit Free Press or the Cleveland Plain Dealer or The Buffalo Evening News.

Greene was a sportswriter one summer. Every paper had a sports editor who was tall, outgoing, and never lost his tan. The sports editor wrote a weekly column and was a minor celebrity in his city. In Columbus, his name was Tom Keys. In Buffalo, his name was Charley Young.

Every newsroom had a city editor who could edit copy and talk on the phone at the same time. When he answered the phone with the sharp and pithy "City Desk," he oozed calm, but if you looked closely, his hands shook. He was Bill Moore in Columbus. His name in Buffalo was Bud Wacker.

The people in Features always assumed the role of whatever they wrote. In Columbus, theater critic Ron Pataky spoke as if he were on stage before 2,500 people, deep voice, arms flailing, even if all he wanted was a hamburger and cup of coffee.

In Buffalo, the proper Ellen Taussig always wore a hat and cloth gloves in the newsroom, removing the gloves just long enough to bang out a story on her aged Underwood. If you asked, she would tell you about the day she interviewed the young queen of England at the opening of the QEW, or when she interviewed the queen's son Charles at Niagara-on-the-Lake. Despite the cursing and grousing all around her, Taussig never raised her voice and her language never strayed from the genteel. Word around the office was that Taussig often forgot to cash her paychecks.

Don Weaver was Bob Greene's feared editor-in-chief. His initials in the margin of a story, like those of all top editors, sent a shudder up grown men's spines. In Buffalo, his name was Alfred H. Kirchhofer, tall, fearsome, a man of few words who never allowed himself a smile.

In Columbus, "D.W. P1 Must" was shorthand for "Put the story on page one and don't ask any questions about it." In Buffalo, the margin note on the raw copy didn't need to include the dreaded "AHK" initials. When "Page One" was written in blue pencil, the story went on the front page. No one butKirchhofer dared use a blue pencil in the newsroom.

Bob Greene's newspaper in the '60s was one that didn't need a name. For the people in Columbus, it was just "my paper." They knew they could call the Sports Desk any time to find out how local hero Jack Nicklaus shot. In Buffalo, you called the Evening News to get the final score of the Yankees game, or even to find out whether the Mississippi or the Missouri was the longest river in the country.

Everyone in Greene's newsroom was a character. That was before newspapermen called themselves journalists, before they even knew the word "media." This was before investigative teams, double bylines, breakout quotes, graphic presentations and focus groups. Life was simple. Those things all arrived at newspapers a quarter century later when newsrooms got fat and started looking like insurance offices.

Greene's book remembers it the way it was: Fast, irreverent and always fun. He insists he would have worked for nothing. In Buffalo, a tough World War II veteran named Joe Koral, then assistant city editor, told this young reporter: "I'd come in here every day even if they didn't pay me. But don't you ever tell anybody."

Once you start "Late Edition," you won't be able to put it down, even if it means staying up all night. Greene's chopped prose hasn't changed much in 40 years. It still sings with excitement and rings with detail. He's got the glue pots, the carbon paper, the pneumatic tubes and the clanking teletype machines in the corner. He must have visited The News office at Main and Seneca streets in the '60s. He just must have.

So now, 45 years later and following his sudden and ignominious departure from daily print journalism -- you might recall a 2002 scandal involving a young female news source back in the 1980s -- Greene asserts with authority and assuredness that "it will never be the same." His clear implication is that it never will be the same once the last big-city local paper shuts down its presses for good.

This is where one old editor begs to disagree. Newsrooms in this country have been reinventing themselves every generation since the 1890s. They are filled with highly intelligent, imaginative and exciting people. No, it won't ever be the same, but this critic's bet is that they'll reinvent themselves again to meet the needs of the new century.

They'll reinvent themselves as long as the public wants to know why the cops were banging at my neighbor's door last night, or what they're building on the next block, or why the mayor is being booted out of town. We can't depend on some nameless cyber-geek to get it right. We need someone we can trust like the crusty curmudgeon down at our local newspaper.

Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor. He was a summer copyboy at The Buffalo Evening News in 1958.

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Late Edition: A Love Story

By Bob Greene

St. Martin's Press

306 pages, $25.99

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