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James C. Smith, Managing Editor
December 18, 2013 - Paul Giannamore
That was my initial reaction when Weirton Managing Editor Craig Howell quietly walked up to my desk after deadline today and said, “Jim Smith died.”
Jim HIRED me into newspapering, which for me has meant the Herald-Star and the addition of The Weirton Daily Times 29 years ago this coming Jan. 28.
From the initial contact to the day he left, Jim was professionally tough on me. I was heading out the door one day in late 1984 when the phone rang. My brother was home from Wichita and he answered the phone. He recalls telling Jim that I was just stepping out and I would call back if he’d give the number. Jim said something like, “Well, if he doesn’t want a job…”
John came and got me before the ignition turned over.
Working the first nine years of my career here was like that with Jim. You were expected to meet a level of quality that didn’t shift. No excuses were curried. Heck, no legitimate reasons were accepted.
I varied from wanting to punch him out to wanting to somehow fulfill his expectations every step of the way. People sometimes say I do good at this work, and if I indeed do, it’s because he was my first boss, along with city editor Marian Houser. Working for the pair of them in tandem meant you paid attention, asked questions, spelled names correctly and didn’t get the facts wrong. A correction with your name attached was a mortal sin.
That’s what the difference was between good, old-school, newspaper people and the touchy-feely stuff in the industry today because of labor laws and the passing of generations. And, I think we’re a lesser industry for it because we just don’t have that atttention to detail, that feeling that you’ve embarked upon a new way of life instilled into many of our young’uns in this biz anymore. Give me angry Lou Grant at WJM over touchy-feely Lou Grant at the Los Angeles Tribune any day. (Go find video clips of the TV shows, if you don’t get the reference.)
Jim (and Marian) did that. You did it right or they’d make sure you knew they’d find someone who would. Marian would work to help you grow, at the alternate end of the whip or the sugar cube. Jim was the brick wall against which one pounded one’s head. You did it right, the pounding might be a little less. You did it wrong, blood would be drawn.
A prominent citizen committed a very public suicide one day. I went out to get what I could on deadline, came back and wrote a brief story, then went into the restroom and threw up. I was all of 25 or 26. Jim saw me coming out of the restroom and didn’t miss a beat at teaching a lesson.
“You got to be more callous sometimes, Pablo,” he said. And I hated that response for years. But watching the touchy-feely reaction so many times from so many modern “journalists” over the years, I grew to get it. Go. Get the facts. Get the work done for deadline. Do the followup for tomorrow’s story. Go home and drink a whiskey (not that alcohol ever touched Jim's lips, he was staunchly against drinking) and shed a tear on your own time. We’ve got work to do.
And as the years passed, I got it. Indeed, the day our previous owners pushed him out the door, I started to get it. This guy was a newsman. I got to work for an editor, in the classic meaning of the term. You didn’t accept, curry or care about favor from anyone. There were stories to be told, sometimes uncomfortable facts to be dug out, and you needed a clean nose above it all.
Oh, we still have cantankerous editors in the big chairs, but it’s different. Different era, different people. Or maybe I’ve just gotten older and I’m a cantankerous SOB, too.
And Jim wouldn’t mind me remembering him that way at all. That was James C. Smith.
Because he cared very deeply about the communities where he worked. He cared very deeply about the product rolling off the other end of the press line at the south end of the building and what it meant to the community. He cared very deeply about his family. And, for those of us who made it through the minefield to be considered a friend, we had a friend for life.
I hadn’t seen or talked to Jim for years, but we found one another on Facebook awhile back and started trading barbs as if 20 years had not passed. Parkersburg isn’t that far away, but it’s a lifetime closed only by Facebook in this case.
At some point a few months back, he told me I did it right and I’d be welcome back in his hypothetical newsroom any time. And knowing Jim, that wasn’t the warm glow of nostalgia, which has no place in the newspaper business.
That is worth more than any plaque on any wall ever devised.
So long, Boss.
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