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How Real Newsrooms USED to Work – by Charles Culbertson

How Real Newsrooms USED to Work – by Charles Culbertson

Several years ago I wrote a column about Ed Berlin, former editor-in-chief of The News-Virginian in Waynesboro, Va. It’s time to do so again.

Those of us who paid our dues in newsrooms of old are exasperated by reporters who can’t spell, won’t leave personal opinions out of a news story, or haven’t a clue how to put a little music into a sentence. We yearn for the return of guys like Ed Berlin.

Ed was the most explosive man I have ever known and, at one time, I did a pretty fair impersonation of him, mostly because I could, and because it elicited a round of giggles from a nervous newsroom staff – when, of course, he wasn’t there.

It centered on Ed’s habit, when he was mad or even just slightly perturbed, of prefacing what he was going to say with a certain expletive.

“Blankety-blank it!” he would boom, and then unload on the wrongdoer who happened to be in his sights. It could be a clerk, reporter, editor, or publisher. It didn’t matter. Ed was very democratic.

So one day, in the composing room, I quietly approached a reporter from behind and, in my best Ed Berlin voice, bellowed:

“Blankety-blank it, Louis!”

And, then watched Louis nearly sprint up the wall like a Warner Brothers cartoon cat, leaving floorboards, lathe, and plaster piled behind him. Louis could easily have reduced me to a heap of broken bones so I was grateful he had a sense of humor.

But, for a couple of years after that, he kept his back to the wall whenever I was around, sort of like a gunfighter in a cattle-town card game.

Which really says more about Ed Berlin than it does my refined sense of humor. Ed, you see, was an old-fashioned newspaperman for whom accuracy was paramount. He pursued it relentlessly, and expected his employees to do the same.

We tried, but inevitably made mistakes, The offending reporter would hastily send up a prayer that went something like: “Pleeeeeze, God, don’t let Ed Berlin see it. I’ll never do that again!”

Providence rarely interceded. Misspellings and grammatical and factual errors leapt off the page at Ed, searing his eyeballs, and igniting his perfectionist’s fury. Like a bull rampaging through the streets of Pamplona, he’d blast out of his office, and stand snorting and bug-eyed over the hapless miscreant.

“Blankety-blank it!” he would roar, turning bright red from the shoulders up. “What is this?!” And, he’d point to the infraction.

Sometimes, he’d let you explain but mostly he’d launch into an explosive, highly concentrated summation of how you’d betrayed the very essence of your job. Always, he ended the encounter with a loud and insistent, “Get it right!”

Yes, we feared Ed Berlin more than anything — but accompanying that fear was unvarnished respect for a man whose knowledge of newspapering was greater than anything we could ever hope to achieve. His stentorian insistence on perfection made us work harder, set our sights higher and, ultimately, produce a better product.

Ed was just as quick to praise when we got it right as he was to damn when we got it wrong. In 1987, he assigned me to interview visiting film and television actor Raymond Burr. I did, and the day after the story appeared, Ed scribbled on a crumpled, coffee-stained scrap of computer paper:

“Charles – Thanks for a great job on the Raymond Burr story. Ed.”

I didn’t bother to get Burr’s autograph but I have kept and treasured that note from Ed Berlin for the last 37 years.

Although Ed’s life was cut short in 1996 by years of heavy cigarette smoking, I think of him often, especially when I see slipshod newspaper writing and editing. I find myself missing him and his brand of journalism.

Not that I enjoyed mincing around in fear of my life. I didn’t. But, I’m reminded of Kierkegaard’s observation that life can only be understood by looking backwards. Today, with perfect hindsight, it is clear to me the great contribution that Ed Berlin and men like him made to the craft of journalism, and how desperately their ilk are needed today.

Factual errors? Misspellings? Botched headlines? Unbalanced stories? Sure, they happened on Ed’s watch. But, there was, at all times, a lofty standard for which he made all of us strive. No matter where on the continuum our performance registered, it was always higher than it would have been otherwise.

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Charles Culbertson has worked as a journalist, theater reviewer, historian, publisher, editor and public relations specialist. He is perhaps best known for his series of books focusing on the history of Staunton, Virginia. He has won writing awards from the Virginia Press Association, the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), Writer’s Digest and WritersWeekly.com.



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