Friday, January 4, 2008

In memory of the boozy office

Over at Slate, Jack Shafer ridicules the Cincinnati Post's unenforceable ban on booze in the newsroom on the paper's last day of publication. He (rightly, I think) criticizes the finger-wagging restriction as a repudiation of an important part of journalistic culture.

Every profession needs what academics call an "occupational mythology" to sustain it, a set of personal and social dramas, arrangements, and devices, as sociologist Everett Hughes put it, "by which men make their work tolerable, or even make it glorious to themselves and others." As hard drugs are to the hard-rocker and tattoos are to the NBA player, so booze is to the journalist—even if he doesn't drink. ...

It wasn't that long ago that alcoholics were celebrated or at least regaled in newsrooms for their heroic immoderation. Today, praise goes to the "courageous" newsroom alcoholic or druggie who enters a company-financed rehab program. Today's newspaper will fire you for taking mood-altering drugs in the workplace unless, of course, they're prescription antidepressants paid for by the company health plan. And in the old days, great status was bestowed upon the foulest mouth in the newsroom. Today, that sort of talk will earn you a write-up from HR for creating a climate of sexual harassment. Paradoxically, the language and subjects now banned as inappropriate inside the newsroom are routinely found inside the pages of the newspaper.

In issuing his dictum, Philipps surely inspired Post staffers to tote firewater to work that last day. I keep a bottle at my office for the same reason—not to drink but to symbolically cast off the petty rules and restrictions that I imagine thwart me from doing my job. If my job is to kick authority in the shins, how can I resist doing the same to the powers that cut me a paycheck twice a month?

The altered culture of the newsroom hits home for me. When I was hired away from Ziff-Davis to help launch the New York Daily News's online edition during a brief and unpleasant stint, I was abruptly told about the paper's urine test requirement only after I'd driven myself and my worldly goods from Boston to the Big Apple and showed up for my first day of work. It was a bit of a shock to me given the rather laissez-faire attitude taken by the employer I'd just left behind. Fortunately, the piss test was enforced with a nudge and a wink.

"I can't take the test tomorrow," I told my new boss.

"Why not," she asked.

"Because I'll test positive. I smoked grass just a few days ago."

"Oh. Well, we'll put it off for a couple of weeks. Be sure to drink lots of cranberry juice."

Maybe the juice did the trick; I passed the test with flying colors.

That the sober-or-bust posturing was mostly for show -- at least, then and there -- was amply demonstrated every time the newspaper suffered one of its semi-regular bomb scares. The building would empty out into two bars across the street until the "all clear" came. Much of the next day's edition was ... umm ... a tad incoherent. It was also a lot more fun to read.

Given the evolving culture, though, I suspect that the Daily News is probably a more sterile place to work now than it was in the mid-1990s. Frankly, it's not just newsrooms that have become crushingly restrictive; most modern workplaces have adopted a whole host of politically correct rules about intoxicant use, speech and conduct that might make some timid souls feel more cozy and protected, but which make the daily grind even more unpleasant than ever before for anybody who doesn't enjoy life in a straitjacket.

Boy, it's nice to be a freelancer.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home