Damn the luck. I still have all of my hair and most of my teeth. I’ve got a pretty nasty smoking habit, but I haven’t developed one of those wracking coughs that double a guy over for five minutes in a fierce fit of phlegm.

I don’t carry a flask everywhere. I don’t routinely pull bits of leftover shrapnel out of my backside. I don’t even have an ulcer or a disgusting habit of hawking and spitting to punctuate a sentence.

What I mean to say is that I don’t believe I qualify as grizzled just yet. Fifteen years in the news business and I stand as a relative rookie in a newsroom where some have been around for 30 years, 40 or 50.

It has been said that in a newsroom, you can be dead six weeks without anyone noticing. Unless you had the good grace to write up your own obituary, brother, nobody’s going to sign that death certificate for you.

It’s too bad, because I always want to spout off like one of the old-timers, launching into long speeches about the old days when reporters had fortitude. They didn’t have computers or phones or even shoes sometimes, but they had grit.

Back in the day (I would say if someone would bless me with the grizzled label) it was nothing to stand outside in subzero temperatures for 24 hours just to make sure you got to the story ahead of the competition. It was nothing to scratch out notes onto your own reddened skin because you ran out of paper and your flesh was so frozen, you didn’t even feel the lead pencil carving into it.

That was when reporters were tough as thumb screws, you know, not like these babies today with their GPSes, their laptops and their health insurance.

*hawk, spit*

Back then, a reporter didn’t just cover a fire, he helped to put it out. He would carry entire families out of flaming apartments on his back before taking a single note. He would chew through locked doors with his teeth, if that’s what it took, because back then, all reporters were carved out of rock in the shape of John Wayne. Or possibly Clint Eastwood.

*cough, hack, wheeze*

A reporter in those glory days would call his stories in over a hand-crank phone. If that didn’t work, he would scale a tall building and simply shout loud enough for the editors across the city to hear him.

Men, is what the reporters of old were! Even the women were men, if they were in the journalism game! They could out-drink you, out-run you, bust your bones in arm wrestling contests.

*long haul from the scarred flask followed by a thoughtful spit*

I bring you these gorgeous images because I have been thinking about the glory days. My own infantile version of them, anyway.

When I got started here in 1994, the first thing I learned was that trouncing the competition was the ultimate aim of the reporter. If you headed back to the newsroom with less than the TV journalist or that weenie from another paper, young cub, you might as well not go back at all. Pack your notebook into your purse and go tell your momma you failed.

We all played nice at the crime scene, the block fire or the shady city meeting. But all reporters from different agencies were gazelles, lions or tigers – animals that don’t care for each other much and who will actively eat one another if given the chance.

We greeted each other by name and even shook hands once in a while. But as we did so, we were sneaking peaks at the other guy’s notebook to see what he might have in there. We were smiling and nodding and asking probing questions to determine what info we could steal from them while protecting our own nuggets of information.

“Not much of a story,” the newspaper guy might say. “Except for that thing.”

“Yes,” the TV guy would respond, combing his hair and slathering on makeup. “That thing is somewhat interesting. Maybe. A little bit.”

“Quite so. Say, where did you get your information on the thing? Not that I care. Because I already have it from a solid source. If we’re talking about the same thing at all, that is.”

And so on. It was always utter delight to have more on a story than the other guy. It was a shameful knee to the groin to have the same story or less.

And I want to come in here, less than grizzled, to tell you that this system of competition has not changed, though a new era of cooperation among media has begun.

When I’m out trolling for information on the latest crime spree, I’ll still be nodding and smiling at the nice lady from the TV station across town while trying to pull a fast one and outpace her. She will smile and nod at me and the same old dance of reporter evasion will begin.

These days, newspapers share stories with their counterparts in other cities. TV news teams have gotten into the mix and it is not uncommon to hear an anchor plugging a story in tomorrow’s local paper in exchange for shared information.

To a reporter who is nearly grizzled, it feels incestuous – like arranged marriages between families who were once bitter enemies. Yet as a business model (I really have no idea what that term means) it has also become practical. Traditional news outfits have to compete with faster and more versatile news sources because of Al Gore’s invention, the Internet.

By sleeping with the enemy, we have strengthened our ability to bring the reader more complete news and in quicker fashion. It doesn’t appear we have sacrificed much in doing so.

I just don’t believe that on the street or in littered back allies where sources spill their gold in the dark, much will change at all. I still want more than the other guy has. I still want my story to be the most expansive and textured available and so I will always try to tease away more information than the next guy and the lady right behind him.

Times have changed, is my overly expounded point, but the instincts for the job have not, and the quest for grizzled status continues.

Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings. Every time a reporter scoops another, he gets a fresh notch scratched into his flask.

You can take the reporter out of the competition, but you can’t take the competition out of the reporter.

I could go on and on, you know, but I really need to spit.

Mark LaFlamme is the Sun Journal crime reporter. You can e-mail exclusive tips to [email protected]


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