The Night the Newsroom Became the News

In Restless Native by Chris Wohlwendleave a COMMENT

The episode that led to the newsroom being set on fire began with a prank and ended with ax-wielding firemen running up the stairs and bursting into the second-floor quarters of The Knoxville Journal.

Involved were several copy editors, the wire editor, the news editor, the political reporter, and, most prominently, the city-hall reporter.

The result included scorched ceiling tiles, half-burned stories that were destined to run in the paper and were now thoroughly drenched by the contents of a fire extinguisher, an empty gallon rubber-cement can, and a half-soaked political reporter. And, after the fire department’s departure, an embarrassed telephone call to the managing editor.

The episode occurred in the late 1960s, an era at the Journal when the staff consisted of grizzled newspaper characters augmented with college kids willing to work cheap. I was one of the latter.

The veterans included city-hall reporter Ron McMahan, notorious for keeping a desk overrun with newspapers, clippings, wadded carbon paper, Blue Circle bags and shriveled fries left from weeks-old meals, an ashtray full of cigarette butts, and other unidentifiable bits of detritus.

McMahan’s office domain was next to the horseshoe-shaped copy desk, the hub of the newsroom, which was peopled primarily by the aforementioned grizzled veterans. Coffee fueled most of the staff, and on any given night, at least two of the copy editors would augment the caffeine with beverages containing alcohol.

The news editor sat in the slot of the copy desk, with six editors seated around the outside edge. The wire editor, Bob Adams, occupied the seat at the end closest to the room where the Associated Press machines clattered out the latest world developments.

The copy editors and some of the reporters periodically admonished McMahan to clean up his desk, pointing out that the cockroaches housed in the empty hamburger bags were widening their food-search circles to include the neighboring work stations.

Most of the time McMahan ignored his neighbors’ comments, but a couple of times a year the mess would become unbearable even to him. He would then delegate a copy clerk to clean up his desk. “Throw away everything except the clippings,” he would say.

The fire episode followed one such tidy-up. As McMahan beamed at his newly cleaned desk, he compared it to the mess of the copy desk, covered with stories and ripped-up newspaper pages and pica poles and glue pots.

Then he went to dinner. And the copy editors went to work.

Within minutes, McMahan’s desk was trashed: wadded up newspaper pages, carbon paper, rubber cement puddles decorated with shavings from pencil sharpeners and the contents of ash trays. The copy clerk who had cleaned the desk tried to stop the desecration, but finally fled to the Blue Circle up the street, wisely deciding to take a dinner hour of his own.

When McMahan returned he took one look at his desk and walked back to the storage closet, returning with a one-gallon can of rubber cement. He uncapped the can, climbed on top of the copy desk and walked around it pouring rubber cement over everything, including wire photos and stories destined for the upcoming Four Star edition.

Just as McMahan jumped down, Adams emerged from the wire room and saw the glint of the rubber cement on the desk in front of his chair. And someone said, “Whatever you do, Bob, don’t strike a match.”

Naturally, that’s what he did.

The glue went all around the horseshoe and, in an instant, so did the flames.

As everyone jumped back, one reporter had the presence to phone the fire department and another grabbed the fire extinguisher from the wall and started working on the flames. Political reporter Ralph Griffith, seeing humor in the situation, began laughing in his annoying high-pitched cackle. He, too, was hosed with the extinguisher.

By the time the firemen arrived, the flames were out and the copy desk crew was trying to salvage what they could of the Four Star stories and photos.

And the slot man, news editor Byron Drinnon, was busy on the phone with managing editor Steve Humphrey. He had the difficult task of explaining to Humphrey why his hand-delivered copy of the Four Star was going to be late.

Chris Wohlwend's Restless Native addresses the characters and absurdities of Knoxville, as well as the lessons learned pursuing the newspaper trade during the tumult that was the 1960s. He spent 35 years working for newspapers and magazines in Miami, Charlotte, Louisville, Dallas, Kansas City, and Atlanta. As an editor, he was involved in winning several national awards. He returned to Knoxville in the late 1990s and now teaches journalism part-time at the University of Tennessee. His freelance pieces have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and numerous other publications.

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