November 16, 2008


I'm looking forward to this upcoming week. Mostly because it won't be last week.

As many have no doubt heard, we cut a few more rowers from battleship last week. To understate things wildly, it has not been a good year. Hell, it's been a crap decade so far in Newspaperland. That it's happening at our competition as well as nationwide provides no solace. That it is happening almost nowhere else outside the U.S. only amplifies the frustration. Something clearly is broken and no one has yet found the Shamwow that will magically absorb all our woes.

You can moan and wail and lick your palms about the future of journalism and what it means when a growing percentage of the public rejects a once-beloved form of communication. Blah, blah, blah. Things change. Change is good. This change needed to happen long ago. It didn't have to be this bloody, but I'm optimistic that whatever lies ahead will work just fine. If it doesn't, so be it.

That being said, to me the real loss associated with this change is calculated in human capital. On that account, we're operating this year most definitely in a deficit.

There's no way to replace someone like Mitch, who in addition to his excellent editing skills could, at the least provocation, be enticed to whinny if you sang the opening chorus to "Crazy Horses" by The Osmonds. We chased him off months ago.

You won't find another heart like Karen's. She loved what she did, loved words, loved the undiscovered treasure of human behavior that was out there to be found.

Al checked out quite a while back when the writing was clear that the future was bleak and that life was too short to do something you didn't love as much as your hobby. They don't teach you in J-school how to find stories that only exist in conversation. Al can pull a lock of someone's personality from a quick chat, boil their essence and give you a story that is not only unique but unlikely to be told unless that conversation occurs. He's telling bike stories now.

And it's probably not a good use of your time to look for someone like Kurt. The orchestra/wine/science/food critic hybrid journalist isn't something you can buy off the shelf. Paying that to go away should be the only sign you need that things are amiss in my industry.

Perhaps my biggest heartbreak of the year so far - the year is young, after all - is the loss of Phil. Longtime readers of the Salad Bowl know him more properly as My Muse.

As I wrote more than four years ago:

St. Philip of Parker Street, patron saint of hypochondriacsI'm not sure when the notion struck me. But it most certainly has.

I have found my muse.

There are people who cross your path and fuel your imagination and creativity. They propel you to conjure up bigger and better ideas. They are the ignition that trigger powerful concepts, grand plans and designs of immense proportions.

I do believe that Phil, a friend and colleague at work, is that kind of person.

It might have something to do with his kind nature. Or his bad jokes. Or his penchant for doing a German accent off the cuff at 4:30 in the afternoon.

I don't know what it is, but Phil is quickly becoming my Larry "Bud" Melman, an everyman whom I can throw into situations to see how purely he functions and reacts.

I can tell you that everything Phil does is comedy gold. Sometimes on purpose and sometimes not.

As I've said before, pretty much everyone working at a newspaper is unsuitable for human consumption in any other professional capacity. We are an island of misfit toys. As such, we tend to spend the day trying to make each other laugh. Stunning a colleague with unsavory or astounding bits of news fact that we cannot wait to unleash upon the reading public is like a trophy moose we can't wait to drag back to the cave. We are simultaneously juvenile and professional, stupid and serious, pure and jaded. It is the only life I really care to be paid to experience.

Phil's one of those people newsrooms used to have in abundance. He's the veteran ballclubs keep on the team to season the rookies. Phil became special to me because I could ask him to pose in any number of ridiculous outfits or scenerios. Invariably he would agree and do so enthusiastically.

Phil sombrero

Dark Helmet

Princess Phil

In the 1980s and 1990s as the Ivy League virus infected our profession and pedigree and education began to matter more than work ethic and life experience, there became fewer Phils to count among our ranks.

And, as such, our newsrooms began to have fewer moments like this:

My Muse came over the other day. He has somewhat of a morbid sense of humor. He likes to cruise the obituary pages for interesting glimpses at human behavior and relationships.

He was the one who noted a gentleman last year who was included with his nickname: "Tater Bug." He also pointed out this woman's unfortunate name. The Muse's comment at the time was, "Not surprisingly, her husband Ruben was the only one of her many male suitors who could actually find her."

The most original thing worth reading in the Tribune was Phil's latest incarnation as the author of "Hypochondriac's Corner" in 4You Magazine. A hypochondriac of the nth-degree in real life, Phil could be lured into a sure conversation by asking about his prostate. After which he'd joke that bragging about its size was what lured women to be with him in an intimate manner.

I particularly loved the lede of this column:

It was when the dentist was banging away with a professional version of hammer and chisel that I questioned the wisdom of having my wisdom tooth extracted. And maybe it wasn't smart to go to a discount dental clinic.

The dentist was having a terrible time. He seemed to panic in the middle of the procedure, muttering that he'd never encountered such a difficult problem. He brought in a colleague to help.

By the time they got the tooth out, I had lost too much blood. They summoned my wife back to the room, where paramedics were giving Lazarus a transfusion.

But, hey, don't let that discourage you from getting your wisdom teeth out.

I told Phil that I thought the column's concept was sheer brilliance in newswriting. So much so, it inspired me to want to create a bulimic restaurant review column called "Worth Keeping Down." He seemed to enjoy that possibility.

Phil as Dr. HockeyAnother story: A few years ago. the Tampa Bay Lightning were about to start playing in the Stanley Cup Finals. I was tasked with Rommie to write a primer for non-hockey fans about the basics of the game. It's the kind of thing newspapers do when they simultaneously want to insult people for not following the team and pretend to cater to those who have followed all season (under the innacurate presumption that we're providing timely, relevant content, of course.)

I had such confidence in Phil's possibilities as a male model that I cast him as the fictional "Dr. Hockey" in the story we did about the rules and techniques. To me, he had the same qualities exhibited by doctors in 1950s cigarette ads: authoritarian air, legitimacy, unquestioned honesty.

He was so convincing that a TV station wanted to use him to help answer viewer questions. We were unable to comply. Phil's never watched a hockey game in his life. But on this day and in these photos, he was the epitome of everything good and real about hockey.

I was by far not the only person to hold Phil in great esteem in our newsroom. No less than the personage of Steve Otto wrote this about Phil and laid-off columnist Dan Ruth in today's Tribune:

Phil Morgan is a treasure. A full-blown hypochondriac, convinced that the world is coming to an end, he has that common touch with people and events that no journalism school can teach.

I would catch him, with notepad, on his way out of the building and he inevitably said, with possibly a touch of sarcasm, he was rushing to a late-breaking feature story.

It didn't matter what the subject, when you saw his byline you knew you were going on a trip into someone's world and it would be worth coming along. It could be as mundane as going to amateur acting class, working in an ice cream parlor or going to a high school reunion.

Phil would take you there and throw in an unexpected twist or two. It could easily be a description of a lonely life in an assisted-living center that would tear at you as you read his insightful details.

These are difficult times for everyone and we'll move on down here at the Type and Gripe factory, but it was truly an awful week and those are only two of the voices that all of us will miss and be the lesser for not reading.

Posted by Jeff at November 16, 2008 04:28 PM | TrackBack
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