Cover Story: When Nouns and Verbs Were Enough

Remembering good old days at The Post when editors and straightforward writing ruled

Gordon Baer

The Post linotype operator John Eckstein with a gaggle of summer interns, 1967.

Click here for The Post's full operations timeline. When I was at The Post all through the 1960s, we were playing out the closing act of an era we associate now only with the likes of Citizen Kane and Clark Kent. We just didn't hear the curtain falling.

By the time I left in 1970, new technologies were taking hold and The Post's big circulation lead was about to fade.

The summit from which it fell was achieved by a vanishing breed of old-fashioned newspapermen like Dick Thornburgh, Bob Linn, Leo Hirtl and Woody Sudhoff. I still miss them terribly, and I miss the era we embodied.

The old Post editorial department at 800 Broadway was wide open and noisy. No cubicles. No air conditioning to temper the Cincinnati summer. No carpeting to soften the clatter of teletypes.

The drab, grey desks were aligned like recruits on parade. I remember days on rewrite, banging away at an ancient Smith-Corona and taking dictation on the clunky telephone headset from Leo Baron at the Courthouse or Charlie Rentrop at City Hall.

Reporters didn't have "style" in those days, they had discipline. Even now, at 73, I have this frightful dream in which Ed Halloran, the gruff assistant city editor, flips back my copy and icily suggests deleting the adjectives.

The Post was a literary boot camp that demanded respect for the basics: nouns and verbs, declarative mood, active voice, past tense. Under constant threat of public humiliation, I learned to avoid words like "might" and "could" and "may."

I still try to limit sentences to 20 words and regard unnamed sources and the subjunctive mood as suspect, good only for making a hypothesis seem like a fact.

Our brand of newspapering demanded speed, too. As an afternoon paper, we didn't enjoy our morning rival's leisurely evening deadlines. Mid-day gas explosion in Westwood? No time to send reporters. We covered it by phone, calling folks along Montana Avenue to ask what was happening.

There were a few specialists, but everyone was a newsman first. When something big broke — an airliner crash, say — there was no one an editor hesitated to send.

I say "newsman" advisedly. Even the women had balls.

On my very first day at The Post, TV critic Mary Wood roared into the office to smash out her column and discovered that a copy boy had failed to refill her paste-pot. I had no idea who she was, but the way she bellowed "Boyyyyy!!" made me tremble.

It was weeks before I had the courage to introduce myself — and then only because she strode up to my desk, thumped me on the shoulder and demanded to know who I was.

Back then, pols and publicists were welcome in the newsroom, especially at Christmas when they delivered fifths of whiskey to favored reporters and (mostly) editors. We got along with cops, too, and they routinely winked at our overtime-meter violations (unless we ran something that pissed them off, in which case they'd vengefully tag every mis-parked car within two blocks of our building).

We respected the tribal elders, like Al Segal, who'd started at The Post in 1906 and was venerated as the reformer who'd felled the corrupt "Boss Cox" machine. He'd become more a beloved old retainer by my day, but no one dared suggest retirement.

Al still cranked out an occasional "Cincinnatus" column, defending the unjustly jailed, railing at modern traffic and proudly adding that he never exceeded 25 mph, even on the new expressway. He habitually tapped out his pipe into his overflowing wastebasket and about once a month started a fire. He'd shuffle across the newsroom to the water fountain with his coffee mug and shuffle back to dump it on the flames.

Tom Swope had started at the paper before the Black Sox scandal of 1919, and when he died we found his handwritten scorecards of every game the Reds had played in his career. No wonder the National League regarded his records as more reliable than its own.

We triple-spaced our typed copy just two or three paragraphs per page to leave space for edits on the copy desk. Copy editors were the wise, experienced old hands — a staunch last line of defense against error. Papers today hire copy editors straight from J-school and can only hope they're wise enough not to ask questions like, "How old is the other twin?"

By the time I left in 1970, digital technology was creeping in. We'd begun using computers to set stock tables and optical scanners to read some of our copy. The revolution would be swift. By 1975 we had word processors at The Enquirer.

The men and machines of the old order were gone. I still miss them both.

And I still wonder if Charlie Rentrop ever knew we called him "Raindrop." God only knows what they called me when I wasn't around anymore.


GRAYDON DECAMP was a reporter, columnist and city editor at The Post from 1960 to 1970. He then served as politics editor, night city editor and magazine editor at The Enquirer until 1981.

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