We continue today with the story behind the story on the sixth piece of short fiction from my upcoming collection, Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure. To read previous installments, go here.
THE PAPER WEIGHT
Backstory: Like Alyssa Alights, this was salvaged from a novel that didn’t make it to the finish line. For a long time, I’ve wanted to write a good blast-off on the challenging times newspapers and newspaper journalists now face. When I started my career more than 20 years ago, I knew what I was getting into, having had a stepfather who was a longtime reporter. But it also seemed, at the time, like a rock-solid profession, full of job security and interesting assignments. Well, the latter still exists, but the former is gone, probably forever.
The obstacle between wanting to write such a story and actually doing it lay in my being entirely too close to the subject matter, a condition that dogged this story when it was part of a novel-in-progress and threatened to derail it even as a short story. It was only when I conjured an absurd approach to the main character, Kevin Gilchrist, and played it out to its illogically logical end that I found my way through the thing. As it turns out, this has ended up being one of my favorite stories in the collection.
Here’s an excerpt:
These facts about The Diploma caused Gilchrist to despise him on several levels.
First, he had only four years of honest-to-goodness, in-a-real-newsroom experience. And in those four years, he had kissed enough of the right asses to be running the whole shooting match at the Herald-Gleaner, which, back in the days when people actually read newspapers, had been a pretty damned good one.
Second, the guy went to Kansas and Missouri, for Christ’s sake. If one were to equate collegiate sports with politics, it would be a little like defining oneself as an abortion-rights Republican from Alabama. (Gilchrist had begun to suspect that The Diploma didn’t care much for sports. On the odd occasions when he would join a newsroom bull session, uniformly uncomfortable moments for everyone, The Diploma would put on a serpentine smile and slink away when talk turned to whatever game was in season.)
Third, The Diploma had a master’s degree in journalism, which Gilchrist figured to be about as useful as a screen door on a battleship. Journalism—real journalism, the kind practiced by Gilchrist and those who had come before him at the Herald-Gleaner—didn’t happen in a laboratory. It wasn’t theoretical. It was real. It happened outside the glass walls, on the street, among people whose stories demanded to be told and among people who, as a matter of course, would lie, equivocate, prevaricate and falsify to keep somebody like Gilchrist from discovering the truth. The Diploma came out of Missouri with big ideas about databases and web hits and social media, none of which meant a damned thing to Gilchrist.
(Copyright © 2012 Craig Lancaster)
Trivia: This is important. None of the characters in this story has a direct relationship to someone I know in real life. They are all amalgamations of various people I’ve known in a 20-plus year career in newspaper journalism. You will never find a more irascible, maddening, insanely brilliant group of people anywhere, except maybe at a fiction writers’ convention.
Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure will be officially released on Dec. 6, 2011.
(If you’re Facebook friends with me, you no doubt heard entirely too much of both things.)
But Sunday night wasn’t spent on my couch, with a plate of pizza and a bottomless mug of beer. You see, Sunday nights lie smack dab in the middle of my work week, when I’m doing the job that (a) takes 40 hours of my week and (b) pays the bills and (c) I’ve been doing for more than 20 years now, in one way or another.
I’m a copy editor and page designer at the Billings (Mont.) Gazette, and like many daily newspapers, on Sundays we go with a smaller crew of newsroom workers. On Sunday nights, I edit and design the front page of the newspaper and the front of the sports section. This particular Sunday threw an interesting curve into everything: It brought the biggest game in the history of a team I’ve rooted for since I was 10 years old. I’ve been a sports journalist for much of my career, and thus I’ve conditioned myself to be more placid observer than rabid partisan when it comes to the nexus of sports and work. But Sunday night was terra nova for me, and I’ll be honest: In an environment that didn’t include the press box — where it’s never OK to cheer — I allowed myself to bask in the joy of the Mavs’ close-out game.
I caught a break on the front page. I’d designed the centerpiece (on the rising number of skin cancer cases among young people) the night before, leaving two smaller stories to choose, edit and place, along with the various add-ons (top-of-the-page promos, the index, etc.). You can see the results at the top of this post. I also edited the designed the two smaller stories on the sports cover.
At game time, I was far enough along to slip over to the TV and keep a close eye on things for a while.
Once halftime rolled around, I started harvesting NBA photos from the wire service with a mind to how I might approach the early edition, depending on how things shook out. I had already researched and compiled two charts — one on the three road teams that have won Game 7s in the NBA finals, which I’d have used in the case of a Heat victory, and one on the current franchises with NBA titles, a group Dallas would be joining with a win. For our first edition, the end of the game was going to be a tight squeeze, so I basically went simple: one big photo, one story, the applicable chart.
I’ve posted here the page as it evolved for our final edition. I put a horizontal crop on a vertical photo to capture a nice moment between Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry, the two holdovers from the 2006 Mavericks team that flopped in the NBA finals. The NBA champions chart splits the two stories — one on the Mavericks’ win, the other on the residue of the Heat’s loss.
I’m pretty happy with how everything turned out. It was a fun night to be a journalist and a Mavericks fan.
Even minus the beer.