After college, I (Ben) was certain my first job would be at a newspaper. My conception of a journalist was perhaps still a bit romantic, but I had logged enough time at my college newspaper (not to mention a painfully dull summer internship at my hometown newspaper) to know something of the minutiae and tedium that comprised putting together the news each day. I had sat through council and department meetings; covered car shows; interviewed Penn State football players (third- and fourth-string grads of local high schools who would never see the playing field in their careers); fielded reader complaints, both formal (letters to the editor, phone calls) and informal (e-mail threats, snide remarks in the college cafeteria); written platitudinous editorials; suffered through excruciatingly dull post-mortems; and spent countless sleepless nights editing and revising, cutting and pasting, bitching and yawning and laughing and dart-throwing.
I genuinely loved most, if not all, of it. Newsprint was in my blood. And the only thing I could picture myself doing straight out of college was continuing on this path.
My first and only newspaper interview was with the Tribune-Democrat in Johnstown, PA. It was on a day off from summer camp. We got one day off per term (two weeks), and these were savored for tasks both mundane (laundry, phone calls to friends and family, etc.) and indulgent (junk food, a movie, etc.). While the other counselors took off for Somerset or Greensburg, talking excitedly of frisbee and shopping and Olive Garden, I put on my coat and tie and drove to Johnstown for my future.
When I arrived, I was given a desk in the back of the newsroom and told I had one hour to write a story about policy changes on the local school board. The story might appear in tomorrow’s paper. I had a computer and the Yellow Pages. After an hour, I’d sit down for an interview with the managing editor, who would critique my story.
I spent the first fifteen minutes trying desperately to acclimate myself to the newsroom. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel welcome or at home there. Some of the staffers introduced themselves and asked if I needed coffee. It was that this was 180 degrees from camp. I had gone from a pleasingly rustic outdoor existence, surrounded by almost psychotically happy co-workers, to this drab, carpet-stained, fluorescent pressure cooker in which I suddenly had to produce evidence that I was capable of journalism.
I picked up the phone. I got some quotes, reviewed the school board file and whipped something together. I had a copy of a meager but I hoped sufficient 500 word story when I walked into the editor’s office.
He was a large man with a hacking cough. I suspected he was intensely disliked by his staff. He reviewed my resume and clips first. “Been a while since your internship,” he said. “Yes, I’ve spent the last few summers at camp,” I told him. “That’s not good,” he said. “No,” I replied, half question and half agreement.
He glanced at my clips and then picked up the story. “What’s this?” he asked. He circled something in red pen and handed it to me. It was the name of a local school board member. I had talked with her on the phone for ten minutes, but it wasn’t until I hung up that I realized I had forgotten to verify the spelling of her last name. Instead of calling her back, I simply put (sp?) next to her name in the article. This wasn’t for real, anyway — no way they were going to put this in the paper tomorrow. And surely an editor would know if that was the correct spelling or not.
“That’s sloppy,” he said. I realized immediately that of course it was sloppy. I was still having a hard time convincing myself this was real.
“Ben,” the editor said, putting my story down in a way that I knew meant I would never get this job, “a journalist can never be sloppy. Do you know how I got my start in reporting?” He proceeded to recall at length his start in journalism, a pull-from-the-bootstraps tale of long odds and countless obstacles. I wondered how many times he had told this story before. “I’ve been editor here for five years now. Do you think I got here” — he spread his arms to signify his office, or the newsroom, or maybe the world — “by being sloppy? And do you think I hire writers who are?”
I understood that he didn’t require an answer. He rambled on about something else for a while. I thought for sure he must have more important things to do, but he seemed very content telling me more stories. Finally he dismissed me, saying I’d hear from them.
I sat in a park outside the newspaper building afterwards, flipping through a copy of the paper I had taken with me. He had written a column in it. I read it and was astounded at its badness. It was trite, cliched, simple-minded. This confused me even more. The man I had just spoken with was, pompousness aside, a shrewd, experienced, capable editor. I saw no evidence of that man on paper. I never got a call back.
Tom Rachman’s comic, bittersweet novel The Imperfectionists is set at an English language newspaper in Rome. Each chapter focusses on one of the newspaper’s main characters. They read like short stories, anchored at the paper but outward-looking, toward love, death, family and infidelity. Between chapters are brief interludes about the paper’s history — when and how it started, and its succession of ownership down through generations of the wealthy Ott family.
If you love journalists and newspapers, as I do, you will find much to love in this book, with its rich detail and closely observed tics of the creatures who inhabit a modern newsroom. And if you hate journalists and newspapers, you will also find much to love in this book; Rachman’s generosity toward his characters does not extend so far as to let them off the hook for being, frequently, unattractive and miserable people. Rachman gets at the curious distance between someone’s byline and his actual person — the thing I couldn’t reconcile about the Tribune-Democrat editor.
Three characters in the book stand out. The first, Arthur Gopal, is the obituary writer. He hates his job and regularly skips out for walks around Rome with his eight-year-old daughter, Pickle. The editor-in-chief wants preparedness — meaning, a pre-obituary — on an Austrian feminist and old acquaintance. Arthur is dispatched to Geneva. As he is interviewing his subject, going back and forth about life and death (she is savvy enough to know what Arthur is there for), he receives a phone call with tragic news that spins his life and career in an unforeseen trajectory.
Cairo stringer Winston Cheung is fresh out of grad school (for primatology, not journalism) and woefully out of his depths trying to establish a regular beat, not least because he can’t speak Arabic. “Every day in Cairo, news events take place,” Winston thinks. “But where? At what time? … He wanders around his neighborhood, Zamalek, vaguely hoping a bomb might explode — not too close, of course, but within safe note-taking distance.” A fellow stringer named Rich Snyder blows into town like a force of nature, exuding a mammoth self-esteem disproportionate to his apparent skills, moving in with Winston before making off with his laptop. Snyder is a supreme blowhard, but Winston can’t shake him, and some part of him envies Snyder’s bluster, his ability to do a job that still eludes the aspiring greenhorn.
Ornella de Monterrecchi is the only character in the book not directly affiliated with the paper. She is introduced only as “reader.” A relative shut-in, Ornella reads the paper as if it were a novel, starting at the beginning and omitting nothing. Because of this she is still on the April 23, 1994, edition, even though it is present day 2007. Her maid fetches the next day’s paper from the archive in her overhead storage space. But Ornella doesn’t want to read the April 24, 1994, edition — a date of great sadness for her. The chapter ends with all of her papers splayed out on the floor of her apartment, a sea of history Ornella sits in the middle of and is only now ready to confront.
Love — its failures and its limits — permeates all the stories, and the backstory of the paper’s history builds upon this theme. There is also a prevailing sense of decline; these characters are an endangered species in an era of shrinking profits and online journalism. Rachman instills them with honor even though they are on the verge of becoming extinct. They have each put their life into the paper. What will happen when it’s gone? “This room once contained all the world,” Rachman writes of a deserted newsroom. But what happens to newspapers once the world has moved on?
The Imperfectionists was the subject of today’s Readers’ Review on “The Diane Rehm Show.” More here.