I was summoned to the office Tuesday for a meeting with the editor. For those who find this sort of thing alarming or disrespectful, the message arrived by email.
Here it is (heavily paraphrased): “Some rebuilding of the paper is necessary. Be in my office at 1 p.m. Bring a helmet.”
I’m not a meeting guy. Whether it’s a rock concert, church, a lynch mob or even air travel, I can’t wait for the gathering to be over before it even starts.
Meetings — especially those of the religious or business type — are the least productive form of human gatherings outside of a witch burning. Essentially, they serve to remind us of what a miserable job we’re doing in keeping up with the program.
“We can all be more productive if we want to stay employed.”
“Be more faithful unless you want to go to hell.”
Mercifully, this particular meeting turned out to be the best kind. I say this because it was short, to the point, required almost no input from me, and there was pie.
The idea was to come up with a way to determine how and what we would cover at a resource-depleted newspaper.
There were the usual suspects — “crime, government, environment, church, education, lifestyle, crossword puzzle, etc.”
As the only nonjournalist in the room — meaning that I never went to school to learn how to be one — I didn’t have anything to offer. What would our readers want us to cover?
Most of my experience with what readers want comes from old newspapers. I just finished reading every available copy of The Salt Lake Tribune from 1895 to 1925. Took me nearly 10 years of wasting free time, but I did it. Riveting stuff.
When the discussion got around to my side of the table, I was ready with some valuable insight into what we should report and write.
Editor • “Kirby, you’re a special case. None of this really applies …”
Me • “People getting run over by trains.”
I am not kidding. In addition to The Tribune, I’ve perused The Salt Lake Herald, Deseret News, Salt Lake Telegram and various incarnations of Ogden’s Standard-Examiner.
Back then, it was impossible to go a week without one or two people forgetting how to get out of the way of a train. If they weren’t getting hit by a train, they were falling off one, being thrown from one or getting struck by objects that a train passed close to.
Streetcars were no exception. During the aforementioned time, the two most common ways of getting mostly or all the way killed by a streetcar were getting on and off.
While getting on, people frequently lost their balance and fell under the streetcar wheels, which cut off parts of their bodies sufficient to cause their deaths.
When alighting from a moving streetcar, riders often failed to notice their surroundings, stepping off only to get whacked by a telephone pole, a passing car or even a large and completely stationary building.
But it was the rapt infatuation with which the reporting was done that I noticed. Take this excerpt from The Tribune, Feb. 14, 1901, when an unidentified man was hit by a train just south of Kaysville and distributed liberally for 15 miles, until the train reached Salt Lake City.
The story is rather long and identifies by names the people who found fingers, feet, innards, ribs or other parts of the victim.
My idea of reintroducing “trains vs. people and animals” as a way of attracting readers was instantly dismissed with, “Kirby! No!”
I can’t tell whether I’m too far ahead of my time as a writer or too far behind it. But it may be a while before I’m invited to another planning meeting. Oh well, more pie for others.