'Take your pick' of stories, P-S had them Twenty-five years after the last edition of the Memphis Press-Scimitar rolled off the presses, one of its reporters looks back on an era now gone
By Jill Johnson Piper. Special to The Commercial Appeal. Memphis Commercial Appeal. Posted October 31, 2008 at 12:10 a.m. ,. updated October 30, 2008 at 6:58 p.m.
When the last edition of the Memphis Press-Scimitar rolled on Oct. 31, 1983, it silenced a unique voice that for decades had spoken its truth to generations of readers.
In the 25 years since the Press-Scimitar's absence, other journalistic voices have piped up, but none has replaced the afternoon paper.
Memphians tended to think of the Press-Scimitar as the "working man's" paper, arriving as it did at the end of the workday. The Commercial Appeal, the "paper of record," brought the major headlines first thing in the morning.
For most of the 20th century, healthy competition between morning and evening papers made for lively news wars in dozens of U.S. cities. What was unusual about the Memphis situation was that the same company, Scripps-Howard, owned both products.
At 495 Union, the home of both papers, the Press-Scimitar occupied the fifth floor and The CA had the third.
Reporters on both floors fought each other daily for the same information about city government, cops, society and sports. It was not unusual to board the same elevator with your professional enemy and have lunch with him later in the day.
I arrived at the Press-Scimitar for the last two years of its life, and the staff members embraced me as one of their own. I was just out of college, 22 years old, and didn't know the difference between a term paper and a news story.
With coaching both rough and tender, the fifth-floor veterans turned me into a decent producer. Within a year they assigned me the "people" column.
While each department had its own mission and deadline, the paramount goal for every single day was to beat The CA. Get there first, find a fresh angle, secure a juicier quote or take a picture they didn't have, just show them they didn't have a clear field.
At least that's what we thought we were doing. But dark forces -- the ones that would bring us CNN, MSNBC and Fox -- were working against us. In city after city, the arrival of 24-hour news brought death to the afternoon papers.
The Press-Scimitar's circulation was once about 140,000. Even after a costly redesign in 1982, it was a struggle to hold on to half that number.
The Press-Scimitar outlasted Boss Crump, the Great Depression, World War II and the civil rights battles.
But in the end, declining circulation and the cable news culture dealt it a fatal one-two punch.
An announcement in mid-September made it official: The last paper would be published on Oct. 31, 1983.
If you remember the last episode of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" when WJM-TV gets sold and everybody is fired, you have some of the flavor (and the fashion) of what it was like on the fifth floor at 495 Union.
In one day, nearly a hundred of us lost our income, our identity and our family. Some of those men and women had spent 30 or 40 years there. Our collective heartbreak got bigger throughout the day, despite reams of champagne, unprintable stories and promises to stay in touch.
No one wanted to be the last one out the door. By mid-afternoon, the newsroom already felt haunted. Men from maintenance started breaking down desks and unplugging computers. In little groups of two and three we drifted off to grieve and get drunk.
I suppose no one thought to change it for the last edition, but the circulation box on Page A2 ran with a price list and instructions on how to begin home delivery.
Although the last weeks were sad, you don't put out thousands of editions and not leave behind some stories. And there are far too many to tell in this space. But a couple stand out.
In newsroom parlance, every story has a "slug," a holdover from the days when type was set in hot lead. The slug is usually one word identifying the story.
One day, a story about the Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division was brewing. Slugged GAS, it was a late-breaking story editors were holding a space for in the final edition.
As the deadline grew closer, the reporter knocked it out just under the wire. An editor grabbed it and ran it over to the copy desk yelling, "I've got GAS!"
But no story more typifies the Press-Scimitar experience than this one. The late Charlie Roper included it in a string of newsroom howlers that ran in the final edition:
Bob Johnson, who wrote the "Good Evening" column, had a glowering face that masked the fact that he was a kind, gentle and wise man.
One day someone went berserk in the composing room, which was on the fourth floor of the Press-Scimitar's old building, and began destroying machinery.
The police were called.
They got their signals crossed and came rushing out of the elevator into the fifth-floor newsroom. The first person they spotted was Johnson, writing his column.
"We understand you have a crazy man up here," a policeman said to Bob.
Bob wearily waved his arm in a gesture that encompassed everyone in the newsroom and said:
"Take your pick."
Jill Johnson Piper, a writing coach for Shelby County Schools, is a former columnist for The Commercial Appeal.
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