Appropriately enough, the headline on Friday’s final issue of Ruston’s Morning Paper was simply “-30-.” It is the universally recognized (for those of us who’ve been around newsrooms for a few years) indication of the end of a news story.
The indication was tacked on at the end of a story in part because in the old days, reporters pounded out their stories on manual typewriters and the copy generally ran more than a single page. Thus, at the bottom of the first page, the reporter would type “more,” and at the top of ensuing pages he or she would type “add one” to indicate the second page, “add two” for the third page, etc. To let the copy editor know when he’d reached the end, the reporter would type the number 30.
Certainly, the newspaper industry is in decline, thanks in large part to the proliferation of online news services. Not only have circulation numbers plummeted, but so have ad revenue and the actual size of newspapers—both in terms of page size and page numbers.
For those of us who grew up in newsrooms, who learned at the feet of demanding editors like Tom Kelly (Ruston Daily Leader), Jimmy Hatten (Monroe Morning World, now the News Star), and Jim Hughes (the now defunct Baton Rouge State-Times, an afternoon paper that gave way to its sister publication, The Advocate several years ago), editors for whom I was privileged to work, it has been a painful process to witness. Nothing is more traumatic, career-wise, than watching a once-vibrant, influential voice of the people silenced forever.
The State-Times was actually the senior paper in Baton Rouge but like afternoon newspapers everywhere, it began to feel the pinch even before the dominance of online news radically altered subscribers’ reading habits. Despite its longtime status as the official legal journal for the State of Louisiana, it closed shop in 1991.
Hughes earlier had been elevated from managing editor of the State-Times to executive editor of both papers, so he stayed on until his retirement. When necessary, he could bore holes in you with those eyes. I still suspect he was the real inspiration for the Loggins and Messina hit Angry Eyes. No one could reduce a reporter to a quivering mass more quickly than Hughes. No one came away unscathed from a private woodshed session with him.
Once, when I was investigating a church-affiliated school for girls in Bienville Parish, the school’s superintendent/principal/minister/father figure and his attorney appeared at the State-Times office to meet with Hughes and me. Near the end of that meeting, the superintendent/principal/minister launched into fervent—and loud—prayer. Hughes glanced over at me and mouthed, “I’ll get you for this.”
He was not one to be found in church on Sunday. In fact, at his funeral, the minister opened the service by telling those in attendance, “Jim Hughes once told me he never met a preacher who was worth a damn. So I stand before you today under a lot of pressure to be worth a damn.” It was, to say the least, an interesting service.
Hatten was a tough old boot, as well, but he was also a man who appreciated a good practical joke—even when he was the victim. He had an ancient manual typewriter at his desk, a Royal with blank keys that he had must’ve salvaged as surplus property from a high school typing class. Hatten was not a touch-typist; he never bothered to learn the location of the keys. He was a two-fingered, hunt-and-peck typist who found it necessary to place stick-on letters on each of the keys in order to see what he was typing.
As wire editor, I worked the desk next to him. One evening, while he was at dinner, I peeled all the labels off his typewriter keys and switched them around. When he returned from dinner, he took dictation over the phone on a rather long story from one of the paper’s correspondents (they were called stringers in those days).
He had a box of yellow folded teletype paper beneath his desk which fed paper in a continuous roll into his typewriter. He never took his eyes from the keyboard to check his copy until he had finished taking the story and ripped it from his typewriter. A string of invectives soon flowed in my direction when he saw the gibberish he had typed. He knew the perpetrator without asking. It ended in his throwing the copy at me and telling me to call the stringer back and take the damned story myself. He was laughing the entire time, however, which betrayed his attempt at anger.
I worked at the Daily Leader four separate times, starting out as sports editor, then as general assignment reporter, city editor and ending as managing editor. While sports editor, I decided to return to Louisiana Tech and major in physical education with aspirations of becoming a baseball coach. In fact, I was a constant source of consternation to Tom Kelly because I was as devoted to my sandlot baseball team at that time as I was to my job. In spite of that lack of dedication, I learned a lot from Kelly about community journalism.
Wiley Hilburn, who had recently come to Tech as head of the journalism department, read my stories and convinced me my future was as a reporter, not a coach. Reluctantly, I took his advice and changed my major to journalism where I spent the next quarter-century. I once told Hilburn, facetiously, of course, that I hoped someday to find it in my heart to forgive him.
I recently returned to writing following my retirement from the State of Louisiana.
Somewhere in all of that, beginning 37 years ago in April of 1976, a Ruston native who spent most of his adult life to that point in San Antonio before moving to Ruston, got himself an IBM Selectric typewriter and he and his wife set up shop in their living room to launch the weekly Morning Paper to compete with the Daily Leader, which John Hays was convinced had become too much a part of the local power structure.
The establishment laughed at him when the first issue of his crude publication rolled off the presses but John and Susan Hays persevered.
Before it was all over, Hays had broken stories on three separate investment scams. The first was a $5.5 million swindle sweeping through north Louisiana that became known as the Pine Tree Caper. Another was the $55 million ALIC rip-off and the third was a story on Towers Financial, then the largest ($550 million) Ponzi scheme in history. The upshot of his investigative journalism was people went to jail; Forbes magazine did a story on the Morning Paper’s investigative work on the Pine Tree Caper; The Atlanta Journal & Constitution likewise gave Hays a lot of ink on the ALIC exposé and the New York Times gave him a two-page spread on the Towers Financial story. He also received a Loeb Award for the Towers stories. Along the way, he even got a nomination for a Pulitzer Prize.
Fast forward 37 years. Hughes and Hatten are both dead. They, like Hays, were the last of a breed. Kelly publishes a monthly newspaper called the Piney Woods Journal in Winn Parish, a publication geared to the forestry industry. Hilburn, beset by a bout with cancer, retired from Tech after 40 years, succeeded by Reginald Owens, one of his star students of the late 60s (and, I’m proud to say, a contemporary of mine). Thankfully, Hilburn is cancer-free today and I still have coffee with him and Hays at the Huddle House when I make one of my infrequent visits.
Hays, sadly, is another story. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2006 and by all appearances, beat the disease. A couple of weeks ago I was passing through Ruston and dutifully met Hilburn and John Sachs at the Huddle House. Hays was absent because he had another meeting—with a doctor.
The cancer, we later learned, had returned and at age 71, Hays believes it would be patently unfair to burden Susan with the dual responsibility of taking care of him and continuing to publish the Morning Paper.
Thus, Friday’s edition was the final issue of the Morning Paper. A flood of thoughts and emotions rushed through the misty memories of my mind as I read his last issue in my email Saturday. The finality of it all is mind numbing. That happens with someone who was alternately a competitor, an adversary, a colleague and a friend through nearly four decades.
Another era has passed. A part of me passes with it. Sometimes nostalgia is painful. Very painful.
This is one of those times.