A visit to Ninth & Rockwell: What it was like to work at The Press' longtime home

By Ray De Crane

(The final home of The Cleveland Press was at East Ninth and Lakeside, which The Press occupied from 1959 until the paper demise in 1982. Before that, for 56 years, The Cleveland Press was located two blocks south on East Ninth St. at Rockwell Ave. Below, Ray De Crane tells what life, work and Press people were like at that location.)

The Cleveland Press building at the corner of E. Ninth St. and Rockwell Ave. was a four-story red brick structure that looked more like a factory than a newspaper office. The Editorial Department was on the fourth floor.

As you stepped off the elevator, the first office on your left was occupied by John W. (Jack) Raper. Jack was a Will Rogers type of humorist who had a daily column that appeared on the Editorial Page.

Instead of a half-column head shot of Jack appearing in his column (as was the style for most personalized columns), Jack's column bore a standing caricature of him with a strand of hay protruding from his mouth; in other words, a typical "hayseed."

In short, pithy paragraphs he highlighted the news of the day in a fashion that poked fun at politicians, movers and shakers, and otherwise pompous individuals. His trademark was his final item in the column. It invariably was a direct quote from a politician, be he local or the Washington variety, that was so patently untrue or exaggerated that it was at the point of being ridiculous. At the left of the quote was inserted an artist-drawn black bull. Jack used small, medium and large bulls.

He was careful to use the large bulls infrequently, so that they produced a hilarious belly-laugh for the reader when they did appear.

Next to Raper's office was the den of David Dietz, the Science Editor. Although located in Cleveland, Dietz wrote science pieces for the entire Scripps-Howard chain of papers. He was in his heyday at the time of the discovery of the atomic bomb. He would write pieces on the tremendous power of atomic energy that could be understood by the non-scientific mind. Great medical discoveries and advances were also his forte, although later The Press developed its own medical writer.

Editor Seltzer's office was in the left-front corner of the fourth floor. In a small outer office sat Ralph Shurtleff, Seltzer's personal secretary. The editor's office was not particularly large and certainly not pretentious. Seltzer sat behind a metal desk in a non-leather swivel chair.

The office was ringed with plain, wooden chairs where Norman Shaw, associate editor; Harding Christ, managing editor; Louis Clifford, city editor; Dean Wilder, news editor; the telegraph editor, and occasionally the society and sports editors would sit at the staff meeting, which began every morning promptly at 8 a.m.

In turn the various editors would report to the editor on the important stories that were being developed for the day and which articles would get the headline display. After hearing from all the sub editors, Seltzer would make his own input and suggestions. Sometimes he would comment, mostly complimentarily but occasionally critically, on some stories that may have appeared in the previous day's paper.

The morning staff meeting was usually over in 15 to 20 minutes, never lasting more than a half-hour, since the many editors had to get back to their desks to prepare for the first edition.

The wide-open massive city room was down the hall from the editor's office. Here was found the factory atmosphere. The windows on the north side of the city room did not slide up or down. They were pushed open by a metal rod which had slots in it at the end you held in your hand.

You inserted the slot in the bottom metal frame of the window to hold open the window as much, or little, as weather conditions dictated. Of course you could not have window screens in such push-open windows. So, in summertime, dust and dirt, plus flies, mosquitoes and moths had easy entry.

Air conditioning was unheard of in the old building. In preparation for summer, the janitorial staff would mount rotating fans on shelves about eight-feet high and scattered throughout the city room.

There were spittoons at the city desk, the horseshoe-shaped copy Desk, and on the floor beside the metal desks of all the male staff writers. This must have been a throwback to earlier days when newspapermen chewed tobacco. In the '30s and later years, most of the reporters smoked cigarettes.

They rarely discarded their burned cigarettes into the spittoons, rather tossing them on the wood floor when they were finished with them. Sometimes the burning cigarettes were crushed out by the heel of the shoe, but mostly they were just tossed on the floor and left to burn themselves out. The wood floor, of course, was covered by cigarette burns.

The three-man city desk was near the middle of the open city room. Desks of the reporters and rewrite men surrounded the city desk. To the left of the city desk was the old-fashioned telephone switchboard staffed, usually, by two telephone operators. When a call would come in for the city desk, instead of ringing one of the city desk phones, the operator would just call "City Desk" and one of the three city desk editors would pick up the call. Usually it would be from one of the "beat reporters" -- police beat, City Hall, Criminal Courts or Federal Court -- calling in with a story. The city desk man would look around the city room looking for a rewrite man or reporter who was available and just call out his name. The newsman called would pick up his phone and the operator would immediately transfer the call to him.

There would be those occasions when a beat reporter or a reporter out on a working story would want immediate contact and he would say to the telephone operator, "City Desk in a hurry." Instantly one of the triumvirate would stop what he was doing and pick up the call.

It was at those moments when all eyes in the city room would turn to the City Desk to see what was going on. Usually the response to the call was a cry out by the city editor to a reporter and a photographer to "go in a hurry." Those are the magic words in a newspaper office that make this type of work so exciting. Everyone recognizes that a major breaking story is underway, be it a three-alarm or higher fire, shooting, murder, train wreck or major accident.

The same type of excitement is generated when five quick bells are sounded by the UPI (United Press International) machines, which furnished regional, national and international news. It means a FLASH is coming. It commands immediate attention.

It's strange how in an otherwise noisy city room with the clattering of so many typewriters and the sounds of 50 or more people talking at once, those five bells heralding a FLASH can be heard across the room and create utmost silence.

Reporters, writers and editors get up from their desks to huddle around the UPI machine to see what major news is unfolding.

The purpose of the flash is to give editors the opportunity to stop the presses -- if a press run is on -- and to prepare to replate the front page or to prepare for an EXTRA on the important story that is developing.

Memorable FLASHES have been:

  • President Kennedy is shot.
  • Hitler's army invades Poland.
  • Allied invasion of Europe begins.
  • Massive bomb goes off in World Trade Center.
  • Bombs destroy Oklahoma City federal building.
  • Next to the city desk is the copy desk. Stories come here from either of two sources -- the city desk, where its editors have already edited copy written by local writers, or the telegraph editor who is submitting stories removed from the UPI machines.

    Sitting in the inside center of the horseshoe-shaped copy desk is the slot man. Stories of a major nature are passed along to the news editor who is responsible for designing and selecting Page One stories. Other stories which will go on inside pages are tossed by the slot man to one of the copy readers who sit on the periphery of the copy desk. The slot man has already marked the copy with the number of the headline he wants. The copy reader writes the headline, further edits and if necessary "trims" or shortens the story.

    When his job is done he passes the story -- with headline attached -- back to the slot man who then sends the story in a pneumatic tube to the composing room where it is set in type.

    At least that is the way newspapering was done in the E. Ninth-Rockwell building of The Press before the advent of computers, which completely eliminated the setting of type.

    In the No. 1 seat on the outer periphery of the copy desk sat the Telegraph Editor. He handles all of the out-of-town, out-of-state and out-of-the-country copy which is transmitted by UPI machines -- a large type of electric typewriter which receives stories from other UPI machines scattered anyplace in the world. In his unique position on the copy desk, the Telegraph Editor was able to see any visitor entering the city room and walking down the aisle toward the city desk.

    Because of the free-wheeling, easy-going atmosphere of the Seltzer newspaper room and the Telegraph Editor's familiarity with the UPI system of ringing bells prior to the announcement of a major news story, the Telegraph Editor had a maintenance man install an electric buzzer under the editor's desk.

    The approach down the aisle of an attractive female visitor merited a single buzz from the editor. None of the working reporters paid much attention to a one-buzz. But when it got up to the higher range and approached four bells -- which meant, "Stop whatever you're doing and look; she's gorgeous," -- everybody in the city room complied. I don't remember the name of the Telegraph Editor who had the buzzer installed, but it remained in operation for many years until The Press moved to its new building in 1959.

    I don't know if it was because of the more sedate atmosphere in the new building, if by that time there was a new Telegraph Editor, or maybe someone just forgot, but there was no such buzzer in the new building.

    Also in the new building the editor and the business manager had identical ornate offices on opposite sides of the second floor.

    Instead of the morning staff meetings being held in the editor's office, the new building had an ample conference room with a long table around which a dozen or more of the attendees could comfortably sit. Following the staff meeting the conference room was used by reporters and sub editors who wished more privacy when conducting interviews.

    Seltzer never knew -- or at least pretended not to know -- that the conference room was used every Saturday afternoon by the reporters and photographers for a poker game.


    HOME PAGE


    Last Updated November 4, 1998