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Newsrooms and barrooms.

The beerhall putsch and other stories

Throughout the ragged history of American journalism, wherever, a thriving newsroom has been located, a drinking establishment with reasonable odds for prosperity has been found in close proximity.

The house of journalism has never been too far from the house of brew. The intimate relationship between journalists and their drinking holes has been documented in books, feature films, videos and now DVDs.

In recent times, PR functionaries of newspaper chains have tried to downplay the marriage of scribes and suds as more mythology than reality. But they cannot easily dismiss. the hard evidence of past and present-it's more than 90 proof.

Frederick G. Bonfils and Henry H. Tammen hatched their yellow sheet, the Denver Post, in a-barroom. The drinking bouts of William Randolph Hearst's reporters are legendary--and. documented. In the recently departed 20th Century, drinking and. journalism have been linked from the early days of the Front Page to the malty, end-of-the-millennium tales of New York imbibers Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill.

A recent survey of newsrooms in Missouri and Illinois reveals that quaffing mead is still a prerequisite for many in the organized writing trade. And the barroom down the street from the newsroom is still a vital locus where important reportorial business gets done.

The downtown bar, neighborhood tavern or boozy grill--where the newsies hang out--is still a place where reporters blow off steam after a day of coping with inept or tyrannical editors; it's where reporters. conspire with each other on the next city hall investigation; it's where reporters scoop up exclusives from leaky lawyers and pandering politicians.

Grizzled reporters from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch frequently gather at the Missouri Grill, across Tucker Boulevard from the paper's downtown offices. The Grill has been known as a hangout for the veterans--such well-known Post reporters as Bill McClellan, John McGuire, Carolyn Tuft, Tim O'Neil and Harry Levins.

Post staffers utilize the frothy services of Maggie O'Brien's Ltd. on Market Street for more formal occasions--such as "send-offs" for reporters leaving to go to work at the Chicago Tribune or dailies on the East Coast. For the younger set of Post reporters, who are looking for something less gritty than the Grill, the St. Louis Brewery and Tap Room has become a place to grab a Kolsch or a Wheat Ale.

During the recent reign of now-departed editor Cole Campbell, the Missouri Grill was the place where Post reporters bitched to each other about the new-fangled "newsroom culture" that Campbell tried to impose on them. A devout apostle of public journalism, Campbell turned the newsroom upside down with his new blueprint for how journalism should be done.

Campbell consigned the concept of general assignment reporter to the trash heap of journalism history. He put reporters on "teams" directed by "team leaders" instead of editors. He told team leaders they needed to remap the "civic swamp," instead of relying on tried and true sources. He made everyone "reapply" for their jobs and made subsequent re-assignments that defied reason.

All of this chaos led to many hours of crying and commiseration among Posties gathered at the Missouri Grill. And it eventually led to the beer-hall putsch that played a major role in Campbell's departure from the paper in April of last year. Reporters met with Post publisher Terry Egger at the Grill and made it clear that a bad situation was going to get worse, if Campbell stayed-there would be more departures of talented reporters and editors from the paper.

It was pointed out that the paper had already lost 19 veteran reporters and other staffers in the previous year-and-one-half under Campbell. Not too long after the emotional outpouring in the Missouri Grill, Campbell, with Egger at his side in the Post newsroom, announced his resignation. The beer-hall putsch was complete.

The Stagger Inn in Edwardsville, Ill., can make no claim as the site of a newsroom revolution or editorial coup d'etat. The Stagger Inn is a friendly, "howdy, how ya' doin?"' kind of place that has been home to journalists who cover the East Side for a number of different area dailies. It's a place where small town barristers mix it up with rural folks who still sport mud on their boots.

Of course, the crowd from the Edwardsville Intelligencer has a place in its collective heart for Laurie's as well. Laurie's Place on Main Street is a favorite spot for draught beer and hamburgers. Bill Tucker, Roy Gilmore, Jonathan Hall and Billy Yarbrough are all part of the Intelligencer journalistic fraternity that pledges loyalty to Laurie's.

"It's really more of a sports bar than anything else," explained Yarbrough. who notes that the video golf and video poker are popular games at Laurie's. "The bar attracts a lot of college athletes. It's a real good place to pick up on the local sports scene. I've gotten a few good stories out of it," Yarbrough noted.

Reporters and photographers from southern Illinois with the Ben ton Evening News find solace at the infamous Hey Carl's, a.k.a. Oye Carlo's, in the 100 block of Railroad Street. The atmosphere in Hey Carl's can vary between comfortably quiet to low-life noisy, but the summer sausage with cheese and crackers and the hot wings keep the press coming back.

Diana Wilson of the Evening News reports that journalists can relax at (Hey Carl's with video games and pool, while a juke box full of Willie Nelson and Billie Joel lends a musical accompaniment. The most frequent visitors -- to Hey Carl's, besides the journalists, are strangely dressed people who refer to themselves as golfers.

"What I find amusing about Hey Carl's is how the manager of the bar doesn't offer me a free drink, ever, even though my sports photos adorn the walls of the establishment," Wilson, complained.

Staffers at the Olney Daily Mail in Olney, Ill., have a total of three bars to choose from When they feel the need to imbibe--and two of them are located right across Main Street from the doors of the. newspaper.

"The Red Door is directly across the street from us and is known for its red door," Daily Mail reporter Brian Rosener elaborated. "The Fireside is located near the Olney Fire Department. The third bar, Papa Mike's, is the place we hang out, but none of the bars are open on Sunday.

"Papa Mike's is the place we go to welcome new reporters. and send off the ones leaving the paper," added Rosener. "But, if the truth be known, most of us get our stuff from the drive-up window of the B&L Package Store on Main Street and we go back to our apartments and drink."

The LaSalle News Tribune is nestled in an old Illinois River town, which' was once a hotbed of bars and gambling. In the 1930s and '40s, city slickers from Chicago came down to the LaSalle-Peru area for weekends of partying and debauchery. When the News Tribune took a stand against such sinful ways by urban invaders in the Illinois River Valley, the paper was firebombed.

"LaSalle is still loaded with bars where our reporters go to blow off steam," said Tom Collins of the News Tribune. "Machelle's Backstreet is a favorite for its good beer selection, beautiful antique bar and good juke box. It's also a favorite of the karaoke crowd. I try to get out of there before any of our reporters or editors start singing."

Collins said Machelle's Backstreet is not a place to meet with sources or to plot out stories. And the food is nothing to write home about. Collins does make mention of the popcorn.

'"There's lots of hot popcorn at Machelle's and it's free," said Collins. "Free. That's the most important thing to a beginning reporter."

More than 300 miles southwest of LaSalle, Ill., is another river town, Cape Girardeau, Mo., on the banks of the Mississippi. Folks working at Cape's Southeast Missourian can find a number of exotic bars for relaxation on both sides of the river. However, the Bel Air Grill on South Spanish Street seems to be the favorite of the Missourian crew.

There were great fears among the loyal clientele that such specialties as fried dill pickles and Jamaican jerk chicken might, disappear from the Bel Air Grill when long-time owner, "The Rock," recently sold the bar to some young whipper-snapper. Those fears have since been quelled.

"The Bel Air Grill has been our place since I've worked here, which is since 1994," managing editor Heidi Hall testified. "It can get a little out of control. There was a drunk woman one time who was talked into removing her shirt while standing on a table. She was surrounded by reporters and photographers, which was a mistake because I think she ended up on the Internet."

Hall is joined at the Bel Air Grill by Missourian staffers Marc Powers, statehouse bureau; Jeff Breer, sports editor; and Marty Mishow, sports columnist. Hall lamented that not as many reporters head to the bars after work as in the past.

"There's just not as many," she noted. "And the reporters from all the different outlets have aged, and they're not as excited about going to bars. Also, reporters aren't as willing to make journalism a career for their whole lives, so they have less reason to blow off steam and to turn to booze."

Matt Milner, editor of the Boonville Daily News, complains that there just isn't enough choice in drinking establishments in this small central Missouri town. Boonville tops out at just more than 8,000 people--and that's only if you include, the local prison population.

When staffers do seek out a good local watering hole, likely as not it's going to be The Stein House, which is reasonably quiet, sports only, one television set bar which offers reasonably priced pasta dishes and salads to go along with the brewskies.

"The Stein House is the bar we are most likely to stop by," declared Milner. "It serves more often as a restaurant than a bar, though the selection is very good. The popularity of the establishment is rebounding since the former owners, who attempted to control our content, sold out."

Like man aging editor Heidi Hall of the Southeast Missourian in Cape Girardeau, Boonville's Milner said he's a. little sorry that the tradition of reporters meeting in bars seems to be on the wane. Nevertheless, Milner noted that the image of the hard-drinking reporter among the general public is far from dead.

"The most likely expert on this subject, a former editor, has been gone from our staff for a few years," observed Milner. "While our staff is not comprised of non-drinkers, we don't frequent bars with anything near the regularity of some past staffs."

In Jesse James' country in western Missouri, The Brown Bear Tavern is the place to go to get a snootful and to watch reporters on their less-than-best behavior. Scott Pummel of the St. Joseph News-Press describes it as a serious drinking, establishment, since there is no food available to temper the alcohol.

Pummel, who has been frequenting the tavern with other News-Press staffers since he came to the St. Joe newspaper in the early 1990s, has acquired a number of war stories from his times at The Brown Bear.

Pummel recalls a general election night three years ago when the news staff was stressed from covering a number of close state races. Add to the day's election coverage, a factory fire, a stabbing/murder in midtown, and a crash at the local airport--and the newsroom's resources were taxed beyond limit.

After what everyone thought was the final, midnight deadline, most of the reporters and editors retired to The Brown Bear--leaving a lone copy editor to send the pages back to the press.

"The discussion turned to the evening's excitement as soon as the bartender delivered the first beers," recalled Pummel. "And one reporter mentioned how sad it was that both the people in the plane crash died so tragically. Everyone else put their beers down and the convesation stopped.

"One editor--who happened to have a most impressive temper--asked what the reporter meant. That's because the reporters assigned to the story hadn't been able to confirm that the pilot and his wife had been killed. They didn't even have their names yet," continued Pummel.

"The reporter at the bar explained that he had coincidentally talked to the airport manager at city hall during election coverage, and the airport manager told him that both people were already dead and confirmed their names, hometown and other vital details," Pummel noted.

According to-Pummel, this reporter had incorrectly assumed that these details were made available to the reporters handling the story, so he didn't mention it to anyone else in the newsroom.

"A great deal of cursing and yelling ensued, some drinks spilled and several cell phones lit up," recalled Pummel. "The last deadline had to be held, everyone rushed back to the office, the front page was reformatted, the stories about the crash rewritten, press deadlines were blown, papers delivered late. But the information was delivered the next day."

(SJR's Don Corrigan is completing a books on newsrooms and barrooms based on a survey of newspaper editors and reporters across the country. This article is based on some of his research conducted with bi-state daily newspapers.)

Don Corrigan is a professor in the School of Communications at Webster University and he also edits three weekly newspapers.
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Author:Corrigan, Don
Publication:St. Louis Journalism Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2001
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