I had forgotten how insanely hectic the newspaper business is. I had somewhat naively thought that working on the giveaway dailies would be easier. After all, anyone who has read one of the things has to wonder just how much work actually went into them: Just pull things off the wire services, cut it down to one or two column-inches that any reader who knows the first thing about the subject is little more than stating the obvious, and use half the space for pictures.
There is, of course, more to it, especially for those of us in the sports department. In Boston even more than most cities, that section is going to be dominated by local content, so you are doing a fair amount of actual writing. Of course, you're still working within tight word limits, so you're still cutting down, and it's a lot more frustrating to reduce one's own prose than to pull relevant sentences from someone else's. Especially if you've spent all day on the phone, trying to call anybody who might have any sort of insight about Tom Brady's injury.
My last experience at a newspaper was also at the tail end of them seriously denying the importance of the web. I didn't work in sports much then - I did some, as interns go wherever they're told - but even though the deadlines for a daily paper are always tight, it's nothing compared to now. And now is the word - something happens, and you have to have a story up on the website right now, constantly updated, while at the same time you're constantly updating the cut down version that will appear in tomorrow's paper.
That doesn't even begin to get to blogs. One of the things the giveaway papers have been doing lately, in order to fill column-inches cheaply and at least give the impression of being more connected to the community, is create programs where local bloggers can submit links to the paper, or even have their blogs hosted by them. As a professional writer, I'm not really a fan, for a number of reasons - it devalues the work I do, both by giving the paper free options and (often) reducing the quality of what people read in the paper, making it look like standards are lower. (I'm not a complete grumpy old man on this; there's a lot of good writing on blogs, especially sports, and a lot of papers would do themselves a lot of good to hire the talented, enthusiastic amateurs and can the tired old men) Plus, it creates more work for me and the editor: In order to get any half-decent blogger to participate, it has to be a completely opt-in-based process... That creates new and exciting ways to be accused of plagiarism, as the blogger knows the paper is aware of their work, and if they feel a published story is too close without acknowledging them, whether or not they've given permission to use their entry, they raise a stink, and their work went up instantly while yours didn't appear until morning...
Don't get me wrong, I've been enjoying it immensely. One of the great things about the job is that I've been able to reinvent myself fairly quickly. When I started, a lot of people had the impression that I was hired because I had a pretty headshot to put at the top of a column, while my previous job made me experienced enough to hire but green enough to not pay very much. Truth be told, that's probably it exactly. But after a month or so, they start to realize that you've got the goods.
Still, every once in a while you need to blow off steam. Or, failing that, drink. There's dangers there, of course, some wholly unexpected.
Thursday, for instance, I got out of the office relatively early, not having a Sox game to cover and having managed to get the football and baseball previews done for the weekend edition. I still had my phone set to page me for any important events, but it was the end of the work week and I wanted to unwind. (Yes, the Sunday to Thursday schedule takes a bit of getting used to). There are a few not-bad bars in the Downtown Crossing/Park Street area, and that day I ambled into The Sidebar. It's not the lawyer bar you might imagine from the name, but it's not bad snacks and beer for the price.
I still found a lawyer there, though. Raymond Kim was sitting at the bar, and that kind of stopped me in my tracks at first. I almost turned back to find another place, but then I realized that he wouldn't recognize me, and I found myself very curious just what he'd been up to in the last year-plus. So I walked to the bar, grabbed a stool right next to him, and ordered myself a beer. I've been female long enough to learn some of the tricks; it may be weird and uncomfortable for a woman to just walk up and start talking to a man, but once the bartender asked what kind of beer, I can turn to Ray, ask him what he's having, and order one of the same. Now we're talking and no-one's found it awkward.
I introduce myself, and he gets a laugh out of the name. "Heh, I have thought of going back to 'Nell' on occasion, but people remember 'Penny Lincoln'. It may be kind of porn-star-y, but that sticks in the mind." He blushes a little, but laughs, and asks me what I do. I tell him I write about sports for Boston Today, and he says that he recognizes me from there, now that I mention it.
"Well, better that than the porn, right?"
He spits a little beer. "Sorry... This isn't the sort of conversation I have often."
"Really? Why not? You're a good-looking guy, I bet girls find an excuse to talk to you all the time."
"Not the All-American Amazons. Besides, I'm usually--" He's looking in my eyes, and decides to change answers, I think. "I'm usually in stuffy lawyer bars after work."
He finished off his beer, and raised two fingers to the bartender. I gave him a little half nod. "Thank you."
We chat about nothing for a while; he talks about the case he just litigated at the courthouse, and I give some exaggerated horror stories about doing play-by-play with a partner who doesn't respect me. He says it sounds terrible, and I say, yeah, but it gives me background for my book.
"Ooh, that sounds like fun."
"It is. Hard work, but plenty of fun."
He's about to say something else when we hear a throat clearing behind us.
"Hello, Raymond. Who's this?"
"Liz! Liz, this is Penny Lincoln, she writes about sports for that new paper. Penny, this is Liz--"
"Raymond's fiancée." She extends her palm in check-the-ring position. I whistle appreciatively, and that seems to satisfy her.
"Anyway, Penny was just telling me that she was writing a novel."
"A murder mystery, actually. Raymond mentioned he was a lawyer so I was picking his brain for some background information."
Elizabeth smiled sweetly. "Murder's illegal in Massachusetts."
I saw where this was going. "Good to know. Anyway, nice to meet you both." I finished the last sip of my Sam Adams, and signaled the bartender for the tab.
I stuck around the general area until the paper was officially put to bed, then headed back home. I wasn't sure what part of the evening had been stranger - talking with Ray like we were complete strangers, or seeing Liz from the outside, acting... Well, not like me.
- Art / "Penny"