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News / Clark County News

Press Talk: Respect the old ways of newspapers

By Lou Brancaccio, Columbian Editor
Published: January 7, 2017, 6:10am

FORT MYERS BEACH, Fla. — Old school.

That’s what Joe Workman was. And now he’s gone.

Most of you reading this column in the Pacific Northwest will not recognize his name. But, rest assured, guys like Joe were here in the 1970s and before. Hard driving, hard drinking, an appreciation for the dog track and all things attractive.

Joe would eat a light bulb (no kidding) to win barroom bets, and was known to slip his glass eye into an unsuspecting patron’s drink. Shortly after she screamed, he’d fish it out, apologize and slip it back into his eye socket.

But old school also meant pushing reporters to uncover the dirt, kicking someone in the rear end when that worked, and patting someone on the back when that worked. In the end, it was about getting good stuff in the paper.


Joe settled down later in life, had a beautiful wife and beautiful daughter.

He finally left journalism in 1997 after getting out of management a decade before that.

I recently asked Joe if he had any advice for today’s crop of journalists.

“Get out!” he said with a twinkle in his eye. Joe hated what he saw happening to the pay for reporters. He eventually took his own advice and became a landowner in southwest Florida, much of it on or near the beach.

But before he left the business, he wrote a very popular column. In his last column he wrote, “Newspapering has changed. Back then, newsrooms were smoky, editors shouted and growled, reporters told bawdy knee-slappers, and somebody was sure to have a bottle tucked out of sight.”

As Joe was working his way out of upper management and into column writing — he was the No. 2 editor at the Fort Myers News-Press for years — I was working my way into upper management. So I ended up in the unusual position of overseeing Joe after he had been overseeing me for years.

I remember calling him into my office one day and suggesting to him that he should write more columns out of the county just north of Fort Myers because 25 percent of our circulation was there. Joe leaned into my desk so his mouth was just a few inches from my ear.

“Lou, Lou, all you need to do is hang those paragraph marks and ship my column to the back shop.” In other words, “Don’t even think about it.”

That was old school, as well.

Early in my career, I learned two valuable lessons from Joe that I wanted to pass along to all you youngsters, be you in journalism or any career.

The dirty desk theory

When I was just beginning my career, I went into Joe’s office and noticed his desk looked like a garbage dump. I asked him why.

“Lou, Lou, just like you, I get evaluated every year. And every year I get my evaluation back, and it says I need to clean up my desk. Now, the man is always looking for something to criticize me on. So I serve him up the dirty desk. But guess what happens if I actually clean up my desk? The man will look for something else. And who knows what that will be?”

I’ve kept my desk dirty ever since.

On the train

In 1982, Gannett — which owned the News-Press and about 90 other papers — had this ingenious idea of getting free labor from its papers for the launch of USA Today. Gannett called it a loaner program, which essentially meant Gannett papers around the country would have to send journalists to work at USA Today for several months but still keep them on their payrolls.

It was great for USA Today, but reporters at the News-Press began to grouse about depleting our staff to help the mother ship. When the complaining got too loud, Joe — not a big fan of corporate nor the loaner program — took a few of us aside and said this:

“Look, USA Today is like a fast-moving train with the brakes pulled out. You either get on that train or you get off that train. But for God’s sake, don’t get in front of that train.”

• • •

No matter where I worked, I always found my way back to Joe. I was always learning from him and visited him often. It’s sad to think those visits are over.

Joe was going outside his home on Fort Myers Beach to get his newspaper when he died. A fitting end. He was 78.


Columbian Editor