No one knows the newsroom like a former reporter. John Darnton worked for the New York Times for 40 years and in that role won the Pulitzer Prize for his stories about Poland during a period of martial law. He also received awards for his coverage of Africa and Eastern Europe. But the man is also a prolific novelist, having written "Neanderthal," "The Experiment," "Mind Catcher" and "The Darwin Conspiracy." His newest is "Black and White and Dead All Over," a delightful yet dark, satirical story about crime at the fictional "New York Globe." Darnton considers himself "a novelist by accident," usually writing on scientific and adventure themes. "I always wondered what it would be like to write something you actually know," said Darnton, during a phone interview from his New York home. So, he wrote a murder mystery about Theodore Ratnoff, a greatly detested editor who is
killed with an editor's spike in the chest in his own newsroom. The news staff saw him as a petty tyrant who consistently chewed people out for the tiniest of mistakes, but just once in a while sent a memo to compliment someone for writing a great headline.
The memo said, "Nice, who?"
Was the murder an inside job?
Darnton freely conceded the use of real journalists or composites to create several of his characters. In fact, Darnton's dedication page is devoted to several deceased journalists who helped inspire this novel, including Homer Bigart and Johnny Apple. In the book, R.W. Apple, a legendary New York Times reporter, appears briefly as Jimmy Pomegranate.
In our interview, Darnton recalled that Homer Bigart was a New York Herald Tribune war correspondent with "a wicked sense of humor" who, when told that his rival at the Times, Margaret Higgins, had a baby, he responded with, "Who's the mother?"
This exchange pops up in the novel.
Darnton also remembered that when he was stationed in Africa, "there were actual reporters who had played basketball with Idi Amin, former president and dictator of Uganda, and warned others never to block his jump shot. When Amin fell from power, I went into his basement and opened the fridge to see if there were really human hearts there. There weren't."
No wonder Darnton included the tidbit that Skeeter Diamond, the paper's executive editor, played basketball with Idi Amin.
According to Darnton, many newsrooms around the country have prototypes of some of his characters i.e., "the celebrity journalist, the unscrupulous careerist, the reporter who sleeps with sources, old-timers who wax nostalgic about the old days and the pusillanimous publisher.
"When I wrote the book I wanted a young reporter, Jude Hurley as the good guy, who had the values of older reporters; a guy named O'Donnell, an embittered role model; then a police woman, detective Priscilla Bollingsworth, a divorcee and outsider who could have some romantic sparks with Hurley."
Darnton used these characters to carry the story, searching for evidence, interviewing suspects, trying to find out why someone would kill Ratnoff. They discover that the celebrity journalist (the food editor) was having an affair with "Teddy." But did she kill him? Even Hurley discovers that Bollingsworth considers him a suspect.
Darnton chose his topic partly because of the crisis in which the newspaper industry finds itself today. He said the financial losses most newspapers are suffering represents "an alarming development. I don't understand why more people are not more up in arms about it. The notion that bloggers will just take over and fill the void is ludicrous. Blogs are good for comment or for verification of statements quoted in the papers, but bloggers don't generate hard news," Darnton said.
Darnton is convinced there are many important stories we would know nothing about if reporters had not discovered them and wrote about them in newspapers. "As papers lose money, what they produce will just get thinner and thinner until they dribble. Many people just don't know what they're missing. We may not even know what great stories are not being covered. My hope is that somehow those who run newspapers will learn how to become economically viable on the Internet."
Darnton recalled the days, not so long ago, when newspapers were controlled by political parties. "Only in the late 1800s did they divorce themselves from parties. The key development was department stores which took out ads in papers and street cars took patrons reading the papers to shop at the department stores."
Darnton doesn't think the corporate CEOs now buying newspaper chains, such as billionaire Sam Zell buying the Tribune Co., publisher of the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and Newsday, is the answer. "He promised a 50/50 relationship between news and ads. That's like saying, 'Now I'll make things even worse.' It's a recipe for disaster. If you have a great investigative piece, is that equivalent to an ad for artichokes?"
Darnton believes many people today "are angry at newspapers. I was raised in the days of roguish newspapermen, like Clark Gable or Cary Grant, who knew bartenders and fought against the John Barrymores. Journalists were considered good guys and a valuable part of democracy. Then they became part of the problem. Most journalists today are still underpaid and hold idealistic feelings about their work. They're mostly good, honest working stiffs."
Darnton considers his novel "a valentine to the newspaper world I love. The motto, 'Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable' says it all. The values and ethos are still there, but they're very much under attack. When the wealthy become more powerful and knock down doors, extend brands and dream up alternate ways to make money it's worrisome."Darnton hopes that "the golden age of newspapers is not over, but only a fool would not realize that newspapers are now an endangered species."