A farewell message from Albuquerque Journal reporter Rick Nathanson after 44 years of covering New Mexico - Albuquerque Journal

A farewell message from Albuquerque Journal reporter Rick Nathanson after 44 years of covering New Mexico

Rick Nathanson wraps up a 44-year career at the Albuquerque Journal this week. Nathanson has covered nearly every beat, writing about everything from the absurdities of the human condition to the wonders of the animal kingdom. (Chancey Bush/Albuquerque Journal)

As a staff writer for the Albuquerque Journal for nearly 44 years, and a journalist for several years before then, I’ve come to appreciate that what I’ve done professionally has become inextricably woven into the fabric of who I am.

I’m a newspaper guy, and even though I’m retiring as of March 31, I will always be a newspaper guy.

I grew up in a home in Chicago, where my parents subscribed to multiple newspapers. My grandfather read The Forward, a newspaper for the Jewish community written in Yiddish — long before it published an English language edition. I knew from the time I was in seventh grade that I was going to be a newspaper guy.

The written word to me has power and longevity. I love seeing it on newsprint and feeling the paper in my ink-stained fingers. But the industry is changing. It’s not a secret. Younger readers tend to gravitate toward digital platforms, and newspapers, including the Journal, have responded with page-for-page electronic editions and websites. I have been lucky to bridge the pre- and post-internet worlds.

My first job out of the University of Illinois was as a Peace Corps volunteer, working as a reporter and editor for the government-operated newspaper in the South Pacific Tonga Islands. Once a week I watched as sheets of paper with stories pounded out on manual typewriters were duplicated on the keyboard of a behemoth hot-type Linotype machine that transformed molten lead into lines of reverse type called slugs. These were assembled into a metal frame that was locked into a large, loud printing machine that pressed paper against the inked frame to transfer the image.

Rick Nathanson, left, helps to lock hot-type “slugs” into a frame as part of his Peace Corps reporter/editor duties at the Tonga Chronicle in the South Pacific Kingdom of Tonga in the mid-1970s. (Courtesy Rick Nathanson)

It was a visual and auditory process of monstrous beauty.

When I came to the Albuquerque Journal in 1979, the building was located Downtown at Seventh and Silver. There, I found a newsroom that vibrated with the non-stop clickety-clack cacophony of IBM Selectric typewriters and teletype machines, the amplified voices from police scanners, and the hissing of pneumatic tubes that carried paper and instructions from one end of the building to another.

In the mid-1980s, the Journal moved to a state-of-the-art campus at 7777 Jefferson NE. The newsroom transitioned to soft-touch keyboards and monitors that fed into a mainframe computer. Later we adopted desktop computers, where everyone has their own central processing unit, and all the CPUs are networked together via sophisticated software.

While the changing technology is interesting, what I remember most fondly are the characters. Back in the day — as the old guys say — the male reporters mostly wore button down shirts, usually with ties, and females leaned toward skirts or pantsuits.

Early on, a good place to see politicians and government officials and possibly get story tips was Capo’s Italian restaurant, located Downtown a couple of blocks from the Journal. Some of the crusty, more experienced reporters would have what we jokingly referred to as the five-martini lunch — not that they actually had that, but some would get a bit toasty.

Shuffling back to the newsroom they would smoke cigarettes, drink coffee and pound out stories without batting an eye. They were pros, but not invincible. A number of them died from heart disease and respiratory and liver ailments resulting from a lifetime diet based on the four major food groups: Red meat, alcohol, caffeine and tobacco.

While the cigarette smokers — and there were a lot of them — had ashtrays on their desks, few used them. Instead they’d flick their ashes into their paper-filled waste baskets, which would sometimes erupt into flames. A hilarious image seared into my brain is of reporters pouring their coffee on burning flames and then inserting a foot into the waste basket to stomp out the fire amid a cloud of rising smoke.

I recall city editors and assistant city editors who had great noses for news but were short on patience, needed a refresher course in phone etiquette and possessed a vocabulary that would make a sailor blush. When major news events broke, they instinctively knew what to do, which sources to contact, what angles to cover and what information was total baloney. They were ill tempered, but consummate pros.

One veteran copy editor, who upon saving me from an egregious grammatical error hidden within an all too-wordy sentence, informed me that “a good copy editor can knock five lines out of The Lord’s Prayer.”

I was jealous of these folks and their wickedly fast wit, their immense talent and their tales of working for decades in the news business . I secretly thought maybe one day I would be lucky enough to become one of those curmudgeonly, old-school newspaper guys.

Guess what happened?

Through all the years working on the city desk and in the features department, I’ve had an opportunity to write, literally, thousands of diverse stories overlapping nearly every beat. I’ve chronicled everything from the absurdities of the human condition to the wonders of the animal kingdom; from hot air balloons to hot air politicians; from the soaring optimism brought by advances in medicine and science to the abject depression of mental illness, addiction and homelessness.

Like newsrooms across the country, the Journal has had to downsize, but even with a leaner staff the newspaper remains a quality product, and no one covers local and state news, sports and the arts better than Journal reporters, photographers and their keen-eyed editors. They are smart, inquisitive, talented, genuinely nice individuals and dedicated pros, and it has been my honor to sit among them.

So, as I depart this newsroom for the last time, I know I will miss this business and the people, but I will be there in spirit each morning when I open the Albuquerque Journal from home.

I will always be a newspaper guy.

UpFront is a Journal news and opinion column.

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