‘Newsroom Cowboys’: To the rescue when technology breaks down


HANDOUT PHOTO: From "His Girl Friday." (Photo by Irving Lippman/COLUMBIA PICTURES)
John Kelly
Columnist September 5, 2012

Editor’s note: Because of an outage in The Washington Post’s production technology, many readers of the print edition Wednesday received an early version that didn’t include coverage of Michelle Obama’s speech to the Democratic National Convention or late sporting events. The stories are available online, and many will be reproduced in Thursday’s paper. We apologize for the inconvenience.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

“Newsroom Cowboys”

[Exterior, a cabin by a stream. A rugged, gray-haired man in hip waders is casting a fly in and out of the water. There’s the sound of a telephone ringing, then we see an attractive young woman emerge from the cabin, clad only in a man’s dress shirt.]

YOUNG WOMAN: Frank! Frank! Telephone! It’s the newspaper.

FRANK CONWAY: The newspaper? What in tarnation do they want? Don’t they know I’m retired?

YOUNG WOMAN: They say it’s an emergency.

[Frank walks from the stream, puts his fly rod down on the cabin’s porch, then pulls the woman towards him and kisses her passionately. Finally, he lets her go and takes the phone from her hand.]

FRANK CONWAY: Yeah? What? What? When? Okay, I’m on my way.

[He turns to the young woman.]

FRANK CONWAY: I always knew this day would come.

[Cut to: Interior, conference room. FRANK CONWAY is there, along with several other men and women in their 50s, 60s and 70s. Some are gray-haired. Some are bald. There is at least one walker folded up and leaning against the wall. They have long since passed the midpoints of their lives, but to a person they still possess what was once described as “ratlike cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability.” In other words, they are journalists.]

FRANK CONWAY: The situation is this, people: A fuse blew in some circuit board out in Fairfax.

[He is interrupted by DYLAN RAPPAPORT, a handsome young man with a goatee.]

DYLAN RAPPAPORT: Actually, Frank, circuit boards don’t have fuses. It was a UNIX server that . . .

FRANK CONWAY: A fuse blew, and now they can’t put out the paper. The whole Internet’s broken too, apparently. Smitty, what’s the story on typesetting?

SYLVESTER “SMITTY” SMITH: My guys are refurbing the old Linotype machine that’s been on display outside the lobby. We should have it working in the next hour. Lead’s a problem, though. Dangerous stuff. Hard to get. [He emits a long hacking cough.] I’m gonna need all your fishing weights, Frank. And every other fishing weight within 50 miles. Gotta have something to melt down for all that “prose” you “artistes” are gonna craft.

FRANK CONWAY: You’ll have it. Tony, how we set for typewriters?

TONY AMORETTI: No problem, chief. I backed my van through the front door of the Newseum and loaded up all the Royals, Olivettis and Smith Coronas that would fit. The ribbons are pretty much shot, but I’ve got some interns reblacking them with shoe polish. Thank God people still wear shoes. FRANK CONWAY: I hear you. Dylan, what’s on the budget? What stories are we working on?

DYLAN RAPPAPORT: Well, Frank, I’m not sure we’re working on any stories. You yourself just said that the Internet’s down. There’s probably nothing happening. Probably.

FRANK CONWAY: Jeeeesus kee-rist! [He slams his palms down on the table while simultaneously taking a swig from a silver flask and adjusting the battered fedora on his head.] This is a helluva way to run a rag. Peggy, help me out here. [He turns to PEGGY NORTON, still shapely at 65. Devoted to the First Amendment, she never married, though the torch she always carried for one man still smolders.]

PEGGY NORTON: I was going to call this in, Frank, but I’ll be darned if I could find a payphone anywhere. The City Council went into executive session. I batted my baby blues and bluffed my way in. They were discussing the new streetcar contract when the mayor said this. [She hands a notebook to Frank, who flips through the pages hungrily then tosses it on the table.]

FRANK CONWAY: Peggy, you’ve got him!

DYLAN RAPPAPORT: What is that? It looks like chicken scratch.

FRANK CONWAY: That, my friend, is shorthand. Every word is set down there verbatim. No batteries necessary. This is A-1, above-the-fold stuff, a real bacon-cooler.

[Just then, the lights in the conference room dim briefly and there are two loud chirps. Dylan Rappaport looks down at his smartphone and taps at its shiny surface with his manicured fingers.]

DYLAN RAPPAPORT: Wonderful news! The server’s back up! I want to thank everyone for coming in, but it looks like it was all a false alarm. I’m so sorry to have bothered you. FRANK CONWAY: It was no trouble. These things happen. We’ve all had stories spiked before. Peggy, I wonder if you might have time to discuss an investigative project I had in mind.

PEGGY NORTON: Of course, Frank.

[Cut to: Exterior of the Newseum, where museum guards are scratching their heads at a pile of old typewriters heaped on the sidewalk. Zoom in on a note that reads “Thanks for the loan,” then fade to black.]

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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