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Scene: The Newsroom, Just Before the Lights Go Out

By John Kelly
Monday, March 9, 2009

The last two journalists in America sat at a card table in the middle of their empty newsroom. They faced each other, about to flip a coin.

The coin was to decide which one would be the second-to-last journalist in America and which one would be the last journalist in America.

The last two journalists in America were dressed oddly; not poorly, as journalists usually dressed, but in what appeared to be costumes. The woman looked as if she'd stepped out of a black-and-white movie. She wore a tight-waisted woolen dress with angular shoulders. There was a seam up the back of her stockings. Two pencils stuck out of a bun of tightly-gathered hair at the back of her head. The man had on flared pants, a loud, collared shirt and a necktie as wide as a dinner napkin.

She was from "His Girl Friday." He was from "All the President's Men."

"Call it," the man said, flipping the coin in the air.

They'd known this day was coming -- had spent the past 10 years watching it get closer -- but even so it was a bit of a shock to see it arrive. The newsroom that had thrummed for so long was vacant. The computers and phones were gone. The desks had been sold for scrap. Their contents -- spiral-bound notebooks, computer printouts, government documents, letters from inmates, soy sauce packets, Freedom of Information Act requests, paper-clip chains, journalism awards, eraserless pencils -- had been push-broomed into huge drifts that dotted the cavernous room like termite mounds on the savanna.

"Heads," the woman said.

They'd kept the newspaper going for months, just the two of them, editing each other's copy, taking photos, doing layout, writing headlines. At times they felt like those astronauts in "Silent Running," preserving something important that no one else seemed to care about. But time had run out. People didn't want newspapers anymore. The huge printing presses that had rolled for so long -- that had announced the assassination of McKinley and the sinking of the Titanic and the return of leg warmers -- were being converted to print lottery scratch cards.

The man caught the coin and slapped it on the table, hidden under his palm.

They didn't feel sorry for themselves. They'd stood outside enough burning rowhouses, interviewed enough mothers of dead children, counted enough corpses in fetid Third World killing fields to know what real tragedy looked like. They knew that the great gears of society whir and spin. Industries rise, and industries fall. To take any of it personally was like getting mad at a cloud for raining on you.

But even so, something bothered them. It was the thought that after telling so many stories, no one would be around to tell theirs.

And so they had decided on this little ritual: the card table, the costumes, the coin. The idea was that whoever won the toss could choose whether to be the one written about or the one doing the writing.

The man removed his hand. Abe Lincoln's face looked up. "You win," the man said. "What do you want?"

"I want you to write about me," the woman said. They both knew what that meant.

"So, what are you gonna do now?" the man asked.

"I don't know," the woman said. "Teach journalism, maybe. Or do PR."

They both laughed at the joke. They knew they'd missed their chance. Besides, they'd never understood how it was that some of their old colleagues had gotten jobs like that. Teach journalism? Wasn't that like teaching chariot repair? And PR? What newspapers would they pitch stories to, now that newspapers were gone?

"What about you?" she asked. "What'll you do?"

"Well, I've always wanted to write," he said. "Now I'll have the time." They both laughed again.

The second-to-last journalist in America grabbed her purse and threaded her way around the trash piles and toward the elevator. She looked back at the newsroom, at where the obituaries desk had been and, beyond that, metropolitan news, foreign news, national news, features, sports, business.

The world would go on, news would happen, people who wanted to know about things would figure out ways to know about them, but it would be different. There was no use crying about it, but neither was there anything wrong with pausing to remember.

She waved, and the elevator doors slid shut.

The last journalist in America walked to one of the mounds and rooted around for a while, finally pulling out a battered Royal typewriter that a city editor once decorated his office with. He fished around some more until he found a piece of blank paper.

He set the typewriter on the card table, smoothed the paper out, then rolled it into the carriage. He thought about what his lead might be. After a few minutes, he started typing:

"The last two journalists in America sat at a card table in the middle of their empty newsroom. They faced each other, about to flip a coin . . . "

Who knows what you'll find in my blog, "John Kelly's Commons"? I certainly don't. Go to http://voices.washingtonpost.com/commons. My e-mail: kellyj@washpost.com.

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