Jack Germond was nursing a drink at the Wayfarer Inn bar in New Hampshire the other day, waiting for a rendezvous with yet another political operative.

The rest of the press corps was out with John McCain, but the Baltimore Sun columnist was more interested in whatever bits of intelligence he could glean from his dinner with John Weaver, McCain's political director.

At 71, Germond says he is covering his last presidential campaign, at least in the flat-out, hard-drinking, boys-on-the-bus mode he has pursued since his first White House marathon in 1964. And one reason is that it's clearly not as much fun.

In his new book, "Fat Man in a Middle Seat," he recalls a night in 1971 when presidential candidate Ed Muskie had a "deep background" dinner with a group of reporters at Germond's Washington town house. When the gang pressed the candidate on not taking a firm position about Vietnam, "Muskie, who had been into the bourbon, exploded in a red-faced denial--shouting at us so loudly that my wife could hear him clearly although she was watching television two floors above us. . . . We had learned something valuable about Ed Muskie."

That sort of access is largely history. This is in part because of "all these things that now call themselves media," Germond says. "Just the sheer numbers have changed the complexion of things. We are now to the point where we are covering the spectacle we create, which is sort of artificial to begin with."

Germond also blames what he calls "the growth of gotcha journalism," saying the candidates "are all afraid everyone's going to nail them for one cheap story. Their handlers don't want to take any chances and warn them about the dangers of acting like human beings."

While television made Germond famous--he was the resident curmudgeon on "The McLaughlin Group" for 15 years before quitting in 1996--he seems to long for an era when newspapers mattered more than they do now. Even in the Internet age, Germond still plays the inside game of cultivating strategists, pollsters and county chairmen. He says many of the reporters who flock to the New Hampshire primary "don't have any sources of their own and they don't know anything. If they didn't have the Boston Globe and the Manchester Union Leader, they wouldn't have a clue."

Germond, whose campaign life revolves around steak dinners, whiskey and poker games, regards his younger colleagues as a different breed. "They tend to drink white wine or beer instead of Irish whiskey, and they carry cell phones so they can talk to their offices more than the once or twice a day I considered adequate," he writes in "Fat Man." "They go out running early in the morning, and a lot of them eat salads from room service, believe it or not."

Germond has made one concession to advancing age: He quit smoking 14 months ago. By the 2004 campaign, he says, he might write one column a week on his own, rather than churning out constant campaign chronicles with partner Jules Witcover. But he'll most likely be back at the Wayfarer bar.

"I'm still known to have a taste," Germond says.

Hometown Journalism

When Jim Bartimo went to work as business editor of the Idaho Statesman in Boise, he was stunned to learn how the Gannett paper handled sensitive stories.

Bartimo helped edit a lengthy piece on Micron Technology, a major local employer, only to be told that the story had to be submitted to Micron executives for review before it could be published. Bartimo was so disappointed that he quit the $55,000-a-year job after only a month.

"It's like running a story on politicians past the statehouse," Bartimo says. He says the story, published last month, "is softer now than it was before."

An attorney for the paper, Wendell Van Lare, defended the practice in a letter to Bartimo's lawyer.

"The newspaper chose to have the story reviewed by Micron representatives for fact-checking purposes," he wrote. "In fact, an error had been made, which was pointed out by Micron, and which was corrected prior to publication." Van Lare called the practice "good journalism" and said that "the notion that the Statesman's actions could jeopardize the journalistic reputations and careers of those involved is laughable."

Statesman Managing Editor Steve Silberman, who asked for the Micron review, declined to comment.

Bartimo, who had other disputes with the paper, raised the possibility of a lawsuit to recover the balance of one year's salary. But Van Lare says Bartimo used the Micron story as as "excuse" to quit and that the Statesman's only strategy was "limited to making sure the door did not strike his posterior during his subitaneous egress."

Bought and Paid For

Philadelphia's KYW-TV had a rather marketable idea: Launch lifestyle segments on the 5 o'clock news, sell the sponsorship to local companies and then feature the companies' executives on the air.

For example, the CBS affiliate started an "Eye on Beauty" segment, got a local hair salon to sponsor it, then interviewed salon staffers for some of the stories. So much for the wall between news and advertising.

The fashion and cooking segments, first reported by the Philadelphia City Paper, were dropped by General Manager Joel Cheatwood after a brief run when the staff revolted. "People in the newsroom were uncomfortable with it," says KYW spokeswoman Joanne Calabria. Advertisers "who had sponsored a package were featured on the news. It did not work. It was awkward ethically."

Digital Divide

The New York Times, which has one of the most popular news sites on the Web, is facing a dilemma over its cyberspace success.

The Times Co. is widely expected to spin off its online operations with a public stock offering. That has some ink-on-paper staffers worried that their Internet colleagues will become millionaires while they can only dream about stock options.

Last summer, according to Wired magazine, Times CEO Arthur Sulzberger Jr. told the staff in a memo that every company employee, new media or old, could buy a limited number of shares in the spinoff firm at the IPO price. Sulzberger said he hoped everyone would feel "personally involved in our newest line of business."

The Times cyberunit has been built by new-media whiz Martin Nisenholtz, who was asked by Wired why he hasn't reaped billions by joining other Net ventures. "There are days when I feel like the world's stupidest man," he says. "The fact is, in America, particularly with the Internet, how much money you've made personally seems to be the measure of your value." But Nisenholtz says he's more concerned with his "social mission."

Fallows Redux

When Mort Zuckerman canned him as editor of U.S. News & World Report, there was no way James Fallows was going back to his old job at Zuckerman's Atlantic Monthly. But now that Zuckerman has sold the Atlantic, new editor Michael Kelly has rehired Fallows as national correspondent, based for now in Seattle. "This is Jim's natural home," Kelly says. "He wasn't comfortable when Mort still owned it, but that impediment isn't there anymore."

AOL-Time Warner Mania

"Will merger repackage life as we now live it?"--USA Today