The Look of Success: Journalism School Hacks Cultivated Skid Row Aura

By | July 8, 2014

When I first started hanging out in the newsroom of my college newspaper, I immediately noticed the phenomena known as the J-School Hack.  Now, mind you, this was quite a while ago.  Yes, kids, there were typewriters at the desks.  You could actually make a print of a letter right there on a piece of paper by striking a key and …  Anyway, this was somewhere after the dinosaurs, but before the dumb smartphones.  I was a junior and it was amusing, and somewhat shocking, to see the persona and aura some of the old guys were cultivating.  By old guys, I guess I mean the seniors, but there may have been a grad student or two in there, also.  These seasoned veterans, wizened beyond their years, had taken to making sure everyone knew they were the old pros, they had seen it all.  Not only had they been on Omaha Beach dodging Nazi bullets, but they had been all the way through the Battle of the Bulge and then on to the capture of Berlin.

Wait a second.  This was the 1970’s.  I mean they had covered the Art Fair at the Student Union and the biggest controversy they had ever seen was the “Wear Jeans If You’re Gay Day” that left almost all but the bravest students confused, dithering, mad and wearing cords.  Yes, these worldly correspondents had seen it all.  These guys, and it was mainly guys in general anyway, and only guys doing this, had at least mastered one thing in the world of journalism.  They had perfectly cultivated, the wrong word perhaps, the look and, I dare say, smell of the hack journalist.  Smell, aroma, stink, whatever.  Laying back in their chairs, feet up on desks, or hunched over typewriters, balled-up typing paper everywhere, these guys looked like they hadn’t slept in days.   Grungy beards, hair a mess, fingers black with newsprint, they dragged on cigarettes that dangled from their lips and took long pulls from half and half coffee.  That is, half cigarette butts and ash and half cold java which, apparently, they had been swilling all night long.  There might be a tie or two, undone and pulled way down, just right.  Jaded and world weary, with thousand yard stares better than any war correspondent dodging sniper fire.  This was dangerous work.  Men’s work.

Hack One, “I better get a byline on this piece about the Physics Department Jogging Club.”

Hack Two, “I got a job offer from a little rag in Georgia.”

Hack One, “Damn.”

I was always left wondering, where these guys are now, and what in the world do they look like.  I mean, there was nowhere left to go down in their never-ending quest for hack-look immortality.  They had all ready made it.  So, if you saw some guy on skid row back in the seventies,  face down in his own vomit, trying to bum a cigarette, clutching a pen and notepad, pants soiled in gutter swill, take note.  That might have been a professional journalist there.  If you bought him that cup of coffee, well, he needed it, and I’ll bet you a dollar he told you all about his vast one year of experience on that little rag in Georgia.