Tuesday, January 6, 2015

PRIMARILY A FAMILY TRAGEDY BUT WHAT A BLOW TO NEWSROOM IDEALS!

By Dominique Paul Noth


Pierre-Rene Noth, the Rome
News-Tribune final portrait.
A lot of what journalism should be has passed away with my brother, Pierre-Rene Noth. He died peacefully at age 78 on January 3, 2015, surrounded by family at his home in Rome, Georgia, after a long struggle with cancer. 

Rome was his adopted hometown, though it could have been Milwaukee where he was a top influential editor for 15 years at The Milwaukee Journal.

He moved to Rome in 1986 to become first the deputy editor and then editorial page (opinion) editor of the Rome News-Tribune, and he had such influence on that  growing community that the Rome newspaper through changes and reorganization kept his name on the masthead after formal retirement and until his death, though for a half year he had battled illness that prevented any writing. 

For the publisher, Burgett H. Mooney III, it went beyond friendship into the lasting influence of “a great newspaperman.” 

“He praised, pushed, suggested and, yes, scolded, when needed, using the editorial page of this newspaper to help a community he loved be the best it could be everyday.”

What sounds familiar to many former colleagues in Milwaukee is the scolding and pushing part. It’s not something emphasized in the florid tributes at the time of death, especially since the older Pierre prided himself on balanced temperament and even the younger Pierre could be unusually calm and instructive during a deadline tempest.

But Pierre the lovable and Pierre the taskmaster were inseparable. Both his obstinacy and his accessibility are remembered by many, including longtime Green Sheet editor and author Dan Chabot, now living in Florida. “One of the unforgettable characters that made The Journal so exceptional,” Dan wrote in an email. “Many of us were fortunate to work under his tutelage.” 

My email has been flooded with those who recall him as a ferocious example and a mentor, with several surprises about his calming image as he moved up in the journalism world. 


A cartoonist of  the 1970s recently recalled "an editor unlike others"
 who not only offered "collegial respect  to such a scruffy
beatnik type as me" but put this cartoon on the Waukegan front page.
A young free-lancer peddling his drawings -- now a noted cartoonist and voice actor -- remembers the relaxed pipe-smoking managing editor he worked with at the Waukegan News-Sun, describing him as “more like a college professor than a managing editor. Nothing ever seemed to rattle him.”

“Was that a relative?” P.S. Mueller one day asked fellow New Yorker cartoonist Paul Noth in an email. “Yes, my uncle,” said Paul.

“My memories of Pierre are filled with how wide both his interests and abilities ranged, from speed-reading all the wires, to writing headlines (good ones) faster than just about anybody,” recalled Carl Schwartz who retired from JS as top news guy and now edits the Badger Birder among a million ornithological things. “From his chess prowess and rock music appreciation and his abilities to write about all these topics, a true man for all seasons.”

“Just a brilliant guy, so far ahead of all the rest of us,” wrote Robert Sheridan who left The Journal for 33 years at the New York Times. “Tough to work for at first, but he let people know that he respected them -- a rare quality in the business.”

There is a tendency in obituaries by relatives and colleagues to suggest sainthood, but the Mother Teresa of Fourth  and State -- Pierre was definitely not. He had a terse angry side -- all these  Noths were nasty in the early morning.  To be accurate, Pierre may have stormed in barely on time but turned quickly into a pleasant workaholic with exemplary judgment and guidance skills. His commitment to principles and ethics is what has become most remembered.


The teenage Pierre on his way to the University
of  Oklahoma journalism school in 1953.
At first he clung to his Oklahoma libertarian defiance, particularly a dislike of urban crowdedness. He was a Goldwater Republican taking root in a Democratic big city. (This dilemma was not his exclusively -- Hillary Clinton started as a Goldwater acolyte.)

But the First Amendment was his beacon in a blaze that  created followers. The Milwaukee Journal of his decades reflected a more polished mix of what was important to the readers.  Granted this was a newspaper of a different time (highly popular) and slow to embrace diversity. But despite higher staffing for local, local, local there was a determined worldliness that actually appealed to the readers. National and international coverage was not free of American jingoism, it didn’t subsume the local emphasis but the system forced editors to pursue balance between the global and the local in a particularly Milwaukee way. This was actually an attraction in a city of many ethnicities and world views.

In 2015 people are choosing Internet sites that largely reinforce existing prejudices. Expect such conformity from chain buyouts. It is quite likely that to save money at some 14 Scripps newspapers including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the decision will be made to combine national-international choices for all papers into one wire desk operation that reflects the corporate philosophy and frees local editors from having to argue in person with editors of a different outlook.

The old Journal and old Sentinel so valued neighborhoods that local coverage was more heavily staffed. But even the local reporters would have to fight for space against an active restless group of centurions for balance who would raise essential questions about local and state reporting while arguing that the readers needed to understand national and international occurrences.

Pierre was one of those centurions. He was my brother and my tutor, which biases me, but I have been learning how profoundly he had mentored so many.


Pierre and Bonnie attending a
Milwaukee wedding in 1976.
Several children were with him when he died but so, always,  was the constant Bonnie. She had worked at The Milwaukee Journal in “the library,” as the nearby actively used archives were known, before they married in 1967.  She probably won’t shoot me for saying that she spotted this handsome intense guy mumbling into his string tie and squirming in his Western attire at the news desk -- and she set her cap for him.

It’s been a great marriage and they have six diverse adopted children, now all grown. They also helped raise Pier, his child from a previous marriage.  At work he ruled the copy desk but at home she ruled.  They and my kids are roughly the same age and all knew him as sweet, kind and tolerant -- virtues that many who worked with him had to pluck out from under a veneer of intensity. 

Criticize the old Journal for tunnel vision and slowness to change, but it had advantages readers want back – including a fierce independence from pack journalism. It was a feisty newsroom of gallows humor built around hard-nosed editing standards – not just chitchat but loud discussions. There were always editors who had the clout for more staff trips around the globe other than to war zones, for language specialists built into staffing, for tearing apart a wire service story to mix and match and force local input.  Pierre pushed for such detail.

This created a valuable yin-yang. The metropolitan editor – within talking distance of all copy editors and the news editor --- had to compete with highly articulate and knowledgeable editors about what was really important for readers to know about.  The various copy desks for decades stood cheek to jowl, the sensibilities of one rubbed against the other, with often interchangeable staffers.

Even with more space than today, the combat for the prime space was intense – and across ideological lines. Everyone could point out the resident conservative flame-thrower or the wild-eyed liberal, but they all pursued government and business corruption regardless of stripe. With this bickering opinionated crowd of editors you could always make a case on merit. 

Localizing was not always about whether anyone from Wisconsin died in a ferry sinking off Manila (though always researched) but on what was significant as well as sensational.  There was a belief that Milwaukee was better not just for local coverage but for the sense of a newspaper certain that readers wanted broader knowledge.

Let’s not pretend there weren’t tensions about proportionality. If there was a fire or a robbery or a murder in the city it got play but too much play was laughed away. That modern TV adage (if it bleeds it leads) carried little weight.  If the police set up a peephole sting for homosexuals in the men’s room of a Downtown hotel, and they did, the local assistant editor who loved that couldn’t run roughshod over the state budget bill or the House tax debate. If the managing editor had an unseemly passion for a local murder case, he usually won the coverage, but even he had to fight. 

Those standards permeated,  including five sets of critical eyeballs on each piece of copy.  No ideological cotillion of editors could prance away with the direction of the newspaper because there was always someone of solid mind standing at the gate, not always right or heeded but always to be worked around. 

I was ignorant of the methods when I joined The Milwaukee Journal in 1966, lured from stringing about the arts for Time and regional magazines while also working as actor and theater consultant in New York.  The lurer-in-chief was that powerhouse editor named Pierre. Quietly powerful by example. He was boss of what was called the Telegraph Desk, mainly the decision maker on what national and international news would be covered in the daily and Sunday paper and its various sections and how that tied into the overall news choices.

He was valued -- to the point he somehow convinced the managing editor, Joe Shoquist, the associate editor, Arv Schaleben, and the emerging top editor, Dick Leonard (all now deceased),  to hire this green kid, a younger brother to boot, on the strength of his writing but  without any practical newspaper experience. His gimmick was that they would soon need a culture expert to replace aging feature writers like Walter Monfried and the green kid would start out – for two years it turned out (!) -- on the local and national copy desks to learn the fine points.

Did I ever! Pierre drilled me not just in the nuances of copy,  but in the kern count, how in hot metal you must count exactly what mathematical combination of letters could fit in a specific type headline. I learned never to mess with Harry Pease’s copy but always mistrust the syndicated  pundits.  I was taught that as a paper of record we should value not discard the hours spent marking up the birth, divorce, bankruptcy  and marriage records, and you would be amazed how many front page stories could be gleaned from those cumbersome lists.

I learned so well I won awards for headlines,  advanced on the features  side for editing, layout and  instincts about coverage even more than critiques  – and fought for changes and less complacency than was the features custom.  I was taught to value dispute, respect writers and enforce brevity (a skill I was always better at teaching than doing).  

Some of his faith in me was our intellectual heritage.  Our father, a literary prodigy  and best-selling author that  Pierre was closer to, and our mother, a Jewish opera singer I was closer to, were rabidly anti-Nazi and escaped from Germany to France in the 1930s and then to the US in 1941 when Pierre was five.  Father was the alcoholic raconteur, mother was the classical and domestic anchor. Their  historic escape from Hitler  produced some of Pierre’s best columns in Georgia, which you might not think natural ground until you understand that he fashioned his memories alongside those of Georgia’s World War II families. Another clever Pierre touch.

Pierre in the 1970s with his mother, Elena
But Pierre became more interested in his own heritage as the years advanced. He even took his wife to Aix en Provence in France in 2011 and  to the Camp des Milles internment center he had endured as a child with his mother and brother Jean. There are files in his home  filled with research into the family heritage – many known dead ends but many uncovering live wires. For instance, contrary to family legend, Pierre discovered it was his mother, Elena Fels, not his more hunted father, Ernst Erich, who worked with the legendary Varian Fry network to escape to America. The large Noth family is alive today because of her determination. 

He became more open in his passions and he had an authority with the public in Rome that the public in Milwaukee got few chances at (largely because of an unhappy chapter I’ll get to in a moment).

That libertarian streak fashioned his opinions about the corruption of journalism when it becomes big business, which made him odd man out at The Journal. Today there is little value in Journal stock but for decades it created thousands who  live well today because they lived frugally to hoard it. Journal Stock was conceived in the 1930s as a way to make employees comfortable in retirement, easy to buy during employment, returning dividends several times a year and split and split again to reward those who accumulate it.  After retirement, employees were allowed years to sell the stock back during which it  split again and again, always increasing, at least  into the 1990s.

There was a night wire clerk at The Journal who retired wealthy, reporters who left their heirs millions, columnists who can’t get an obit today for their years of service but lived for decades in retirement comfort because of that stock. 

Pierre loudly would have none of that.  He  said the temptation of making money off the success of a newspaper could influence what decisions an editor made about what to cover and how to treat advertisers. He didn’t want to downplay a story because it might hurt a local business or a tax policy. If there was a national story about the danger of company pension plans or a federal court decision against the Journal Stock plan, and sure enough there was, he didn’t want stock ownership to influence him.

Surrounded by people who lived and loved the stock,  his stance at best caused a moral twinge and more usually a shake of the head at this crazy purist.  Decades after his departure from Milwaukee his warnings about independence from profits may have come to pass. Many now speculate as he did that protecting profits warped the coverage while killing the profits.

Few remember that Pierre started the nation’s  first rock n roll record review column in a daily paper in the late 1960s, introducing readers to Jimi Hendrix and the  Moody Blues. Called Sounds of the Times, Pierre’ Green Sheet column  ran until he left the paper in 1977 to become ME of the Waukegan Sun.


On a Milwaukee visit in 2009,  Pierre in the middle with
 siblings Jean and Malou at the ends and Dominique's children Paul and Maria.
What makes that column surprising in its quality is that Pierre was the first to admit he couldn’t carry a tune.  Almost tone deaf, he sensed the freshness of the rhythm, the power of the lyrics and the styling and he could write  quite influentially about an album movement that became popular before most journalists took it seriously.

Pierre and a few other editors were also masters of editing “on the stone,” of being able to read hot type back to front and upside down --  and order linotype gouging on deadline. There were other editors who could do this, I’ve been reminded, but Pierre was  wicked fast.  Pica pole in hand he paused over the metal columns and told the composing room what to cut and where – even off the front page!  

This required trust from a tough union that always warned editors they couldn’t touch the type but tolerated Pierre leaning in and breathing all over them. One steward told me that Pierre once physically edged out a word with his metal strip (a no-no never reported by the union because his intensity was excused). Technology no longer requires this set of deadline skills but I suspect it is not only a skill but a care with the product that has long departed, if you consider the typos of today.

The unhappy chapter was a brief one  in the mid 1980s after the Waukegan paper was bought out from under him  – unhappy as it reflects on diseased Journal management when you look at how Pierre the opinion writer, researcher and historian was so influential a few years later  in Georgia. Could have had that here. 

Pierre was in pursuit of a job, but was treated like crap by a new breed of editors who had once worked under  him. Ignoring his experience, required pay level and proven leadership they assigned him to one of those forgotten regional  zone editions.   Typically he performed without complaint and with great skill and mentored several other editors, while living as far away as he could from the big city -- a farm in Ixonia -- until the Rome offer came in.

Pierre downplayed  his importance to The Journal. About 15 years ago, when he hoped the Internet was the answer for journalism, he argued with me  against the international stamp he provided to a local community, which he knew I cherished.  “Stop being a fan,” he wrote me.  “I’d rather see two inches about a chicken dinner at a local Rome Baptist church to two inches about a coup in Tanzania.” I reminded him that in Milwaukee he insisted that Tanzania get more than two inches and that the Internet was treating world events more shamefully than he ever did.  He just lit his pipe and chuckled.

Even on his deathbed he was still concerned about the best ways to gather and present information.  Body and hearing failing over Thanksgiving, yet mind alert,  he pushed me with details about  his unfinished research. 

Given our own stormy domestic  uprooting,  I’m sure Pierre was mainly glad that he succeeded as a stable caring father and that will be the center of his funeral service.  But his children and mine need to know that there was vital substance and influence in that restless brain and devotion to standards, an ethical hunt that may be fading from newspapers but never should from memory.


About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist
since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then   for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combined Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and to serve as the first online news producer. He left voluntarily to run national online seminars and write about Internet journalism and online newspapers, then served from 2002 to 2013 as editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press and its online portal, milwaukeelabor.org.  The culture focused Doms Domain has a  political partner, domsdomainpolitics for local and national issues. He also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.