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Death of the morgue

Part of The New York Times morgue, circa 2007, before it was moved to another building.

I was trying to de-junk my basement last week and pulled an old bankers box off a shelf because I couldn’t remember what was in it.

It contained folders stuffed with clips of hundreds of newspaper stories, all of which I had written. They had been collected by the librarians at the newspaper.

The newspaper library used to be called, in newspaper jargon, the “morgue.” (It’s rare to hear the term anymore outside of black-and-white movies with a journalism plot). We had two librarians. They’d take copies of each day’s edition, clip stories from them, and put the clips into folders stored in file cabinets that filled the library, a wall of the newsroom, and space in another room. All told, those file cabinets contained thousands of such folders, many of them containing yellowed clips so old that they’d crumble if you unfolded them too quickly.

Here’s how the system worked: If I had written a story about the Medianville Town Board discussing replacing a bridge on Average Road, the story would be filed in at least two folders: one containing Medianville Town Board clips, the other filled with clips of all of the stories I had written, regardless of subjects. It might go into other files, too, if warranted—maybe one containing clips about the town’s highway superintendent if he were a prominent part of the story, maybe one containing clips about the Average Road bridge if it had been in the news repeatedly. Which stories were clipped and where they were filed depended on the librarians, who were seasoned, smart women who could, within a few minutes at most, find a clip about even the most obscure local event from years ago.

The librarians would date the clips before filing them, so this system was, in its own way, a history of the people, places and things our newspaper covered. It also was a rich source on information for reporters doing research—or people from the community, for that matter.

The system disappeared when newspaper chain greedheads bought the paper. In their all-consuming, brainless drive to eliminate costs, they fired one of the librarians. The other one wrote obituaries each day, so she only had half a day to clip and file. When she left the paper, the clipping stopped—not that anyone in management cared. After all, what did local history matter to the pond scum owners from another country? They were too busy looking ahead to the next quarter’s profit to be able to see the value of being able to look back. The clips storage has been replaced by computer archives, but those are only as good as the people entering the stories in them, and newspaper staffs are so harried today that the computer archives at papers like mine are nowhere near as complete as they were.

When I left, I took the folders that contained stories and columns with my byline on them. The news stories were filed elsewhere, and I figured there wasn’t going to be much future demand for my columns on Godzilla, trips to the dentist, the deaths of friends, and the like. I used to open the box in the cellar from time to time and read some of the old columns. I had forgotten many of them. Some of them remained amusing many years after publication.

The news stories were far less interesting. My beat wasn’t very sexy: two or three school boards, two or three village boards, and the like. I also covered the local New York State Police, the county court and the district attorney’s office, and wrote a lot of spot news. But for every story about a 10-year-old getting struck by lightning in his bed, there were three stories about a nearby village whose residents were complaining about rusty water.

The other night when I opened the box and saw what was in it, I didn’t bother to go through the folders to read any of the stories or columns again. I had done it before, several times. I just carried the box up into the garage to be hauled off to the dump.

Or, you might say, to their final morgue.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 31st, 2015 04:38 pm (UTC)
If they aren't gone yet, I would request you not ditch them until your nieces have a chance to peruse them.
Jul. 31st, 2015 07:48 pm (UTC)
OK. I'll sort through them and remove the boring crap.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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