October 25, 2014

Elyria
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Arnie Miller: A beacon, mentor, newshound

Marty Wolk, Special to The Chronicle-Telegram

Wolk

They don’t make editors like Arnold Miller anymore.

A managing editor straight out of central casting, Arnie was the cigar-chomping, tough-talking newsroom leader with a heart of gold who hired me straight out of college to run the one-man Oberlin bureau of The Chronicle-Telegram.

“Normally we pay a starting salary of $200 a week, but I can bump it up to $210 for you,” he told me a bit apologetically. I did not care one bit. I was so happy to have the job that I often forgot to collect my paycheck in those first months.

Arnie commanded the newsroom from a corner cubicle where he was mostly out of eyesight behind a partition and a haze of blue smoke — but never out of earshot. “Copy!” he would shout, after it became politically incorrect to call for a “copy girl.” (Our copy clerks were all women, and well past girlhood.)

While everyone else in the newsroom labored away on green-screened computer terminals, Arnie stuck stubbornly to his Royal manual typewriter, banging out headlines on scraps of newsprint and adding the font size with his ever-present red wax pencil.

It was the task of the copy clerk to enter the headline into the computer and try to make Arnie’s words fit in the requisite 60-point type — or preferably 72.

Arnie had come to the C-T from the far-larger Cleveland Press, the scrappy afternoon daily that closed down just a few months before I got his call. Arnie loved his time at the Press, but he was even happier in Elyria, where a fresh front page was waiting for him every day. Whenever he could, he loved to put a screaming headline at the top, whether it was a fire, a City Council feud, a fatal car crash, or best of all, a C-T Special Investigation.

Meetings were held around the long conference room in Arnie’s office/cubicle, which was festooned with tearsheets of some of his favorite front pages. We lived in fear — and hope — of finding a tearsheet in our mail slot, marked up in the wax pencil that we affectionately referred to as his “red crayon.” “Nice” or “nice work,” was all it took to brighten the day, while a weak story inevitably would draw a more negative review. “What??? This makes no sense!!!”

Thinking of Arnie today fills me with nostalgia for a time when many staffers smoked in the newsroom, and the only concession to complaints was to install a few desktop ventilation units. This was literally a newsroom where one editor was known to smoke through the opening in her tracheotomy hole. It was a newsroom where the final daily press run was at 12:30 p.m., allowing reporters who so desired to take a 90-minute liquid-enhanced lunch at nearby “Mr. Larry’s,” a dimly lit haunt of government bureaucrats, politicians and us. (I tried a martini at lunch once and had to knock off early to take a nap.)

For me, as the bureau reporter in Oberlin, the routine was pretty simple: Call the cop shop, swing by the college, hit the coffee shop, knock off for a few hours before covering a council or board meeting that might run till 10 or 11 p.m.

I filed stories on a newfangled Radio Shack TRS-80 “portable” that weighed about 15 pounds with a screen that showed only four rows of type. To file, I dialed a phone number and inserted the handset into two suction cups. You could literally hear the computers talking to each other. The weekend shift involved calling 40 police stations across the region and taking dictation from funeral homes. A decent day was three police stories and four obits by the time the final edition rolled. It was a place where you learned to write quickly.

Arnie was the very definition of old school. Maybe he adapted in later years, but when I knew him, he had no interest in learning to use a computer. In a time before anybody talked about “mentors,” Arnie was a beacon to me, showing me how to be a rough-and-tumble news hound. He always had a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eyes. Looking for mischief, which for him usually involved a great story. He gave me a chance when I was just starting out, and never questioned whether I was able to handle a tougher assignment.

When I left the C-T as Sunday editor after three years, Arnie tried to keep me, but at some level he knew I needed the challenge of a bigger newspaper where I could learn more about the business. As I moved on, eventually to the Reuters news agency and msnbc.com, I got away from my newspaper roots, and probably a good thing, too. The newspaper industry’s future is hardly a promising one.

But I look back fondly on the days when I started the day in the newsroom, wandered down to the composing room to trim a few stories by hand and finally worked my way back to the giant roaring presses, taking one of the damp first-edition copies at 11 p.m. Saturday.

Arnie had newsprint in his blood, and some of it got into mine, too.

Marty Wolk worked for The Chronicle-Telegram from 1982 to 1985 as the Oberlin bureau reporter and Sunday editor. He is now the personal finance editor for MSN Money.