Vanity of Vanities, Saith the Curmudgeon

March 06, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- It's hard to be a yuppie. Not only do crusty old coots ridicule you as you struggle up the ladder of life in your dress-for-success clothes, but now your own ungrateful children are nipping at your heels.

The old people don't like the way you've changed the country, and the young ones wish you'd drop dead so they can have your jobs, or at least your money and your toys. You're exposed and vulnerable, and you're beginning to feel the sting of discrimination. Movies mocking you and your values are now all the rage. But take heart. This too will pass.

As evidence, consider the place of the yuppie in journalism. It's a prominent place these days, and that bothers some members of the newsroom generation now reaching retirement. They think yuppies have ruined the newsroom. It's a pervasive theme in their memoirs, which have been flooding out of the literary downspout at a great rate recently.

It used to be that only generals, presidents and round-heeled actresses felt obliged to write memoirs, but now every journalist nearing the end of his career seems compelled to produce one too. This is a compulsive, once-in-a-lifetime act, like the female preying mantis' trick of eating her mate the instant their relationship is consummated; it's usually not pretty to see, but oddly fascinating to those interested in such things.

The writer of a journalism memoir has certain rituals to follow. He briefly sketches his early life, including modest mention of his precocious childhood appetite for reading. Within a few pages he's describing his first unforgettable entry into a newsroom. After that there are chapters on Important People I Met, Great Stories I Wrote, and so forth.

Eventually, the writer concludes that economic and demographic trends have so changed the newspaper industry that journalism isn't what it used to be. While the new young reporters are brighter, better educated, and better paid -- real yuppies, in fact -- than the old generation's inky wretches, something important has been lost. Is it color, or could it be romance?

''When young reporters and copy editors joined the [New York] Times in the 1980s, their pictures and biographies were posted in the newsroom lobby,'' notes John Corry in his delightful memoir ''My Times.'' ''Older reporters and copy editors would read the biographies and look vaguely baffled. The new people all seemed to have graduate degrees and know more than one language. Affluence, a new sophistication and the passing of an old immigrant generation had bred different journalists. Perhaps they had no need to find the newsroom romantic.''

John Corry began at the Times in the 1950s as a copy boy, filling paste-pots for editors who actually pasted typed pages together before sending them to the composing room. There were no computers in the newsroom, and not many women. Ivy Leaguers were rare. The place was still full of, and largely run by, very smart white men from working-class backgrounds, often Southerners or New York Jews. The atmosphere was Front Page traditional -- just raffish and dissolute enough to keep respectability at bay.

But the changes Mr. Corry and others found so unsettling in the 1980s had been under way for some time. Nobody had yet thought of calling young urban professionals yuppies, but it had been noted that journalism was beginning to attract more career-oriented recruits. The old raffishness looked doomed; plenty of obits were already in print.

Here's one that appeared in the Chicago Tribune:

''The individual reporter tends to be a more dignified fellow than he once was. Better educated and more competent . . . he reads more and drinks less. He demands and gets more salary. He is less easily snared by the temptations set for him. His view of his craft takes on a breadth that it never had in the old days. Gradually he ceases to think of it as a game and begins to think of it as a profession.''

That came from the typewriter of another journalistic memoir-writer, H.L. Mencken. It appeared 69 years ago this spring, well before John Corry was born. The gentrification of the newspaper business is not, apparently, something that began in the era of Ronald Reagan.

The yuppies in the carpeted, gender-balanced, smokeless and biodegradable newsrooms of today can relax. They won't be targets much longer, for their interloper status is about to expire. The grumpy old John Corrys will leave, just as the Menckens did a couple of generations earlier, and as their own retirements near the yuppies will slide into the places of the departed curmudgeons and assume at least some of their grumpiness and other eccentricities.

From that vantage point they'll look on in scorn as nasty youths from what seems to be called Generation X, after a period of filling the electronic-age equivalent of paste pots, get to take over the reins. The newsroom, the old yuppies will cluck, will never be the same. As for the Xers, they'll be looking nervously over their shoulders.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer. His column appears Sundays and Thursdays.

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