In the spring of 1985, I had just returned to Detroit after a couple of months traveling in Mexico and Guatemala — with current Metro Times editor W. Kim Heron. I needed a job and checked out the want ads in Metro Times. The paper had been around a few years and some of my friends had been writing for it. As it turned out, the MT was looking for a listings editor to compile the weekly list of things happening in and around the city. I applied and was hired.
At the time, the editorial department consisted of three desks squeezed together in a small room. There was publisher-editor Ron Williams, managing editor Roseanne Less, and me. These were the dark ages before computers in the newsroom. Putting together the list involved filling in a form on paper, by hand. Actually, it involved filling in some hundreds of forms by hand, putting them in order and taking them to the typesetter who keyed them in. Outputting the typeset materials involved some sort of photographic process with stinky chemicals. Our typesetter chain-smoked with a cigarette gripped between her teeth as she typed (sometimes after having downed a couple of double vodkas with Coke at lunch). I always thought the smoking was her way of dealing with the chemical vapors she had to breathe each day.
Well, that's one thing that has changed since then. You can't smoke at work now. Actually, smoking was an issue of struggle at the MT. Both in the office (we went through one weird period where smokers had ashtrays on their desks that sucked smoke through some kind of a filter) and in the pages of the paper. It was controversial that the paper accepted advertising from cigarette companies.
There was lots of controversy about advertising. The ads in the back of the paper for escort services and the personal ads with men seeking men and women seeing women were easy targets for those promoting an easy brand of fundamentalist morality, and an easy excuse for some potential advertisers for why they didn't want to appear in our pages.
The big thrill for me was when I would go downtown to a club such as the old Soup Kitchen in Rivertown. Sometimes I'd see people standing under streetlights looking at a Metro Times. I would assume that they were looking at the What's Happening listings to figure out what they were going to do next. I'd swell with pride that I had created that list.
It was during this first of my three stints on staff at the MT that I witnessed how you get more once you have a little something. I'd never made more than five or six thousand dollars a year, but the MT paid me the princely sum of $9,800 (although there were weeks when I was asked if I could wait a few days before I cashed my paycheck). I had a little more money than I'd ever had before, but my position in the media really gave me entry into a new world. One spring, the management at a hotel in Troy had a party and invited people in the media that had done things for them. Since I had listed bands playing there, I was invited. It was outdoors around their pool. There were several tables laden with food and drink. At one table a server sliced pieces of prime rib for guests. As we mingled inside the fenced-in area I remember thinking that I could afford to feed myself, but here I was being wined and dined. At the same time I realized that a hungry, homeless person who was in real need of a meal could never get close to this free repast. It made me realize that the more you have, the more you get.
My second big lesson came right before my second stint at the MT. I had resigned in 1987 after getting a creative artist's grant from the Michigan Council of the Arts. In 1989, the paper expanded its editorial department to include an arts editor. Arts editor at the MT was my dream job. I applied for the position but didn't get it. A few weeks later the managing editor position became open. I figured if they didn't want me to be their arts editor, they wouldn't want me as their managing editor, which I viewed as a step up. So I didn't apply. Right around then I was invited to a MT anniversary party. While there, I spotted publisher Ron Williams across the room. I was pissed off about the arts editor job and headed across the room to cuss him out. As I walked over, something in the back of my head said, "Don't do that." As I got to Ron I just shook his hand and congratulated him on the anniversary of his paper. A few days later Ron called me up and offered me the job as managing editor. The lesson was don't burn your bridges; you don't know when you'll need to cross them again.
The paper was growing. There was a news editor in the house. The pay was a little better. When I was hired as listings editor, I was told I would have a computer on my desk within a couple of months. When I resigned two years later it still hadn't arrived. But when I came back as managing editor they had computers, little Mac Classic IIs that were cobbled together into a network that crashed several times a day. Stories were moved from station to station on floppy discs.
During that second stint was when I really started learning the craft of journalism. Previously I'd mostly written poetry, literary essays and fiction. I worked long days and weekends editing stories for the MT. I learned what worked and didn't work for me, what I liked and didn't. I learned techniques and gathered together a bag of writing tricks — things that have held me in good stead to this day.
The Internet was beginning to enter our lives and business. We would hook the computer up to a telephone line and dial in to bulletin boards to download columns from the likes of Alexander Cockburn. This blinded me to the Internet when it actually came to fore. People were talking about how you could use it to chat with people far away. I scoffed at the idea of talking to people in Alaska that I didn't even know. I just wanted to get information from databases — which I could already do. I didn't realize that soon all the databases, and everything else, would be on the Internet.
Indeed it is the Internet that threatens the existence of all print media. We're all scrambling to figure out how to make it work. And technology has changed the way we do practically everything. It's the MT's 30th anniversary and we're looking back right now. But the ultimate lesson is don't spend too much time looking back. The excitement and surprises are ahead of us. Time to buckle up and take on the next decade. I promise it will be a doozy.Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]