Mike Jarboe, in memoriam; or, snapshots of a newspaperman

jarboe-2010
Mike Jarboe at the Times Union in 2010.

I am still in disbelief that Mike Jarboe is gone. I am so glad to have read so many stories about him and tributes to him, and that his family knows how many people he has touched and how deeply. Everyone who’s ever met Mike Jarboe has a Mike Jarboe story. Here are some of the things that come to my mind.

We worked together on the Times Union news copy desk for about six years. One of the best things for me about those years were the “slot/rim” meetings I had with him.

What’s a slot/rim meeting? Once upon a time, the copy desks at newspapers were U shaped. Copy editors would sit around the outside of the U on the “rim,” and the copy desk chief would sit in the “slot” inside the “U.” So the chief, also called the slot, would be in charge of taking news stories; distributing them to copy editors for line edits, headlines, captions, and any questions for the assigning editors or reporters; and giving the edited story a final read through before it goes to press.

At the Times Union, the night copy desk would often have the copy desk chief in slot and a seasoned copy editor in the position of “slot/rim” (on the nights when the copy desk chief wasn’t there, two seasoned copy editors would be anointed “slot/rim).

When I was copy desk chief, often starting at 5:30 or 6 pm, the first task was to get the business pages to the press before 7 pm. That was often a scramble, but at least the business desk editors and reporters were usually still in the newsroom to field any questions. Once the business pages were clear, then it would be time for the slot/rim meeting.

That meeting was for the night’s two slots to figure out a game plan for dividing up the rest of the editing work for the next day’s paper, especially for the more prominently placed stories on A1, the State page, and the front of the Capital Region section. During those meetings, which often lasted no more than 15 minutes, I had the opportunity to experience Mike Jarboe one on one.

I don’t mean to suggest that he wasn’t always the same person no matter where he was, but he did have a gruff exterior and, as Steve Barnes wrote in his obituary, he did have a habit of expressing disappointment with stories by impatiently throwing his cap at his monitor or banging on his computer keyboard, which could be read as a short fuse. He could be sarcastic and would sometimes use the computer system’s instant-message system to express his frustration with his fellow editors’ use (or lack) of punctuation with a message like: “Free commas for everyone! ,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,, Use them!” He wasn’t shy about swearing in the newsroom, and would sometimes read aloud from a story about a politician or a criminal (which was sometimes one and the same) and declare that person to be “The World’s Biggest Asshole.” And, yes, his desk was a mess, and he could be cantankerous, especially when it came to the relationship between union members and management.

Anyway, it was in the “slot/rim” meetings that I first heard the word “bumf,” British slang for useless or tedious documents. Jarboe might say something like “The story is bumf, let’s not spend a lot of time on it.” Though it wasn’t the first time I heard the phrase “turd polishing,” the meeting was a place where it was often used. As in “Let’s let so and so polish that turd.”

It was also in those meetings that I glimpsed the full measure of the man. It was our job to decide who would edit which stories. Sometimes we could quickly figure which copy editor would get which story, and which one of use would be the final read on it (and this of course didn’t rule out us messaging each other to check our own work and for other ideas). After all, we knew everyone’s strengths and weaknesses. We knew who had command of comma usage and who didn’t. We knew who had AP style ingrained in them (and who didn’t). We knew who could write the sharpest headlines (and who couldn’t). We knew who could work quickly (and who was slow). We also knew about everyone’s lives. And this, too, informed our decisions.

Often, in those meetings alone with Mike, I learned from him the importance of compassion. There were about 17 or so of us on the copy desk in those years, working nights and weekends, and performing work in which our names would never appear. Sometimes Mike would refer to us all as a “strange collection of broken people.” And he would remark that it was strange that this is what we were doing with our lives night after night, when sometimes all he wanted was a hot meal. Ever the absurdist, he once asked me during our meeting: “Do you think they do this on other planets?”

This, of course, being our thankless work (though to their credit many reporters and editors often thanked the copy desk for saving them from embarrassment or worse). In practice, the compassion meant giving everyone a chance at writing the top A1 headline; or one of us taking on one of the hardest tasks in daily newspapers: the large type one column headline (which were often four words stacked on top another, usually about some complex subject, and with no word longer than six letters); or waiting until the end of the shift when walking out to the parking lot, when no one else is around to overhear, to ask a co-worker how they’re doing because you’ve noticed they missed a few edits that should’ve been made. So even though he was a die-hard supporter of the right of collective bargaining, he was also a great supervisor. I saw in his compassion the realization of the old-school journalistic value of fairness. I am forever thankful to have gotten to share those moments with him, and I’m glad that I had the presence of mind to tell him so when I moved from the news side to features side, and he became the news copy desk chief.

I’m also thankful for some of his outbursts in the newsroom.

He would often call out reactions to stories from his seat, which he leaned far back on like it was a dentist chair (it was probably broken). One kind of story he often liked to edit were weather stories. These, though, were often given to younger reporters to write. And he could be merciless in editing them (“Goodbye ‘white stuff’!”). Nearly every winter I worked with him, he would inevitably say: “Hey it’s the annual storm of the century!”

He had a kind of gallows humor that comes from dealing night after night with stories about the worst of humanity, of murders committed over anger, of teens dying in car accidents, of women beaten by the men in their lives, of politicians lying a country into war.

One moment that always sticks out to me: On the night of 9/12, the newsroom was in overdrive as local stories were being written about local people connected to the events of 9/11, and the wire services were sending over story after story covering every possible angle. So many people were working so intensely, the higher-ups had brought in catered food for a buffet dinner. And it was the copy desk, especially the two slots, that had read every word of each and every story  before they went into print. The mood was grim.

I know a lot has been written in the past about laughter and humor after 9/11. What is funny? When is too soon?

Late that night, Mike called out from his seat, saying something like: Hey, this says that for mental health people shouldn’t immerse themselves in media coverage of 9/11.

All the copy editors stopped. Then we burst out laughing for a moment. And then we got back to work.

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One thought on “Mike Jarboe, in memoriam; or, snapshots of a newspaperman

  1. Thanks for this tribute. I love the weather-story references and his insistence n “free commas,” and the idea of wondering whether people in other planets spend their nights editing stories. Hilarious. I also agree that Mike was sort of scary, but not really. I like to think of Mike as a combination anti-authority hippie and a strict adherent to the rules – of grammar, and of decency. Really comforting to read what other people say. It sounds corny but this really does feel like the fading of an era in newspapers .

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