Brotherhood of the newsroom

This must also happen to legal teams that sweat out urgent filings near court deadlines, or to MBAs in marathon scrambles that turn proposed deals into bulletproof agreements. No doubt longtime hospital colleagues, police precinct pals, firehouse squads and concert tour crews also form a bond that outlives their time together. Military comrades obviously experience it more profoundly than anyone.

Felix Grabowski
Nov. 6, 1953 – Aug. 31, 2011

It’s an enduring closeness forged in the crucible of fast-paced jobs, essential teamwork, on-the-fly decisions and meaningful results.

Though there’s nothing life-or-death about journalists’ jobs, and what they may call pressure hardly approaches what some professionals do with steady pulse beats, there’s something about newsrooms that nurtures deep, genuine affection among colleagues.

That’s far from unique in workplaces, but it’s my only personal frame and it’s top of mind because a slightly younger friend of 35 years, former Detroit News online creative director Felix Grabowski, died Aug. 31, 2011 at home in Troy, MI, after a cruel illness.

As word of that tragedy spread at web speed, dozens of Detroit News alumni – many in touch after a gap of years or decades – reminisced, paid tribute and enlarged our communication circle. Messages, posts, calls and an online compilation felt like a long-distance wake – less personal than an Anchor Bar gathering, but no less heartfelt and heartwarming.

Cross-country outreach

Real life embraces are ahead this week. Though already, getting back in touch seamlessly (thanks, Zuck) with Newsmates scattered in Memphis, Boston, Seattle, Cleveland, Reston, VA, Columbia, SC, and other points already affirms why Felix was special . . .

. . . why what we did together still feels rewarding . . .

. . . and why there’s something about newsrooms.

For those of us e-schmoozing about The Old Days, that something came from entering journalism at a tipping point. We worked side-by-side during transitions from typewriters to terminals, from copy boys (Felix’s first News job) to graphic designers (a later one), from black-and-white to color section fronts, from century-old letterpresses to invitingly flexible offset printing.

The old road was rapidly aging, and we were navigating a new one. We became what’s now called change agents. Felix never was far from the front, though always putting collaboration before credit-hogging. “I may have been 10 years his senior, but he was the teacher,” recalls Henry Stokes, a 1973-88 editor. Stephen Cvengros, a graphics editor who worked with Felix elbow-to-elbow from 1984-87, has these memories:

He was a great teammate, always challenging what we’d do to make it better. Always trying to out-think the problems. We worked long hours, big stories and I’ll always remember the joy he got in telling the story in unique and new ways via graphics.

Naturally, no one mistook a major metro daily for a family-like setting – though it actually was a family business when many of us hired on (1973 in Felix’s case, 1976 in mine). The paper was owned by descendants of 1873 founder James E. Scripps and son-in-law George Gough Booth. That changed with a 1985 merger of the Evening News Association into Gannett Co., Inc.

Mutual respect, reliance

At the storytelling and presentation level, it remained an intense, creative, compelling place where we – like those in any newsroom – hustled to create a “first draft of history.” That nurtures respect, reliance and learning that can resemble the we’re-in-this-together unity of a family – when people click.

That rare harmony, a gift to employers and employees alike, flows from an organic alchemy of Right People + Good Leadership.

Felix, as we’re marveling with bittersweet recognition, was absolutely the Right Person to help lead a series of visual journalism teams that earned international acclaim for informational graphics and page designs. The only heroes in newsrooms are symbolic, and Felix earned that stature. He was “the best possible example of how to succeed by combining native intelligence, hard work and an authentic personality based upon values and character,” says Mark Lett, a colleague from 1977-96 who calls Felix a mentor.

Flip ahead to the birth of online journalism and, again, Felix helped lead through self-taught coding, tireless drive and an imaginative vision that stressed “elegance and simplicity,” as past supervisor Nancy Malitz put it during a call from the Chicago area. “He always wanted solutions to be elegant, not just to work, and he tried to anticipate what would be easiest for users and where they’d want to go next,” says The News veteran.

Bob Giles, editor and publisher from 1989-97, salutes Felix as instrumental in the paper’s 1994-95 website planning and launch:

His work reminded us that a guy approaching middle age could set the pace for the younger computer whizzes of the day.

It’s heartening to reconnect with others who know there’s something about newsrooms . . . and something about Felix that enriched ours and everyone who worked with him.

[This was published Sept. 9, 2011 as a guest post at The Visual Side of Journalism, an American Society of Copy Editors  blog by Charles Apple.]


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