Newsroom goodbyes

The Washington Post has a great many traditions, and one of them is the caking ceremony. People in the newsroom assemble; a few colleagues will testify to the departing staffer’s merits; the soon-to-to-be ex-Postie says a few words as well; copies of a mock section-front page with fake stories under fake bylines making gentle fun of his or her foibles are passed around; cake is eaten; productivity takes a temporary hit.

I’ve easily attended a hundred of these things by now. Some have featured staffers leaving for other employers or retiring; many more have involved employees who had accepted one of the Post’s four rounds of buyouts in recent years.

Friday afternoon, I got to experience a caking from the other end. Characteristically, I showed up a few minutes late, finding dozens of other Posties waiting for me. First my editor Greg Schneider, my fellow tech scribe Cecilia Kang and my long-ago editor John Kelly each spoke briefly but warmly about me and my time here.

Then it was my turn to speak. For the first time since perhaps my dad’s eulogy, I’d written out a speech from start to finish–but I had to revise it on the spot, since John had covered some of the same ground minutes ago. I then made more of a mess of it because a) I was reading the thing off a phone and b) it almost got a little dusty in the room. You can read the text as prepared, annotated with a few links, after the jump.

Inexpert delivery and all, I got a long round of applause.

My page featured stories about my great-grandfather reviewing different plow designs and the Dewey Decimal system, revelations that I’ve been touting new advances in technology since 70,000 B.C., and a government shutdown caused by the absence of my Web chat at the Post’s site. (The last was written by a particularly talented wordsmith named “R. Panet.”) I loved the page, although I was surprised not to see anything making fun of my habit of cursing out computers for crashing, stalling or throwing up stupid error messages.

Oh, about the cake: It was a fruit-topped creation from the Whole Foods on P Street, backed up by cupcakes, home-made cookies Cecilia baked and some chips and salsa. There was more to eat than I thought possible for a caking. But journalists are hungry folk, especially when there’s free food involved. A few hours later, nothing was left.

I can’t lie; I had to get away from Methode, and I got tired of seeing if we’d ever dump Lotus Notes.

Actually… the story’s a little more complicated than that.

It’s been almost 17 and a half years since I started working here. That’s about 17 years longer than I thought I’d last. And one of the big reasons why is the people.

As some of you know, I started here as a copy aide. That’s not necessarily the most uplifting job, especially if you’re a recent college graduate with an inflated sense of entitlement. But within the first few days, I had fellow copy aides making me welcome–Cassie Stern, Lawrence Ashton, Scott Price and Bernard Greenhow, among others.

One of those colleagues, Dan Rohn, suggested I try to sell a story to an editor. Jacqui Salmon in Financial heard out my pitch, then okayed my piece and ushered it into print.

My aptitude for having generally pleasant conversations with the kind of people who call a newspaper on a Sunday got me more coveted desk time, especially in Weekend. In a cramped suite of offices in Lenox, John Kelly and his happy few appreciated my arrival and didn’t mind my looking for work to do beyond answering the phone.

I was working in Weekend the day that the new editor of a startup technology section started here. Craig Stoltz gave me a shot to write software, computer and gadget reviews; Karen Marrero over in Style did the same for Web-site writeups.

The welcomes kept coming. Other writers–like Joel Garreau in Style, John Schwartz in National–recognized a fellow Internet geek in the making and helped me along. Richard Harrington took my half-joking request that I cover Liz Phair’s concert at the 9:30 Club seriously, assigned me the review and gave me a fun sideline for the next few years. On one Friday, Don Graham stopped by my desk in Weekend to compliment me on my first (and only) cover story there. Jill Dutt thought my work needed a wider audience and transplanted me to Financial.

It’s continued. I could list many more names, but I don’t want to filibuster the cake.

Instead I’ll say this: There are things I’ll miss here even as I’m on to my next thing, like buying discounted Christmas presents at the Cookie and Book Sale, what the newsroom feels like on the afternoon of a good Pulitzer day, and seeing the bosses let their hair down at the Eugene Meyer Awards. But I’ll miss the people here more. If I can steal a closing line from Garrison Keillor: Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.


9 thoughts on “Newsroom goodbyes

  1. Rob — Good luck. As a reader, I’ll miss your expertise in the very things that made Sunday Business section the most consistently useful section of the paper. My drawer is littered with torn out Help Files.

    You’ve been kind & generous enough to answer direct emails when I’ve been particularly perplexed by issues, and you taught me your Rule #1 of “search online, and be very specific about the problem” long before I saw it in your final Help File.

    I wish you all the best, because traditional media needs good writers like you who can describe how to outsmart the gadgets that purport to strive supplant the printed page. — God’s speed, and best wishes, Tim

  2. Cecilia made you cookies?! Now I have something to shoot for. 😉 Hope to catch up in person when I have caught my breath.

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