March12, 2020 Atlanta - Speaker of the House David Ralston confers with Rep. Trey Kelley (left), R - Cedartown, during Crossover day at the Georgia State Capitol on Thursday, March 11, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The not-so-subtle effect of a pandemic on political journalism

I did not mean to become a dinosaur. It just happened.

On this morning 41 years ago, I walked into the newsroom of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for the first time as a full-time, paid employee. I had been an intern and a stringer, but now I was the equal — at least according to the payroll department — of 500 or so journalists that were packed into three floors on the building at 72 Marietta St. in the heart of the city.

We sat cheek by jowl, tethered to desks by phones that did not fit into our pockets. You quickly learned to type — on paper, not on screens — while the world roared around you. Reporters were louder then, or maybe my hearing was more sensitive. It wasn’t unusual for a kicked waste basket to sail across the newsroom during a diplomatic discussion about the latest doings at City Hall or the state Capitol.

And the flu and colds? They could be tracked by the cigarette smoke that wafted from desk to desk.

For the last 19 years, at least as of next Aug. 1, I have had a desk at the state Capitol, where AJC reporters are stacked on top of each other in three cramped rooms. Six-foot distancing is impossible. We share a pair of portable refrigerators. Work spaces are shared, although I am peeved when someone else uses mine.

What I am slowly — too slowly — getting around to is the fact that it is entirely possible that I will never set foot in a working space of either sort during what remains of my career. And that would be a very sad thing indeed.

In the world of newspapers, a newsroom was — and in a few places, remains — one of the most democratic places on earth. That’s with a small “d.” A reporter armed with facts is worth a hierarchy of the three or four editors who stand above. What your source said was something to be weighed against what my source knew. That was the value of personal, face-to-face contact.

The same thing applies to daily interactions with the people who journalists write about. It is one thing to criticize a politician. It is another thing to criticize that figure and maintain eye contact the next day.

At some point next month, the Legislature will reconvene in the Capitol. The AJC will have people there. I may or may not be among them. I was awarded my Medicare card this month.

Masks will be a thing, but they will hide much. To effectively cover a body of 236 lawmakers, one must be able to not only hear the words, but see the winks and nods and quiet conferences that accompany the negotiations that will affect all of us. Believe it or not, in normal times, lip-reading and the interpretation of body language become something like a journalistic skill.

This is not a complaint. It is an acknowledgement of what a pandemic will cost the people who keep an eye on government in your name.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.
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