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Bob Wooten: As paper business lives, so shall we

The timing for the group photo was just right -- everyone was full of beer and burgers, and the band had taken a break.

Earlier, the camera-shy among us probably would have ducked behind a hedge or suddenly found the need to assemble another plate of hot wings and pasta salad.

It was inevitable, though, that the motley collection of aging editors, reporters and photographers would be herded into a corner by the pool. Some goofball chirped "everybody say 'mental patient,'" and we smiled while the spouses fired off their digital cameras.

It was a funny moment at our reunion, in part because when we last worked together digital cameras were still the stuff of science fiction.

The time was the mid-1980s. The place was The Journal, the daily newspaper in Martinsburg, W.Va.

Lots of young journalists found their career paths led through The Journal newsroom, and most found Martinsburg was a great place to cover news.

The town had more than its share of colorful characters, including a mayor who gave up city hall to become Donald Trump's butler and a downtown merchant who wore a pistol strapped to his waist every day. Crack dealers owned the streets in a few neighborhoods.

It was never hard to find something to write about.

On the flip side, The Journal could be hard duty back then. Just about everyone groaned about long hours, low pay and cheesy equipment. There always seemed to be more work than hours in the day. At times, the management could be infuriating.

No wonder so many of us blew off steam at a local tavern called My Mother's Place, where a pitcher of beer cost three bucks and the jukebox selections were three years out of date.

It was, however, a recipe for camaraderie. Staff members looked after each other on and off the job. A few even formed the Off The Record Band.

They put their old rock-and-country act back together last weekend to provide music for our first Journal reunion, which brought together nearly 20 former staffers. We gathered at the home of one who still lives in Martinsburg.

The years have been kinder to some more than others. Most are grayer and fatter, but a few look like they could run a 10k without breaking sweat. Some have gone on to run their own newsrooms. Others have put the troubled newspaper business behind them.

Those of us still working with ink and paper found our conversations turning in that direction.

How bad are things in your shop? How many people have been laid off? Are you worried about your own job?

Have you thought about getting out?

That last question drew the stammers, the downcast eyes, noncommittal muttering about second careers. It was the grim elephant in an otherwise happy room.

Later, though, after the hugs and goodbyes, it struck me that those years at The Journal had left us a tough bunch of survivors. If the newspaper business endures, so will we.

Bob Wooten is the managing editor of the Daily. Contact him at 800-296-5137 or at bwooten@nvdaily.com.

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