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Ann Arbor 200

AADL Talks To: Jeff Mortimer of the Ann Arbor News

When: January 18, 2024

Jeff Mortimer, June 1976
Jeff Mortimer, June 1976

In this episode, AADL Talks To Jeff Mortimer. Jeff began his writing and editorial career in New York before moving to Detroit for a brief period. Soon after, he came to the Ann Arbor News as a sports writer, where he worked for 13 years. Then, he worked as arts and entertainment editor for an additional 4 years. Jeff shares many memories from his time at the News, and talks about his lifelong interest in journalism.

 

Transcript

  • [00:00:08] AMY CANTU: Hi. This is Amy.
  • [00:00:09] ELIZABETH SMITH: This is Elizabeth. In this episode, AADL talks to Jeff Mortimer. Jeff came to the Ann Arbor News as a sports writer and worked his way up to the arts and entertainment editor, where he worked for four years. Jeff shares many memories from his years with the news and talks about his lifelong interest in journalism.
  • [00:00:25] AMY CANTU: Welcome, Jeff. Thanks so much for agreeing to come in and chat with us about your career here at Ann Arbor. We'd generally like to start with, where did you grow up and what brought you to Ann Arbor?
  • [00:00:39] JEFF MORTIMER: Well, I grew up in Wall Township, New Jersey, for the most part. What brought me to Ann Arbor, was a Plymouth. I know that's what brought us to my wife and young kid to Detroit from Poughkeepsie, which is where I had been working out of college. Went to Bard College, got a degree in history. Even more useful then than it is now. Then my first job out of college was at the Poughkeepsie Journal, and I was there for two years, then thought I was ready for bigger things and got a job in Detroit, which was a disaster after moving my family here, so was then looking for about five months, and just answered an ad in Editor and Publisher, which was sort of the trade magazine of the newspaper business at the time, mostly read for at least by me for its classified ads, and of all people the Ann Arbor News was advertising, and it was just down the road. I never been to Ann Arbor, I had lived in Detroit for a year and a half. First time I went to Ann Arbor was for my job interview, and it went well, and they hired me. That was December of 1969, and November of '70, we moved to Ann Arbor, and I have lived here 50-something years. I was at the Ann Arbor News—in baseball, there used to be and maybe there still is a phenomenon of players who played in four decades, and usually it was like the end of one and the very beginning of the last one, and so it was anyway, I did that at the news. I was only there for a little over 20 years, but it was 1969 to 1990.
  • [00:02:25] AMY CANTU: Were you hired directly as the arts and entertainment editor? Was that the position that was advertised?
  • [00:02:30] JEFF MORTIMER: Good heavens, no. I was hired as a sports writer, initially covered high school sports and Michigan hockey of all things. For at least—I think it was just one year, maybe two. I was a sports writer for 13 years. I covered U of M men's basketball, I covered the Tigers for a couple of years for the entire chain that the Ann Arbor News was part of, which was called Booth Newspapers. I was the pool reporter for all. I think there were eight papers, which meant that I actually had my combined the combined circulation of those papers was more than either of the Detroit papers, and during that time, I was also the dope. There was a contest called Dump the Dope where I would make predictions about football games, college, and pro, and anyone who submitted an entry that was better than what I did got a bumper sticker saying "I Dumped the Dope." I think the top 10, I forget how you got [the] T-shirt. It was, the top best records all got T-shirts saying "I Dumped the Dope", and then at the end of the season, there was a drawing at Arborland, and I had the art director at the news made me a special one off T-shirt that said, "I Am the Dope." I wore that and my dope costume, shorts, and sneakers. This is in December. This meeting room at Arborland, where I drew, there was a huge bowl with all of these people who had been in the top 10. I forget who all was in it, but whoever I picked would go to whatever bowl game the News or Booth would pay for them to go to whatever bowl game Michigan went to. They always did it in those days. Anyway, after 13 years in sports, I had just had enough. I had been a sports writer in Poughkeepsie. I've been doing it for 15 years, and you work in the candy store so long and you don't like candy all that much anymore. I became a general assignment reporter, which was maybe my second favorite job there because I never knew when I walked in in the morning what I was going to be doing. I just recently I was reading over some stuff I had written over the years about working for the newspaper, just semi-prepping for this. I talked about when I'd get to the office at eight, there would be one or two things, stories in my queue about something or someone or some issue or whatever that I'd never thought of or heard of before that I had to have a story done by, like 10 from scratch, not knowing anything. I might have two of those. Then the rest of the day, I would spend working on features, which was the part I really liked because I had time to do proper research and talk to people and even occasionally think. It could be usually, I mean, the editors actually preferred if I came up with my own ideas, for the most part. When I was arts editor, one of the things I liked about being arts editor was I only had to have ideas. I didn't have to actually write the stories. I did that for I don't know, a year and a half, maybe, and then the arts editor job opened up and I applied. I think only one other person applied, and I got it. There were quite a few people at that time. I was told—no one ever said anything to me directly, who were, especially in the arts community who were [dismayed] that a sports writer had been made arts and entertainment editor, because what could I possibly know about any of these things? I probably knew more of those things than I did about sports. I very much liked the job. It was probably the hardest job I ever had, especially the first year because my predecessors' main goal was to leave the office at five every day, and so his technique for cutting a story that was too long was to just cut wherever it if it was—you know if it was an 11'' hole and if someone had written 15", he just chopped the last [four inches] It was like, running into a wall. It was a mess. The department was a mess, and it needed a lot of organizing and cleaning up. One of the things I actually read the other night that I had forgotten about was a night in December. I got the job at the beginning of September. Sometime in December, I was sitting at my desk about nine o'clock at night, which was not unusual. The first snow was falling outside the windows, and I finished whatever it was I was working on and I turned to my desk tried to get the next thing I had to do right away, and there wasn't anything there that had to be done right away. I had had that job over three months, and I was caught up. Finally, I remember I called my girlfriend. I said, guess what? I'm done. I can come home, and then I did that for almost four years till the summer of 87. Then I took a leave of absence to finish working on a book with Bill Frieder who was then the men's basketball coach at U of M and I checked it out, and there was absolute provision in the—well, we didn't have a union, so I don't know if we had a contract or not, but whatever Booth's rules were, there was a provision for a reporter, which I officially still was, because according to the pay scale at the Ann Arbor News, the arts editor was actually just a reporter laying out pages. But I had the right to take a leave of absence. Then there were conditions, how long it could be and what you had to do when you came back and all of that, but it was absolutely okay, but they still fought me. But I won, and I took a year off to finish the book. Not quite a year, I don't think. Then when I came back, I think in a way to punish me, they assigned me to the Board of Education. I did that for again, another year and a half, maybe. They put me back on general assignment, but by then, I had just decided that my days at the Ann Arbor News were over. I remember when I went into the editor's office to tell him I was leaving. He said, you can have any beat you want, if you'll stay. I said I've had every beat I wanted. What, City Hall? I just wasn't—I'd done all this, so I got what I thought would be a stable—
  • [00:09:37] JEFF MORTIMER: The regular hours were a huge appeal. I got a job at U of M. No one has—well, some people do, but I never I never had regular hours. Maybe when I was general assignment reporter, I had more or less regular hours. But as a sports writer, you work nights, you work weekends. As an arts editor, I was there. I had seven[teen] hour days, that plus all the vacation time. But the job was what was then called News and Information Services. I very quickly started calling it the Ministry of Truth. They let me go after about another year and a half. I was in a rut. They had this thing called reduction in force. It's like the employment version of a gentleman's C. They don't really fire you, but they let you go on the grounds that they need to reduce their staff. Of course, what happened was they let two other people go at the same time to make it plausible, I guess. Those two got other jobs at the U within a couple of weeks. I never did. Then I was unemployed for a while. That I got another job at the U, like a fool, and that was even worse. I did get fired from that job. Only time I've ever been fired. At one point I said, well, I'm going to upgrade myself from unemployed to self employed. I had a lot of connections. Quite a few of my former colleagues were editing magazines at U of M for various units, and I had done freelance writing pretty regularly when I'd had the time all through my career, so I [inaudible] people I had written for. Basically, that was 1994 and I haven't had a job since. Or you could say, I've had lots of jobs since either way, but I haven't had an employer since.
  • [00:11:37] ELIZABETH SMITH: I was curious. How did your interest in journalism first start and how did it change over the years?
  • [00:11:44] JEFF MORTIMER: One time, it's a few years ago now, but not that long ago, I was amazed going through some really old stuff. To find something that I did when I was, I'm going to say six or eight years old, I remembered it as soon as I saw it. It was the front page of a newspaper. With stories and headlines and a picture of me in the middle, I started writing, thank you for asking. I omitted this previously, because I just wasn't thinking about it. But one day, in early December of 1959, I was a freshman in high school, and a fellow I knew, not a close friend, but I knew stopped me in the hall and said, you're interested in sports, right? I said, yeah. He said, "How would you like to write about sports for the Ocean County Leader?" I said something like, what are you talking about? The Ocean County Leader was a weekly paper published a bit south of where I lived. Didn't really circulate where I lived, but they were trying to build circulation in Wall Township. One way they were going to do that was by covering high school sports. What they would do was hire a student to do that. They had hired, God, I've forgotten his name. This guy, they had hired him, and he was moving. He said, "Do you want to do this? Get into the game for free. You get paid $2 a story, and here's your score sheets." It was a weekly paper. One night of the week was the night before they came out, so I had to call my story in. I actually try to write a story in my head because I don't think I'd even learned to type yet. The first couple were at long hand, and then there was another where I had to deliver a hard copy. Anyway, all of our sports for the Ocean County Leader for the rest of high school, I was sports editor of the school paper, and actually, I was the assistant sports editor of the yearbook, but I did all the work, and even the editor acknowledged. I was supposed to be assistant sports editor at the Poughkeepsie Journal, but the guy who had the job had not left yet. They put me temporarily on the city desk, which was a horseshoe shaped desk called "the rim", and the guys were called slot men. What we did was write headlines and edit copy. It was like boot camp for copy editing. We were rim men. The guy in the middle was the slot man, which was the city editor. But the guy who was in charge of all of us on the rim was a guy named John Jones. He was absolutely out of central casting. He had bushy white hair, he looked like a bulldog, he chain smoked unfiltered camels, he had everything but arm garters and a green eye shade. He was ruthless, and something I've actually done a few times, I guess, in various—I won him over. He was supposedly impossible to please, but I just did everything he told me to do, and I developed a facility for writing good headlines and he grudgingly got to the point where he let me do my job. But I learned, like I said, it was like boot camp. I was on the desk for about four months and I used what I learned in those four months for the rest of my career. Then I went to assistant sports editor, and that was when I learned how to lay out pages. Something else never thought about. I didn't know it would be part of the job, but somebody has to lay out the pages. They don't just appear, and so I learned how to lay out pages.
  • [00:15:46] AMY CANTU: You talked about it took you a few months to get where you were caught up once you were the arts and entertainment editor. Can you just give us a rundown of what a day on the job looked like as the arts and entertainment editor back in the heyday of the Ann Arbor news?
  • [00:16:01] JEFF MORTIMER: Well, I could take a Thursday because those were the longest days. From the Monday through Thursday papers, we were inside another section. The arts and entertainment section was not a standalone section, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, it was. It might be that on Friday it was the front of the connection section, which was the feature section, but Saturday and Sunday we had our own section to ourselves. The Sunday section, usually was what was called an advanced section, which meant it had to be put together ahead of time because the whole newspaper revolved around the deadlines. Everything everybody did was geared toward our getting the paper out on time. That was because of advertising, so advertising called all the shots. If advertising had sold enough ads for the Sunday section that they could, for whatever production reason they wanted it out in advance, I had to have everything for that section ready for the composing room by 7:00 A.M. Friday, because they would do it on Friday. I would also often have live reviews. In other words, I might have three pages. Two of them I had to do in advance, but one I would hold live or hold one section one column live for a review of something from the night before. I had to have that out by like 7:15 or 7:30 in the morning. I would be in at seven on Thursday morning to edit and put a headline on the live review, and then spend the rest of the day, putting out all these pages, editing the copy, writing the headlines, laying out the pages. I would always have a huge stack of mail. I would always have lots of phone calls. It was a real godsend to me when the woman who was the news room manager, I guess you would say she wasn't a reporter or an editor, but she did the mail and she did phone calls. Anyway, I was getting 50 phone calls a day in addition to all of this. The woman who managed the newsroom came to me one day, and she said, "Give me a list of people that you want to talk to if they call. If it's anybody else, I'll take a message." I could have kissed her. It was just such a relief. I had to have a schedule. I called it Ent-sched because we had to come up with short file names, entertainment schedule. I had months in advance every day. What are we going to cover? Who's going to cover it? Are we going to have a picture with it or not etc? Part of what I did every day was update that from press releases, from phone calls from maybe a freelance writer who said, oh I think we ought to cover this or that. I would have to assign, come up with ideas for feature stories, like cover stories over and above preview stories and reviews. I also had to go through all the wire services, AP, UPI, LA Times, New York Times, Washington Post. Pulling out stories, I had what I called a story pantry. Pulling out wire stories that were not particularly time related that I could use as fillers or to put in spaces where I didn't have local copy, so I had a whole huge file of those. These all used to be teletype machines called the wire room with tape. The tape that ran through the linotype machine, so it could set the story that was being typed out. We had computers at that point. Oh six months maybe, it was all very new. I had never used an editor's keyboard. I had only used a reporter's keyboard. Among other things on an editor's keyboard, you could access these wire services. If I can do this now, it's only a matter of time before they can do it for themselves, and they don't need us anymore. We are doomed. Which it took a lot longer than I thought, but it was how it played out. As Calvin used to say, the days were just packed. Calvin and Hobbes—I was lucky to get time to go somewhere to grab food and come back and eat it at my desk. Getting back to Thursday, I'd start at 7:00 just review, and then the whole rest of the day, I would be there until 2:00.
  • [00:20:50] JEFF MORTIMER: Now, that wasn't every day, and I would only be in for maybe. But still, I would be back at 9:00 on Friday. That felt like a luxury. It was usually a short day. I'd have to read all the proofs of all the pages that I had sent out the day before. I had to supervise photographers. I had to assign photographers. I had to work with the art department who were brilliant and who designed some absolutely mind bogglingly great covers for me. But, again I never stopped. I would not stop all day, pretty much. That's what a day was like.
  • [00:21:30] ELIZABETH SMITH: I was curious about how the art scene changed over the years?
  • [00:21:34] JEFF MORTIMER: Well, that would encompass more than just my arts editor years because I was a consumer, patron occasionally. I think the rest of the town, it was funkier in the '70s and '80s. You had Performance Network, the Brecht Company and all of these theater companies that would find a place where they could put on a show and have pay what you can night, and there were galleries. Actually, there's still almost as many bookstores as there were then. That hasn't changed much. God, we had an Ann Arbor Chamber Orchestra. We had Ars Musica, which was a local classical renaissance and Baroque Orchestra. Dance companies, including my second ex wife's. If they find a space with 100 seats or 200 seats, put on a show. Now, it seems to be more oriented toward fewer items that are much bigger ticket items. The Musical Society, of course, which is still around, Ann Arbor Civic Theater, the Michigan. In fact, the Michigan was saved. I wrote a lot of stories about saving the Michigan when it happened and was a member for many years. It seems to me now, I hope this isn't just a crabby old geezer, but it seems to me more generic. It [takes] an effort to do stuff locally because all of the weight and all of the corporate momentum is behind doing national stuff and having national acts come in international acts and showing things maybe closed circuit TV. Those are the thoughts that come to my mind.
  • [00:23:14] AMY CANTU: Jeff, can you talk a little bit about some of the famous people you met on the job?
  • [00:23:19] JEFF MORTIMER: It was Randy Newman and Tim Buckley at the Power Center. He used to get double bills like that. Newman was on first, and I somehow I was reviewing the concert, but I also was, even though I didn't need to do it was going to take advantage of the fact that I could get into the green room because I was a big Randy Newman fan. First of all, he was the most genial, ebullient personable person you could imagine. He started asking me about what I did. Was this my job to review concerts or whatever? I said, well, no, actually I'm a sports writer. Well, he wound up interviewing me. He would set a huge baseball fan, wanted to know what players I had met, and it was just [LAUGHTER] asking me about what I did was just thrilling.
  • [00:24:15] AMY CANTU: Jeff, I'm curious about what your thoughts are about Ann Arbor not having its own homegrown newspaper and what might not be getting covered now. Just generally your states about the newspaper industry and journalism right now.
  • [00:24:32] JEFF MORTIMER: I am not the news consumer I used to be, and I don't know how much that has to do with there isn't—you know, I liked the form of getting a daily physical object print on paper. The business model is gone. I don't even know how aware—I may have known this at some level, but it certainly wasn't top of my mind when I was working there, what the business model actually was because the public tended to think that the product was the newspaper and the customers were the readers. But in fact, the product was the readers, and the customer was the advertisers. Once they didn't have eyes to sell or rent, they didn't get ad money and without ad money, Craigslist destroyed newspapers as much as anything else. His classified advertising was the heart of the newspaper and classified was the heart of advertising. Once they lost that, they couldn't pay the bills. I don't see a future for print newspapers, maybe as a boutique item. But good lord, I don't even know what the free press costs now, 2.75 or something like that, a day or three dollars? I do see a future for non profit news organizations. We have a wonderful example right here in Ann Arbor, Bridge Michigan, which has done very well. Won awards, adding staff, and doing a great job in my opinion. This is a model or something like it that is being tried in many places. There is a hunger for news. There's evidence that it's not good for a community to not have a widely consumed news source. Cost of government goes up, because there aren't eyes on the contracts. Divisiveness goes up because—polarization, that's the word I was looking for. Polarization goes up because people don't have this shared body of knowledge about what's going on in the town. Even if okay, fine, yes, they're more interested in comforting the afflicted than afflicting the comfortable, as I used to say. But still, we all knew who was running for office. We all knew what the local issues are, we all knew how the sports teams were doing. You all knew your carrier. Who came around once a week to collect. This all was part of community. I think that the loss of the daily newspaper has been a serious blow to the sense of community in America, not just Ann Arbor.
  • [00:27:25] ELIZABETH SMITH: What are you most proud of?
  • [00:27:28] JEFF MORTIMER: I was very proud of the art section. I thought we did a hell of a job. It was a lot of people, not just me. I used to tell people. I said, look. They said, I don't think that's the right thing to do. I said, it may not be, but my job is to decide. I hope I'm right. I intend to be right. I mean to be right but I have to decide now and that's my decision. Now I have to make another decision. But on a broader sense, and that was actually when you asked the question, the first thing that occurred to me, it was a broader sense of I'm proud that for many years I was part of a profession that was so mostly honorable and public spirited. I think most reporters and editors, even the ones whose presentation was very cynical and hard boiled, at some level felt like this was more than just a job. This was a service. It didn't pay very well. I wouldn't be broke today if I'd been in something more lucrative, or saved money. But people were not embarrassed in discussions about what to do about a certain situation or a story or an issue to say this is what's right. Not this is what will get the most readers. I never heard anybody in the news room talk about how this will get a lot of readers. It was about should the public know about this? What do they need to know? Why do they need to know? If they need to know how do we facilitate that? Yeah, that's what I'm proud of. Thank you.
  • [00:29:14] ELIZABETH SMITH: AADL talks to is a production of the Ann Arbor District Library.