SBJ/January 11 - 17, 1999/No Topic Name

The newsroom team loses its backstop

A newsroom is usually a dynamic place, teeming with the quest for news and for telling it first. It can be a pressure cooker heated with the tension of deadlines and the stress of striving for quality. It is always busy and often laden with self-importance. We work there privately, but our product is presented for the scrutiny of 100,000 sets of eyes. We’re a team; everyone contributes. Some get bylines and their pictures on columns, others work anonymously.

It’s loud, irreverent, often angry, occasionally intelligent and always sarcastic. It’s never somber…

…unless we lose one of the team.

Our newsroom was a very somber place last week. We lost Ernie Torres, who was listed on our masthead as our Copy Chief, an anonymous sentry of quality, but who was so much more. He was the heart of the newsroom, our safety net, our governor of grammar, our czar of style, the last pair of eyes to examine our copy before yours. He checked facts, corrected spelling and conducted daily lessons on language. His skill provided our staff with confidence; his humanity provided us with friendship. He was a gentle man with a huge heart.

That heart stopped Jan. 2. Ernie was only 48 years old. He was a newsman’s newsman, having worked at some of the finest newspapers in the country. He practiced his craft on the news desk of the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Atlanta Journal and Constitution. He was a wordsmith in the Style section of the Washington Post and on the sports desk of the Los Angeles Times. Yet we believed him when he told us he was never happier than working as our founding copy chief.

He died three weeks after suffering a heart attack. He had endured open-heart surgery, outlived the resulting infection, pneumonia, kidney damage. He spent the holidays on a respirator in and out of consciousness, mostly out. Finally his heart gave way.

On his deathbed, he revealed the evidence of his struggle, his chest stapled together from his neck to his navel. His body growing as cold as the steel that held him together. Tubes and hardware invaded his torso, a hose taped to his mouth. His young widow, Sandy, stroked his hair as a mother does with a sick child. That act, and the peace and innocence of his countenance, stirred old memories.

Many at Street & Smith’s SportsBusiness Journal, who got used to seeing Ernie in his loafers and chinos, short curly hair and glasses, would be surprised to learn that he applied for a copy editing job at the Philadelphia Journal in jeans and cowboy boots. He was as thin as the No. 2 pencils he used to mark up copy. His hair hung straight down past the collar of his denim jacket. Not exactly proper attire to apply for a job, even in 1981. But when he said he was a competent editor, he sounded like A.J. Liebling. He answered an ad simply: "I understand you are looking for a good editor. I am one."

The year before, Ernie had left the Inquirer for Ireland to travel and work on a novel. His means ran out before his words did, and he returned to Philadelphia. The Journal was not exactly in the Inquirer’s class, but his work instantly improved the quality of the paper.

He loved music and dancing so much that he managed to find dance clubs open after the 2 a.m. deadline. But his real passion was for news – history in the development stage, to him – and for a graceful way to communicate it.

A hundred memories raced by as his body lay there, while his soul was on its way to where good souls go. I’ll share just one. (Ernie would already admonish me for failing to be brief.) It was the night John Lennon was killed. We were young newsmen, perhaps too young to be running the newsroom of a metro daily. We possessed the callousness of youth, a healthy shield in a newsroom dedicated to processing the day’s atrocities. But we were the exact age to be shocked at the death of a cultural icon, the working-class hero who put words and melody to the chaos of our time. Ernie reached down deep into a reservoir of professional strength to help dictate our coverage and direct our presentation. Part of it was the heat of battle, or just retreating to what newsmen do. But I was proud of our coverage and the job Ernie did that night. And I was in awe later when his tears revealed just how deeply he felt. We found a warm place that December night, played John Lennon records, drank whiskey from a bottle and talked until dawn about the loss to our generation. To this day, I’ll never forget that Ernie had the capacity to be a passionate newsman without sacrificing compassion for his fellow man.

He was one of the special few whom I wanted to work with again. I offered him jobs in Miami, Phoenix, even Jacksonville, but could never work it out. We stayed friends over the years but didn’t hook up again until last year in Charlotte. He made the transition from daily to weekly journalism, from news to sports. And he flourished. He was happy and fulfilled. He wrote our stylebook and he took charge of our copy and our confidence.

Like Lennon, Ernie loved music and loved writing. He started his second novel without ever finishing his first. He didn’t finish the second one either, but it was at least a work in progress at the time of his death. He loved to travel. He had plans to spend part of the holidays in New York and dreams of visiting India one day. It’s hard not to get maudlin at a time like this, but I hope his soul is now visiting New York and India … not the newsrooms there, but the interesting places where news is made.

Back here, in our somber newsroom, he will be missed. He was an essential member of the team, though he worked in anonymity. He was an island of stability in a sea of confusion. He had a button that admonished: "Practice safe stress." He was often serious, never pompous. He could be short and demanding, but he was always warm, kind, caring. He was a teacher, a mentor. Most of all, he was a very, very dear friend to us all.

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