By Mick Gregory
The death of a newspaper journalist.
The story starts out following the norms of old newspaper writing by a blogger/writer for NewTimes in the Palm Beach area, named Bob Norman.
Veteran South Florida newspaper editor Diann Slattery died Monday, following a sudden collapse at a public library. Slattery, who was 46 years-old, last held the position of managing editor at Miami Today. Prior to that, she spent 12 years at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, where she worked as graphics editor, projects editor, and Broward Metro Editor.
“I can’t really talk about her hobbies, because her main interest was journalism ,” says Miami Today publisher Michael Lewis. “She was thinking journalism 100 percent of the time. Everything to her related to news and how it affected the community. And that was real important to us.”
Slattery, a graduate of the University of Florida, came to Fort Lauderdale from her hometown of Sarasota, where she worked on the metro desk at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.
“There are a lot of editors in this world who are good at copy editing and conceptualizing stories, but can’t manage people at all,” says Sentinel social services reporter Bill Hirshman, whom Slattery hired 12 years ago. “Journalists are notoriously difficult to manage and she dealt with her staff as human beings and encouraged them and made them feel like there was somebody in a glass office that genuinely cared about them both as a professional and as person.”
The next day Norman came back with the rest of the story.
Norm wrote that he had a rough time with rewrites on a specific part of his report on Slattery. He ended up cutting it out. Why? Because it was about Slattery’s drinking.
Norman had never met Slattery, never even had heard of her before he was told about her death. They said she collapsed and had gone into a seizure while doing some research at the Plantation library. She later slipped into a coma.
After several days of hospitalization, her heart stopped early Monday morning.
Everybody Norman talked to about Diann said she had a drinking problem. They said she’d gone to rehab, but fell off the wagon. That she’d get drunk at lunch, at employment functions, at the office. That it had cost Slattery her vaunted job as Broward Metro Editor at the Sun-Sentinel, her job at Miami Today, and, ultimately, her life. The drinking, they said, had destroyed her body.
Norman brought up the subject with her last boss, Miami Today editor and publisher Michael Lewis.
“That’s funny, the Sun-Sentinel never told me anything about that,” he said. “The only issue I ever had with Diann was that she worked too much. It was a serious issue. She never wanted to leave the building.”
Did he know her to have had a drinking problem?
“There aren’t many reporters who don’t drink,” said the veteran newspaperman, before regaling me with a few anecdotes from his long career in journalism that featured a lot of half-drunk bottles of alcohol he’d seen on many a city desk.
Then, in the afternoon, Norman got an e-mail with the subject line, “Diann Slattery.”
“Do you know even a tenth of this story?” it read. “CALL ME.” It was a reporter who’d worked for Slattery at Miami Today, a 37,000-circulation newspaper founded by Lewis in 1983. The publication is aimed at the business community and, despite having only a handful of newspeople who are paid relatively low wages, has a solid reputation.
“This is terrible story, a classic story about how the bottle destroyed a phenomenal journalist,” the reporter said with near-reverence for the profundity of the human tragedy that had occurred at the newspaper.
Slattery was a disaster at Miami Today, the reporter said, an obvious alcoholic in terrible health.
“She totally let herself go,” said the reporter. “She would roll in at 4 in the afternoon and proceed to get hammered throughout the day and trap us there until late at night. Weird things would happen to our copy. Mistakes would get edited into the copy. She would destroy the copy sometimes because she was totally trashed.”
Another reporter who worked for Slattery at Miami Today confirmed these things . Slattery would often stay in the building until the early morning hours. She’d go to her car periodically throughout the day and had a bottle of Scope at her ready. Sometimes she’d be found passed at her desk in the morning. She missed work, suffered strange injuries, and behaved erratically and at times abusively.
There is more to her sad story, but I should point out that there are many more Slatterys at newspapers large and small all over the country. Sad, wasted lives.
My first job right out of college was at a daily newspaper. It was a well managed operation in a charming New England setting with much of the staff just out of college, it was a lot like working for a student newspaper except for the sprinkling of the veterans.
I remember an editor who was a heavy drinker and chain smoker who had to ditch out for “cig” breaks, well before it became law to do so. He was pretty good with AP style and the standard newspaper way of formatting stories.
He was a grumpy old guy, and a few of us would play jokes on him with shocking copy that he’d catch and assorted prank phone calls. I played a trick on him with our computer network by sending out an IT warning to shut down the computers. He took it very seriously and instructed everyone to do so. Someone ratted me out and I was on his shit list for a few weeks.
He worked all night cleaning up copy for the early morning press run. He was in his early 60s when he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He went quickly and we held a fundraiser for to help pay for his medical bills, but the money went to bury him instead.
He lived in an old, well-worn mobile home several miles and class ranks from the paper he edited. It was the first glimpse I had behind the facade of the dignified newspaper business. No one spoke of his real life outside the paper, only of his expert editing and some of the exciting big news events he helped get to print for the 33,000 daily, that’s the size of 75 percent of America’s daily newspapers.