Copy and ink


Jim Macknicki and daughter Jessie in the good times/Facebook

They laid Jim Macknicki to rest on Thursday. He was a man who spent most of his adult life doing the most thankless job in journalism with devotion and integrity. I knew him well in some ways and didn’t know him at all in others.

Most people reading this won’t have a clue as to who the author is writing about because “Mack,” as all those close knew him, was in his prime one of the legion of the invisible – actually the leader of the Alaska legion.

He was a copy editor and a very good one. Copy editors thrived in a time when newspapers were licenses to print money, and for some odd reason still seemed to attract the well-intentioned willing to struggle along on marginal pay happy in the belief that they were somehow performing a public good.

These were the days when people got into journalism for a lot more reasons than just to be noticed. Many wanted to avoid attention rather than attract it. Mack was the leader of that faceless many.

For much of three decades at the Anchorage Daily News, he ran the copy desk. He was the man in charge of the people whose job it was to ensure the newspaper that arrived on Anchorage doorsteps every morning had the words spelled right and the grammar somewhere near correct.

These were matters once deadly serious to newspapers. They defined the term “professional news organization.” More than once in the years has been running, I’ve wished for the eyes of Mack or Marc Salgado, an editor who preceded Mack in death, to watch over the copy.

Salgado was a man who could be a flaming ass in all the right ways. He scared some reporters. Mack was a kinder, gentler soul, but he always saw to it that the job of putting the makeup on the pig got done. It was not and is not an easy job.

When dealing in thousands or tens of thousands of words every day, getting them all right isn’t as easy as some think. It is hard to believe this is not better understood today by readers who stumble over typos and fight through grammatical jungles in all too many news stories found most anywhere online or onpaper.

News copy editors are a dying breed. Most midsize news organizations can’t afford many. Some small news operations, such as one this one, operate without their help.

I am daily thankful for the unnamed editors in the cloud – the Mack’s of the tubes as I will probably think of you all from here on out – who fire off corrections after spotting typos in stories here. Thanks to readers, the last draft of everything invariably is much cleaner than the first draft.

Anchorage Dialy New

Not that everything was ever perfect all of the time in the past.

At Mack’s memorial service, an old editor got up to tell a story about the time the newspaper hit city doorsteps identified as the “Anchorage Dialy News.” The editor telling the story moved in high-and-mighty political circles in his day, and he dealt with some  who found sport in a daily hunt for mistakes in what they liked to call the “Anchorage Daily Worker.”

“Anchorage Dialy News” in the masthead was one huge mistake. The editor in question could take only so much harassment before he buzzed Mack to ask what happened. There was, as he told the story, a five word answer:

“Somebody hit the wrong key.”

It was a statement simple, accurate and protective of Mack’s people. That was Mack. He recognized that even the best workers sometimes made mistakes. And he recognized there were those who made too many.

The latter weren’t long for his team.

The good ones? He made accommodations to keep them. Mack and his gang were a vital and invisible part of what once made the Daily News one of  the best small-market newspapers in the country.

Mack and a few others (you know who you are) saved me from myself more times than I care to remember. Writing is sometimes a difficult business even when you have time. Pushed up against a deadline, there’s no telling what you can get wrong.

Unspoken thanks

When the microphone went round the room at Mack’s memorial service, I almost got up to say something. I had a little speech composed in my head. A very short speech:

“Mack was a man in a thankless job who did it well and faithfully. I wish I’d thanked him more often when he was alive, but I’m glad I thanked him the few times I did.”

Few were likely to believe the latter, so I kept my mouth shut. I had a bad reputation with editors in my days at the Daily News. Maybe it had something to do with once suggesting newspapers might be better without them.

That was a criticism directed not at copy editors, but at narrow-minded, creatively challenged, sometimes cowardly editorial managers who regularly found ways to steer news coverage away from the interesting in favor of the boringly “important,” the predictable or the simply safe.

As someone trained more in the sciences than journalism, I detested their lack of intellectual curiosity as much as a I admired the professional precision of the best copy editors. Mack was one of the latter.

It is interesting in looking back that I find no hint of a memory of what his politics were. If he had any, we never discussed them. We had a few discussions about columns Mack didn’t think fair. Mack was big on fair, and he had a good sense for what was and what wasn’t.

But politics? He had some I’m sure, but they didn’t matter then the way they do now. In today’s climate of partisanship and “fake news,” it’s hard to spend time around people in the news business without trying to sort their politics given that so much of news, like so much of everything else in America tody, is defined by political partisanship.

I’m guessing Mack leaned a little left, as most did at the ADN back in the day.

When the 77-year-old Anchorage Times, the conservative voice of Alaska’s largest city for a generation, shut down in 1992, Reuters reporter Yereth Rosen observed that “to the Daily News staffers and fans, the crosstown rival was ‘The Veco Times.’ To Alaskans with a different vision for the state, the liberal Daily News was the ‘Anchorage Daily Worker’ or the business-impeding ‘California Daily News.'”

There were, indeed, some seriously left leaning folks at the ADN then,  and a closet conservative or two, which makes it strange to look back and realize that I never knew what Mack’s politics because they didn’t matter.

They weren’t important. He was a professional newsman with a job to do.

Still it was a little startling to see a slide of him shooting an assault rifle pop up on the viewing scree at the memorial. Most of the journalists at the ADN today probably wouldn’t even know how to load one.

It could be he was more conservative than I knew.  It could be he was less so.

Certainly, I didn’t know that he loved to cook. Driving home from the service in Wasilla with another former ADN staffer who spent a lifetime working with Mack, we both were struck by that.

You spend decades working closely with a guy, and you don’t know that one of his favorites activities is cooking? It was, in its way, another reminder of the fallibility of the profession.

Journalists  like to think they know a lot, and often we don’t know jack shit. It’s a very imperfect business, but there are people in it whose only job is to try to make it better. I worked a lot with Mack when I was the outdoor editor at the Daily News so many years ago.

He was one of those people. He crossed a lot of T’s for me and dotted a lot if I’s. I wish I’d said thanks more often than I did. Now that’s impossible.

He was 69. His age seems unimportant to this story, but I cannot leave it out. It would violate everything he stood for if I did.  He came from a time when journalism had rules and standards, and he devoted his life to seeing that they were met.

Man but a lot has changed….







11 replies »

  1. Beautiful commentary. Shocked to see that Mack passed on. I worked in the Production Department, night shift with Mack and other great editorial folks, ’82-’85. Those were the days! So full of deadline stress and laughter every single day. Mack, myself and Frank G, sometimes shared rides to and from Palmer, Wasilla, Anchorage, and ?. (*Sorry, Frank, forgot the name of your home high atop a steep climb near the base. Mack was such a stand-up human being. Have to say, my three short years in AK were probably my most fondest newspaper days. RIP, Mack.

  2. Thanks for writing this.

    I never met Jim Macknicki. I only know his name from a couple columns he wrote about my Grandfather. In them he tells about performing CPR on my Grandpa while waiting for the ski patrol. Unfortunately, I never met my Grandpa because he died on that ski hill in Montana. While researching my family I was kind of interested in who the man was that was with him at the end of his life. So I googled and found his obituary and not much else besides this page.

    To his family and friends I offer my condolences. It seems like he was a good man who was respected in his field. I wish I gotten to tell him thanks for trying to help my Grandpa.

    Not many people knew CPR in 1975, not everyone would stop to help, but Jim Macknicki did.

  3. I truly appreciate good journalism. Thank you for this article. I hate the current climate that derides thought and good reporting.

  4. I loved the way Mack could see so gruff and crisp, and then pull out photos of his daughter and beam. He made the photos from the ADN Photo Department sing. Thanks Mack.

  5. I owe him plenty. He hired me to work at the Daily News at a time when I was half crazy and hadn’t discovered medication. Always supportive and trusting. I was the only person in the newsroom from 11 pm until 5 am or so when Michael Carey came in and made the coffee. I enjoyed the giant Olympia manual bulletin typewriter in front of his office door. Moving to Alaska from San Francisco it’s hard to see the ADN as left wing. The Times wasn’t right wing, it was nutso!

  6. I suspect that a number of typos have been purposefully inserted in this story as a kind of homage. Thank you for this. There are so many who labor unrecognized but essential to our modern way of living. This is the story of so many Macks.

    • oh i wish, Ron. but i think most of them have now been cleaned up. Mack was one of those folks of the old, working-class, lunch-bucket crowd:
      never whined, never asked more of the people working for him than he contributed himself, never expected special treatment, always did his best, took his only reward in knowing he’d done the job well.

  7. As a professionally trained journalist, I really miss the days of identification of sources and covering both sides of an issue. I detest attribution by “unnamed sources” or “a source close to X.” The “rules” taught in J-schools in the past are gone resulting in degradation of the media industry. Unfortunately that’s why people have no trust in the news or reporters any more and the rise of “self-proclaimed” reporters. However, I have enjoyed the smaller businesses popping up such as, Must Read Alaska and others. It’s harder now, but if one digs you can find good articles and eventually truth.

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