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Merits of the case aside, the most surprising aspect of last week's age-discrimination trial pitting former columnist Jack Nease against the Sun-Sentinel was the pride with which editor Earl Maucker explained to the jury how the paper's local business coverage had been gutted two years before.

Not that the gutting itself was any surprise. Face it, local coverage is expensive, and wire copy, that endless stream of prepackaged pablum delivered straight to a paper's doorstep, comes cheap. But still, you don't expect to hear an editor stand up and brag about having turned his paper into a wire service repository.

But there was Maucker, not merely defending the 1996 makeover of his paper's daily business section -- a redesign in which local content was slashed to make room for a tripling of the amount of shoveled-in wire copy -- but actually praising it as "a better assortment of briefs" and "a larger menu of stories for time-starved readers."

"This is what readers have told us they want," Maucker said shortly before taking the stand. "We went through an extensive process involving reader surveys and focus groups. We are very open to ideas from our readers."

To a journalist like Jack Nease, of course, such talk of surveys and focus groups is heresy of the highest order. At one point in the trial, John Powers, the attorney representing the paper, asked Nease, "After the redesign, didn't the volume of business briefs increase three-fold?" Nease's disdainful growl of a response: "Yes, at the same time the news stories decreased."

Nease is an old-school veteran with a Pulitzer Prize under his belt, a reporter who likes nothing better than to tear the hides off dirty dealers and nail them to the wall. In June 1997, Nease says, he was ordered by then-Business Editor Kevin Gale to drop his thrice-weekly column and instead take a new job as a wire editor. "Take it or leave it," Gale reportedly told him. To Nease, being ordered to edit wire copy was tantamount to being ordered to sweep the floor. In other words it was an insult. "I'm not going to end a 40-year career as a wire editor," he told Maucker on his way out the door.

In the end the federal judge in the case ruled that Nease's age had had nothing to do with his resignation from the paper, no matter what duress he might have been under at the time. And in retrospect Nease's departure probably was inevitable. Nease is of an era in which no editor worth his snot would ever dream of replacing local news with phoned-in dreck and calling it better. At the Sun-Sentinel, that era is long gone.

Now Nease spends his time writing a novel and working on his master's degree in the hope of qualifying for a job teaching journalism. In our view he's already qualified. Getting the bum's rush from the Sun-Sentinel newsroom should be all the qualification a journalism teacher ever needs.

Undercurrents wants to know about any and all political deals, media screwups, and particularly dumb memos from bureaucrats. Let us know. Call 954-233-1581, fax 954-233-1571, or e-mail [email protected].

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