Black and white and gray all over

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Monday mornings are tough enough, without being surrounded by a dozen Orlando Sentinel editors.

They stood around the bridge, the raised work station hub at the center of the newsroom, while I sat in the middle with managing editor Elaine Kramer. She began the ritual 10:30 a.m. news meeting by introducing me as her guest.

"This is David Plotkin," she said slowly. "He is a reporter with Orlando Weekly."

Wan, expressionless faces greeted me. I was the only one bothering to fake a smile.

"As you may have noticed," she continued, "Orlando Weekly has decided to focus on local media, and David is here to see how we do our job."

There was a cough somewhere in the room. And then silence. I was blending right in.

My little visit was a form of outreach, a precarious attempt to break down the walls between the city's daily newspaper and the alternative weekly. (It was also a good way to climb inside the beast and take a look around.) I was the uneasy ambassador from a world that doesn't care about sinkholes, Lenny Kravitz or high-school sports.

Kramer, who looks and sounds a lot like Lorraine Bracco without the Long Island accent, led the meeting with a concerned, didactic tone. She is the school marm who calls roll in the morning, checking in with each section editor, dryly recording the stories that are planned for the next day.

The gathering was unexpectedly mellow. Kramer told me the afternoon meeting would be much livelier. I wasn't holding my breath.

I returned to Weekly headquarters, a lawless land of brick and wood, to kill a few hours. The gray scent of the Sentinel still fresh on my clothes, I was greeted by a gaggle of the curious.

"Ooh, you're wearing a tie!" said one staffer.

Another handed me the police report from the arrest of Scott Stapp's wife. "We're thinking of titling the story: Ã?With legs wide open,'" he said with a giant grin.

It was nice to be back where I belong.

A few people asked me what "they" were like "over there," hoping for a tale of expressionless Sentinel automatons slaving over city-council transcripts. Which is pretty much what I found.

I returned to the Sentinel building just before the 4 p.m. meeting commenced. This one was held in the conference room, where plaques and trophies fill the walls. I spotted a Pulitzer Prize.

Kramer pointed to a bulletin board where copies of the day's paper were tacked alongside prints of the Chicago Tribune and a few others. "At the end of each meeting," she explained, "we critique the paper."

The Sentinel has something called the guest-editor program, where selected staffers all the way down to news clerks are invited to lead the critique. I didn't dare ask if I could give it a shot.

A minute later, the room filled with editors, some taking one of the eight chairs around the conference table, others sitting in chairs along the walls. Each seemed to have an assigned place. Editor Tim Franklin dashed in, sat at the head of the table and immediately began calling on the department heads.

Turns were taken. Presentations were made. Votes were cast. Professionalism and order ruled the meeting, the day, the whole operation. Gone was my romantic image of bustling, colorful newsrooms. This was news judgment by bureaucracy, a bloodless and mechanical process more adept at yielding content than telling stories.

The Sentinel is encumbered with an obligation to chronicle and serve its key demographic: boring old people.

Nowhere on my trip did I see signs of vibrancy or excitement, and that has carried over perfectly into print. The Sentinel in the stands that day aptly summed it up: There on the cover, above the fold, was part two of a three-part series on The Villages retirement community in Sumter County.

When its oldest readers are no longer customers, who will be interested? Everyone knows that the Sentinel is an inscrutably dull newspaper. But it's the only one we have, and they seem to know this.

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