Business/Finance

'You want me on that wall! You need (a good journalist) on that wall!'

For 20 years, I was a newsman. A damned good one. I learned the craft from good newsmen who learned it from other good newsmen before me. No steenkin’ journalism school for me.

I learned to parse cop code by making daily phone calls to the cops to get the police log — and often walked to the cop shop and read it myself when the damned desk sergeant wouldn’t read it to me. I learned by paying attention to details. I listened to what sources said — always more than one, y’know — and wrote it down. I had a newsroom godfather who taught me well: “Get it right. Period.” I only used anonymous sources three times in 20 years.

One day Editor Bob said he’d heard somebody was going to build a nuclear plant up river. “Find out,” he said. I did. I had to learn how nukes operated in less than two hours before going to the presser for the announcement. I was the only newsman who asked: “Will this be a boiling water or pressurized water reactor?” Hell, the PR types didn’t know. I did. I knew the in’s and out’s of each. Score one for me. I learned the beat quickly. I reported what the utility and the government didn’t want my readers to know. I wore a button given to me by my news editor: “Question Authority.” I found facts — so my readers found out something they needed to know.

I covered the construction of that plant — how it helped and hurt the local economy, whether the utility’s general contractor was using local union labor or bringing in its own non-union crews, what the impact of the finished plant would be on property-tax rates in a very small town. I covered the environmental protests over the plant, learning what happens to fish when warm water is discharged into a cool river. I covered the squabbles over the environmental impact statement and licensing hearings. Then there was the radiation thing …

I covered boards of selectmen and planning boards and school boards and conservation commissions. I did zoning appeals meetings, where commercial interests tried quietly to get land use restrictions altered. Not on my watch: I found out, because my newsroom godfather taught me the law — and showed me the corner of the town-hall bulletin board where the zoning board posted required legal notices in type so small you’d need a magnifying glass to read ’em. I found out facts — so my readers found out something they needed to know.

I explained why school budgets ballooned. I wrote why property taxes were heading up — again and again. I knew the paper’s readership area, I knew the readers’ interests, and I knew all the back channels of local government. I wrote stories when a town official gave the town’s winter salt contract to an in-law.

Yep, I was a newsman. Began with a typewriter, an old LC Smith, Army surplus. Ended on Hendrix computer terminals with disk drives the size of dinner plates. Even ran a linotype once.

After 20 years, I had accumulated institutional memory of the news and names of 400 square miles of readership area. I had an encyclopedic Rolodex of politicians’ names and numbers, including the bars they drank at (and in some cases, their lovers’ home phone numbers).

After 20 years, I was barely 40, and I knew my craft. I knew the public-service mission: Protect the readers. Find the facts, and tell readers what they need to know.

But in today’s Sam Zell universe, I’d be toast. I’d have been bought out years ago or laid off. I would have become an extraordinary expense in the chase for maximizing shareholder profit. Me and my costly health-care benefits and Guild salary would have been dropped like a fiscally toxic hot potato.

And out the door I’d have gone — with that institutional memory, that massive Rolodex, that 20 years of experience of writing more than 10,000 stories and editing three times that and penning 2,000 editorials and columns. Maybe into PR, like so many have. Or maybe into attempts to try different venues for news, as a few are doing.

Imagine today’s me — the experienced journalist in his or her late 40s, or 50s, or 60s. At the end of the last century, newsrooms were well-stocked with versions of me. No more. Newspaper corporations in their unbelievable arrogance ignored the emergence of the Internet as a competitive force. Newspaper advertisers began switching media allegiances. The trend of declining ad revenue at newspapers has accelerated, complicated by the current dismal economy. Look at these third-quarter numbers:

  • Print ad revenue down 19.26 percent to $8.2 billion. (Down 16.07 percent in Q2, down 14.38 percent in Q1)
  • Online ad revenue down 3 percent to $749.8 million. (Down 2.4 percent in Q2, up 7.2 percent in Q1)
  • Combined is down 18.11 percent to $8.94 billion. (Down 15.11 percent in Q2, Down 12.85 percent in Q1)

The modern me — experienced, knowledgeable, presumably unflappable — is a pricey commodity in a business that’s losing its shirt so badly corporate practitioners are trying to sell off big metro dailies such as E.W. Scripps’ Rocky Mountain News and McClatchy’s Miami Herald. The New York Times Co. wants to mortgage its grand edifice for $225 mill to maintain cash flow — and Sam Zell’s Tribune Co. has filed for Chapter 11. He ran its newspapers and their veteran journalistic abilities into the cold, cold ground of indebtedness.

The modern me is unaffordable. So there are fewer version of the modern me in the nation’s biggest dailies. Staffs at the New York Times and Los Angeles Times and other newspapers nationwide have been slashed.

Yeah, yeah, you say. Heard all this before. So what?

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, that’s what. The weird case of the bamboozling guv illuminates the weak underbelly of American Corporate Journalism. Writes syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker:

Latest score: The bums are winning. And the corrupt politicians are, too.

Thanks to mismanagement and debt, Tribune’s eviscerated newspapers are riddled with more holes than Al Capone’s enemies, while Illinois holds the nation’s highest gubernatorial incarceration rate. Three of the past eight governors have spent time in jail or prison. Blagojevich would bring the number to four.

If ever The Chicago Tribune‘s renowned staff of swashbuckling reporters, cartoonists, editors and columnists (Mike Royko and Jeff MacNelly, RIP) were needed — or more sorely missed — it is now. Not that those still standing don’t do a heroic job, but they know what I mean. Staff cuts and shrinking news holes make it hard to keep pace when the enemy is communing with one’s own generals, as seems to be the case here. [emphasis added]

That’s why more, not fewer, modern versions of me are needed— to keep the Bums from winning. Blago’s a Big Bum, but every newsman and newswoman at a small local weekly or daily know bums like Blago exist everywhere. That’s why I’m still a journalism educator, trying to provide young men and women the education and common sense needed to practice a craft vitally necessary to the conduct of a fully functional and fairly operated democracy.

You know that $700 billion bailout of financial institutions overseen by Hammerin’ Hank Paulson? Outside of a simple pie chart I saw on CNN showing a breakdown of who got what, I don’t know if that dough is really being used effectively, honestly and fairly. I read there’s dozens of federal investigations into the financial markets. How seriously are those look-sees being undertaken by the feds? American Corporate Journalism won’t and can’t cover these things adequately.

And if you think the majority of blogs you read are well-stocked with veteran, experienced professional journalists who can keep tabs on corporate cheaters and government incompetents at local, regional and national levels, send me some of what you’re smokin’.

Some blogs provide useful commentary and analysis. But it takes well-trained, experienced journalists fully supported by adequate organizational resources to find out stuff readers need to know. Good journalism is expensive.

Veteran, experienced journalists find out facts — so their readers find out something they need to know.

Sooner or later, the free stuff online will be precisely worth that price – absolutely nothing.

10 replies »

  1. Thanks, Dr. D, for showing us just what we’re losing.

    “I knew the public-service mission: Protect the readers. Find the facts, and tell readers what they need to know.”

    And this was devastating. . .

    “But in today’s Sam Zell universe, I’d be toast. I’d have been bought out years ago or laid off. I would have become an extraordinary expense in the chase for maximizing shareholder profit. . .”

    Re: “But it takes well-trained, experienced journalists fully supported by adequate organizational resources to find out stuff readers need to know. ”

    That’s what everybody, including the likes of Arianna Huffington, forgets. You need to be subsidized to spend your days researching, investigating, and traveling for a story. As an Internet writer, I’m more aware than most how my efforts are circumscribed by lack of funding (not to mention training).

    Thanks for a crucial post, Dr. D.

  2. And people like me will never get a chance – my salary and benefit needs are too expensive for any outfit given my lack of training and experience. With all the experienced and trained environmental and science journalists being laid off from Tribune, NYTimes, Gannett, et al, a blogger who effectively pays for the privilege of being a journalist couldn’t possibly find a job.

    Hell, even freelancers don’t like people like me, because I’m doing work “for free” that they could potentially make money off of, and that pushes pay rates down. And I can’t say that I blame them, frankly.

    What a screwed up system.

  3. Assets like your encyclopedic Rolodex and your institutional memory don’t show up on a balance sheet, but they have always been a newspaper’s most valuable assets. Because they don’t show, bean counters dismiss them–and, in the process, have dismissed the very relevance of their papers.

    Great post, Denny.

  4. The profit-driven corporate media owners and the media consultants have killed the idea of journalism as a public trust.
    Reporters are now just there to provide an audience for advertising.

Leave a Reply to jeff watson Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s