I've been hearing today from graduates of the Daily News who are concerned about the scythe being taken to what remains of the paper where they worked. (Some also are emailing Brent Hopkins' blog.) The most thoughtful take I've read is from Louise Yarnall, a DN alum one step removed. She's now an education researcher at SRI International in Menlo Park and works with colleagues from UC Berkeley and the Institute for Analytic Journalism in Santa Fe to improve reporters' quantitative and analytical skills. She also takes part in a new media start-up called Public Press in San Francisco. And her current partner used to be a Singleton editor.
Money quote: "The community is noticing that it's not getting what it used to get from its newspapers. The community members who cursed us while we strove to cover them fairly and accurately already miss us sorely."
My late husband, Jim Bertken, worked at the Daily News and died on the job as an outdoors writer back in 1995; I'm glad he's not alive to see this round of massive layoffs. I can only imagine how heartbroken he would have been. Jim loved his job and he loved the community he covered -- and they loved him back. I still have the cards and letters that prove it.
I've had many friends pass through the DN newsroom and most of them are gone, so they're not directly affected by these layoffs, but still, it's sad. Corporate newspaper journalism has never been kind to its elders or its young. It has only rarely thanked them, paid them well, or cared for them. I got into the business in 1984, and two of the four corporate newspapers I worked for have shut down completely. I know what it feels like to come to work and notice a few people aren't at their desks any more. I know too well what it's like to throw yet another "layoff party."
It's tough to do the work when you feel like the place is shutting down around you. After working 10 years in that field, I left full-time journalism in LA in 1994 and left freelance by 2000. I'll always miss the core of newspaper work, but I'm so relieved I'm not living through this terrible time. This was exactly why I went back to grad school to choose a new career. I saw stellar mid-career reporters getting pink slips from Copley and the LA Times, and all the other corporate owners -- and that was in the "good" days before predictions of long-term decline forced investors to pull their money from media corporations.
What I'm trying to say is -- the problem is not only with the corporate owners, it's with the culture of the newsrooms.
The competitive, individualistic culture. When times are tough, people have to pull together, and they have to think creatively. Newsrooms don't do that very well. In the newsroom culture, coming together means bitching, moaning, and telling good jokes at the bar. That's a nice posture in the good times, but it doesn't work very well when you have real problems to solve. Widowhood and single parenthood taught me that much.
I wonder why these layoffs affect me, and I guess it's because I know that had Jim lived, he never would have left the newspaper business. In fact, that's essentially why I left the business. Someone in our family had to make a decent and reliable living in a functional workplace.
I knew it wouldn't be him since he loved newspapers and he had a thick enough skin to weather the nastiness in the DN newsroom. It was what he was born to do. I wonder what Jim would think of his sons' view of newspaper journalism today. There's lots of writing and reporting genes that my two sons have inherited, but I can tell you -- I know one field my boys will never enter: Newspaper journalism!
I guess I've badmouthed the business a little over the years, but not so much that I've told them not to do it. They reached that decision all on their own. This past week, my sons just laughed when a few journalists came to their high school "career day." Of course, neither of them went to that particular session, but their friends who did said the journalists conveyed one clear message: Don't grow up to be a journalist!
I've moved to Nor Cal, and my current partner was, until last December, editor-in-chief of another Singleton newspaper. I had to watch him suffer through two corporate sales of his paper, and round after round of layoff. The quality of the young reporters and editors seemed worse than it had ever been, and corporate refused to spend a dime on training. Do more with less! Do more with less! It got to be too much. After 35 years of community journalism doing more with less, he took the buyout to save 3 reporters' jobs. It was interesting to see how many emails he received from all over the U.S. It was moving to see all the community leaders who showed up for drinks to send him off. It was sad to see how sad the young staffers were to lose him.
Did anyone in corporate care that they were losing three decades of community memory? Did anyone in corporate worry about losing all the talent and intelligence that he brought to that newsroom? Nope! But, lucky for him, there are plenty of people outside journalism who can see and acknowledge quality, and pay for it. He had a great PR job waiting, and he's been asked to do other jobs in the meantime (elective office anyone?). What can you say about a business that has so little capacity to show respect and regard for the people who do the work? It deserves to fail.
Until now, the corporate newsroom culture has been able to hide behind its "fuck 'em" macho bravado, but I think those days are numbered. The community is noticing that it's not getting what it used to get from its newspapers. The community members who cursed us while we strove to cover them fairly and accurately already miss us sorely. Unfortunately, my experience in the journalism business tells me that they've not seen the worst yet. The level of delusion and ego that informs the corporate newsroom culture, from top to bottom, is almost programmed for utter self-destruction of the most spectacular kind. Corporations will not save this business, and neither will the old style of newsroom macho. Only the spirit of community can. We need some Obamamania in the news world. Real pixie dust.
Currently, the news business visionaries are incubating the next stage, and it remains to be seen what they will hatch. I'm hopeful that someone outside of journalism will develop the next compelling model that will serve the community well. In the meantime, most are weathering the crisis by sedating themselves with Internet hype. Google this and Yahoo that! I don't see that stuff going very far. You have to have a value proposition. I don't see a monetary value proposition for journalism yet. I just see people expecting to get information for free. How long can that last? Who knows? It looks like some kinds of information will be produced ad nauseum indefinitely (corporate advertising thinly veiled as celebrity gossip), but there are other kinds of information that will go the way of the buggy whips (how your community political system really works). Maybe we need to take stock of what kinds of information the democratic, volunteer, amateur, free "information economy" will generate, and what kinds it won't. Then we need to sit down as a community and decide what we value and what we will pay someone to do for us.
I don't know where it's all heading, and I try to keep my hand in the R&D side of new media journalism. We'll see. What I do know is that in part of my journalism career, I covered Santa Monica. That's a town that today has no corporate newspaper. There are a few volunteer or small efforts. I'm sure they're doing the best they can with less. Still, if they were doing such a great job, why is it that every now and then, Santa Monica community members track me down on the Web in my current job? It's been years, and they still remember, and they still go out of their way to find me. What does that tell you about the role of a corporate newspaper in a community and the difference that a single professionally paid storyteller can make in the lives of others? There's a value proposition there. I'm not sure what it is exactly, or how it becomes a business model, but people can see good storytelling and honor it, and they know that not everyone can do it well. In these dark days for corporate journalism, perhaps knowing that humans need good storytelling is the one bit of light that we can follow into the future.