Tag Archives: beyond the newsroom

Basking in the decadent glory of print’s decline

I don’t want newspapers to go away because I will always love them. But how much more watered down and hollowed out do they have to become before the hardiest print defenders stop deluding themselves about the real reasons for their demise?

How much longer will they blame the Internet, mock the efforts of those who are trying to refashion journalism on the Web, and ridicule those terrible bloggers, aggregators and digital creative types who apparently are guilty of nothing less than intellectual debauchery?

Paul Farhi of the Washington Post has been taken to task before for defending the work of rank-and-file journalists, and most recently, for urging newspapers to build a pay wall and consider not posting print material on their Web sites. I generally agreed with him on the former and shook my head at his latter idea.

Now he’s totally jumped the shark from nuanced, thoughtful writing on these subjects to reignite a phantom clash between bloggers vs. journalists. He’s not the first to launch the following ad hominem attack (halfway down in this link, after much rambling about the Washington Redskins):

“I can’t imagine a world (or an internet) without the raw factual material that newspapers provide every day, but I guess the bloggers don’t really care about any of that. They’re mostly about themselves and their opinions, with little thought given to where they’re getting their basic facts.”

Oh yes, here’s another tiresome bloggers-as-monolith screed. Which bloggers? What are they blogging about? Why don’t they care? We don’t know, because then Farhi’s off fielding more readers’ questions about the Redskins — talk about a lost cause! This is how online chats go.

But Farhi’s shots are more than cheap. They’re reflective of the deep denial of so many still bound up in the cult of print. Print good, bloggers bad. Either you’re with newspapers or you’re with the “digital barbarians.” If we don’t save newspapers, democracy will die.

I’m fed up with digital triumphalists who like to kick print when it’s down, who can’t wait for it to slip into further irrelevance. They have been tone-deaf to the plight of thousands of people whose livelihoods have been dashed because leaders of the newspaper industry failed to prepare for the future.

But to suggest that the fate of self-government is bound up with newspapers is to ignore what’s been happening (to both) for several decades:

“Once the individual papers started getting gobbled up by the chains and the chains went public, Wall Street wanted profit over journalism and the business got a one-way ticket to Palookaville. This is not new. How many monastic scribes lost their jobs when Gutenberg started cranking up his press?

“How many typesetters lost their jobs when offset presses came along? This has been coming on for a long time. And while all these CEOs of the big chains were talking about how you can’t cut your way to profitability, they kept cutting. When there was no more fat, they cut into muscle and then bone. And what did it get them?”

Still, desperate, hair-brained schemes, such as bringing in the heavy hand of government to prop up newspapers, stubbornly persist. These actions will not stop the continued decline of print, which is nothing I feel good about.

It’s necessary to examine what’s being lost because reviving the news cannot take place without this understanding. But the ceaseless, hyperbolic hand-wringing that only newspapers — instead of journalism — can provide the necessary checks on government is tragic and misplaced:

“Traditional journalists have long believed that this form of fact-based accountability news is the essential food supply of democracy and that without enough of this healthy nourishment, democracy will weaken, sicken, or even fail.”

For the quarter-century I was in newspapers, the journalism that I and many others influenced by Watergate idealized dwindled, replaced with lifestyle and celebrity fluff that hardly serves exalted notions of democracy. As a sportswriter, I knew I was helping readers escape the duties of citizenship.

I’m skeptical about the purported renewal of democracy on the Web, but that comes more from my pessimism about our political system. And I am extremely concerned about the fate of reading and cognitive development among the Web generation. But those are topics for another time.

What I find so sad about these newspaper laments is that the hard-headed realism that journalists supposedly possess has been completely abandoned for treacly sentiment and arrogance. As has been said often before, nostalgia ain’t what it used to be, and the newsroom-on-a-pedestal that’s being conjured up now never really existed. While I do terribly miss the camaraderie I enjoyed with former colleagues, I never worked in such a place.

Not long ago I finished reading “The Paper: The Life and Death of the New York Herald-Tribune,” an engrossing account of a great, but flawed newspaper that went by the wayside in 1966. Its fate was sealed by rancorous newspaper strikes and poor family-run ownership. Like many newspapers, it often did great public service journalism (and employed the likes of Tom Wolfe and Jimmy Breslin at the end).

But it was also guilty of lacking a backbone on many other topics, worried about offending its advertisers and fiercely loyal to its moderate Republican political ideology. In the immediate post-World War II years the Herald-Tribune fatally missed the opportunity to expand its reader base by ceding the vastly-growing suburbs to The New York Times.

This was a full 30 years before the advent of the Web. And while newspapers weren’t facing the levels of extinction they do today, Ben Bagdikian’s assessment, first delivered the same year I got into the business, predicted what complacency and monopoly power could yield. He envisioned that one-way ticket to Palookaville before most everybody.

Like many former newspaper journalists and as a proud product of print culture, I am also wistful of what’s fading away. My former newspaper is giving up the ghost in astonishing fashion, which actually has made it easier to shed the last layers of nostalgia I’ve held for it.

It’s also far too easy to be snarky and dismissive of what’s being attempted to follow newspaper journalism. Say what you will about Arianna Huffington and cohorts (and I’ve said plenty about her), they’re not the problem here. Some of their solutions are knuckle-headed, but they’re doing much more than their fiercest critics, who are content to take potshots from the bleachers.

What are these print Cassandras doing to ensure the vitality of journalism in the digital age? Instead of lending their time and talents to invigorate a profession they insist is vital to democracy, they’d rather defiantly (and selfishly) go down with the ship. I just wish they would admit that.

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A refreshing new media mea culpa

Take note of this, “printies” and traditional journalists: A rare apology from a leading new media proponent who admits to being a bit harsh on those with careers spent mainly in now-decaying mainstream news institutions:

“In my experience, the vast majority of journalists and editors work very hard and very well, usually without the compensation or recognition they deserve. I am deeply grateful for the efforts of my colleagues in the journalistic trenches. I’m especially awed by journalists who keep doing their work independently, after their job or news org disappears.”

Amy Gahran’s farewell piece as editor of The Poynter Institute’s E-Media Tidbits feature also explains why she has taken journalism educators to task for similar reasons — her impatience with the journalistic status quo and enthusiasm for new ways of doing the news:

“Yes, I can be pretty cocky and flippant, and sometimes I’ve been oblivious to the current pain and struggles of journalists and news orgs. I apologize for that.”

I wish she wouldn’t have waited until signing off from her column to write this, but I think it’s a big gesture to do it at all. I’ve never found Gahran too over the top, especially in comparison with some of her counterparts. Indeed, in my very first post on this blog (has it been almost a year?), I included a video clip of her talking about the massive rethinking needed by mainstream journalists. Her comments were rather spot-on, based on some of my experiences as a Web editor at my former newspaper’s site.

But one of the most deflating discoveries I’ve had in acquainting myself with the work and ideas of some online media sages is the kick-em-when-they’re-down tone of their diatribes. Occasionally I’ve gone to their sites to gain information and understanding and often feel instead like I’m getting punched in the stomach for not being in the vaunted generation of young journalists with laptops in their cribs. Journalists from the “legacy” domain have been regarded as a clueless, antiquated and unreconstructed bunch, especially if they are at a mid- or late-career stage.

The gleeful, blanket condemnation of the so-called curmudgeon class is meant to summarize the mindset of an entire profession, but conveniently ignores many journalists from backgrounds like mine who do “get” and even embrace the Web. The antipathy for anything reeking of the print world is just as kneejerk as that of the curmudgeons. Even younger journalists know there are plenty of old school values worth bringing forward:

“While we are caught up in our new toys — and I include myself in this — we risk forgetting where we came from.”

I don’t expect anyone else to say they’re sorry as Gahran has. That’s not the point, really. But perhaps her message might signal a less hostile approach to blending old “printies” like me into the world of Web journalism. Instead of the one-way scolding that we’ve been getting, perhaps the sages might actually start to think that we’ve got a significant stake in the future of the profession. I’m not going to hold my breath, but thanks for your thoughts, Amy.

• Former Rocky Mountain News editor John Temple is doing his damnedest not to let the work of stellar newspaper reporters, now outside the newsroom, go unnoticed. He continues a series of interviews with former Pulitzer Prize winners who’ve either been laid off or who’ve taken buyouts. Some are mindful how their old worldviews contributed to the demise of the industry. Says former Washington Post Style section reporter Tamara Jones:

“I think we all wish we hadn’t been so complacent. There’s always been this disparity between the way we perceive ourselves and how society views us. As journalists, we genuinely believe that we are doing noble work, but opinion polls consistently rank us among the least-trustworthy, right down there with ambulance-chasers, grave robbers and mercenaries. Maybe we should have been less indignant and more curious about why we weren’t valued.”

I plead guilty to possessing this sentiment as well, for far too long. Temple’s also talking to other post-newsroom journalists about how they’re reinventing themselves in another series entitled “A New Life.”

In both cases, there are some very inspiring stories here.

• New York Times media reporter David Carr talks to Tina Brown a decade following the big party that launched the audacious “Talk” magazine, which didn’t last three years. Carr casts this as a metaphor for the end of the splashy word of legacy print media, and although Brown now has gone Web with The Daily Beast, she’s a bit wistful too:

“I was aware it was a historic night. We were on a boat and I was with Natasha Richardson. We were talking and laughing, looking at the lights of the twin towers. And then a big wave came over the side of the boat and soaked us both. Now Natasha is gone, the towers are gone. It’s very, very sad, but I am very excited by this new world we are heading into.”

I have my own Ten Years After remembrance — from a quite different event that same year. It seems 1999 is the year we all partied, a bit too hearty, and we’re all trying now to put those times in perspective, learn from them and carry on.

Stepping beyond the bounds of journalism

Andrea James was one of the few holdovers from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer as it stopped the print presses earlier this year and converted to an all-online organization. Now the business reporter is leaving the industry to become a researcher for an investment bank, and she pens a heartfelt explanation that thousands of us can understand.

What I admire the most is her willingness — after quite a bit of soul-searching — to never-say-never about broadening her horizons. The collapse of the newspaper business certainly contributes to having an open mind, but there are other factors at work:

“Here’s what I think now, given the present flux in media: Trying new things maintains career growth and passion. And the same personal qualities that led me to pursue journalism — a love of writing, a desire to understand and make sense of how the world works — are what intrigue me about investment research. In short, I’ll still get paid to ask questions.”

Indeed, the opportunities to use journalism skills in other fields are plentiful, and a new career environment can be highly re-energizing, as attested to here, here, and here. I had my say on this topic earlier this year, and I don’t feel differently now. But like James, I’m not closing the door to any possibilities.

A few additional thoughts from James on the profession she’s leaving behind, to those who are still sticking around:

“The future will include more democratization of data, more citizen engagement, more unpaid writers, fewer generalists, more amateurs with fan followings, a greater appreciation for quality business reporting, and a whittling down of traditional journalistic authority against the rise of the niche-hobbyist-turned-pro.

“The notion of journalists as gatekeepers is obsolete — those who pridefully struggle to hold onto that antiquated view will watch helplessly as information flows around, over and beneath the gates. Those who humbly embrace these changes will become the new stars, appreciated for their ability to generate unique content while at the same time navigating and making sense of the information flow.”

Rekindling the single-minded pursuit of passion

I’ve been busy the last couple of weeks working on the creation of two sports Web sites — one of my own and another startup idea with a friend. Both revolve around topics I’ve written about extensively during my newspaper days, and that I have dabbled with on the Web.

These topics brought out the passion in me to a point where some former colleagues wondered — sometimes within my earshot — that perhaps I was a bit too narrow in my interests. Who’s going to read this? Who cares about those “small” sports? Reality, as they defined it, was being crowded out.

Then reality did bite, and it chomped down rather hard on my little dream creation. After a couple of years of changing supervisors and the gradual chipping away of my hybrid beat, the only job I ever wanted — and one I had invented myself — was going away altogether. In one of many newsroom reorganizations at my former place in recent years (far too many to count), I was going over to the Web side of the operation.

I welcomed the change not only to learn some valuable Web skills, but also because I had become burned out and beaten down by the constant merry-go-round in the newsroom. The passion had been drained out of me, and so for most of the four years I worked on the Web site, I buried those passions and poured my energies into the world of online journalism.

While I’m glad I did the latter, I have regretted putting aside the sports passions that marked my work as a reporter. Since leaving the paper 10 months ago, I’ve been stoking those fires anew. While it’s impossible to feel the same surge of excitement at reporting and writing on a beat for the first time, I’d be foolish to toss away the the contacts, expertise and ideas I generated over the years. Especially when so many people I’ve gotten to know on those beats have been asking me if I’m going to “come back” someday.

Well, yes, I can say that I am making a comeback. I’m very close to relaunching my old beat on the Web, but in the split-up, niche ways that the Web demands. Which I think is ideal. Instead of writing for a mass audience, I’m honing in on those readers who are intensely interested in the subject and will aim to provide content and value they cannot get anywhere else.

The obvious question here is this: So, are you going to make money off this?

Clearly, not at the start, and while one of the sites has a business model in mind, it’s one that hasn’t been tested. So I’m not making any assumptions about cash rolling in.

There’s no magic bullet here to fame or fortune as a blogging journalist. If you go into a blog with that in mind, you’re bound to fail. Without the passion for your topic, there’s no way even a non-commercial blog has a chance of being noticed, or of giving the writer an ounce of satisfaction. I believe that’s probably why so many blogs go away as quickly as they were begun.

When I read this week that a leading NFL-oriented fan blog was being purchased by NBC Sports, I thought it was a fantastic victory for the idea of media convergence that I wholeheartedly support. But I truly love the story of Mike Florio, a West Virginia lawyer who started ProFootballTalk.com because of his unquenchable passion for the sport of pro football:

“I try to create the place where I would want to spend my time if I was on the other side of the screen. Where would I want to get my information about the NFL? What stories would be interesting to me and how would I want it to be presented? Would I want it to be just a cold, dry recitation of the facts, or would I want it to be something that makes me think, that makes me upset, that stirs my opinions and makes me laugh from time to time?”

Isn’t that a great mission statement for anybody starting a blog? Isn’t that what journalists have been trained to do all along?

All along, Florio kept his day job as a lawyer, but now he’s going to give it up to write full-time for his site, which he began seven years ago.

When Alex Ross, the respected classical music critic for The New Yorker, toots another critic’s horn, that’s truly high praise. Pierre Ruhe, until recently the full-time classical music critic at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, my former paper, has begun an Atlanta arts site with fellow ex-AJC critics Catherine Fox (visual art and architecture) and Wendell Brock (theater) after all three took recent buyouts. Ross, who like many of us has both feet planted on either side of the media divide, raises the usual questions about whether such ventures can sustain the journalists who started them. Any journalist worried about what is being lost with the decline of newspapers should keep this in mind:

“I’m generally a fan of the wacky world wide web, but I don’t believe that it will put traditional journalism out of business, any more than television replaced movies or recording replaced live performance. The false either/or of Internet vs. print should be put to rest. And publications should emphasize their strengths and not their weaknesses.”

Andrew Sullivan’s passion for rounding up the best news content on the Web and posting it on his well-read blog, The Daily Dish, has made him an indispensable curator and commenter on a number of major news topics over the years. But his work last weekend in conveying on-the-ground developments from Tehran following the controversial Iranian presidential elections is earning raves all across the blogosphere, and not just from fellow political and current affairs junkies. The terrific Open Culture site claims Sullivan “has been embarrassing America’s traditional news media” and adds:

“I ask, somewhat facetiously, would we really miss the beleaguered newspaper industry if it went away? Not this week, we wouldn’t.”

Of course, Sullivan has been a traditional journalist for many years, blending that background with blogging. And he’s a rare paid, full-time blogger too. But if you have some time and want to understand his journalistic transition, his “Why I Blog” piece for The Atlantic last fall is a classic, if lengthy, manifesto.

It also oozes with the kind of passion that’s necessary for anyone to have a chance of making something happen on the Web.

Another big hit for my old newsroom

The news today that my former employer is slashing the size of the newsroom again — by 30 percent, or 90 full-time positions — drives home a rather obvious reality I’ve lived through since I left there eight months ago. As excited as I remain about developing a career beyond the newsroom, it’s also imperative for journalists, especially at newspaper companies, to get real about their prospects in the profession and beyond.

There will be another time for a post along those lines. For today, I’m just taking in what’s been announced at my old place. It’s staggering. Perhaps this is what major metropolitan dailies should have been bracing for all along, but it doesn’t make these departures any easier to absorb.

While I try to stay upbeat on this blog and do believe that in time non-newsroom journalists can find the same kind of challenging work and make a living wage that they once enjoyed in newsrooms, right now it’s hard to envision that. They’re stepping into an economic recession that’s deeper and the prospects for a quick recovery are gloomier than when I walked out into the Great Wide Open in September.

I’ve been plugging away at a number of possibilities and projects and know that I will get to a more stable place in my work and my life.

This can be discouraging at times, especially today when I see so many people I’ve known and worked with who are going through the same agony of deciding their futures in a heartbeat. You don’t sleep, you can’t eat, you’re unable to think about anything else but figuring out how the hell you’re gonna dog-paddle in the deep end of swirling waters you’ve never swum in before.

I’ve enjoyed the latter, but that’s just me. I’ve embraced the messiness and chaos, mainly because it’s inevitable. Some people I know who will be affected by this latest round of cuts are routine creatures who never imagined they would have to do anything else in their careers.

A former colleague who was shocked when I told her last summer that I was leaving said to me: “I’ve never known anything but newspapers.”

Well, neither had I, but she’s facing a similar situation today — and thank goodness it’s another buyout round and not layoffs. I hope she’s over the shock. I hope everyone there is.

For the most part I’m undeterred about the plans and ideas I have in mind. They’ll get me where I want to be, eventually. I’m happy to be where I am in so many ways.

But for the moment I’m just sad and heartbroken.

A chat just for displaced journalists

Two people who have been very instrumental to me in my post-newspaper career are having an online chat today for journalists between jobs. It would be well worth your time to follow what they have to say about the turbulence in our profession, and how to navigate it.

Colleen Eddy, the director of the Poynter Institute’s Career Center, and Joe Grimm, who pens the daily “Ask the Recruiter” feature on the Poynter site, will be taking questions starting at 1 p.m. EDT today.

Here’s the link for the chat, which is entitled “Surviving Between Jobs.”

One of the first things I did when I was approved for my buyout was to fill out a Poynter questionnaire for displaced journalists. Shortly after I sent it in, Joe called me and we discussed the new world we were entering (he had just begun his buyout).

This conversation, and the inspiration I received from it, led to me applying for, and being accepted to, Poynter’s first “Standing Up for Journalism” workshop for displaced journalists last November. Not only did Colleen set up a stellar week of multimedia and career transition training for our group, but she has continued to be a tremendous source of support.

I can’t say enough about how wonderful Joe, Colleen and the Poynter staff have been. Their insight is invaluable, and they truly care about what happens to journalists. Because they know that journalism is poorer with fewer of them.

Hopeful, but daunting prospects for the post-newspaper tribe

The American Journalism Review spoke with a number displaced journalists in a fascinating piece just published entitled “Is There Life After Newspapers?” and discovered that many of them are relatively pleased and fully engaged in new careers and lives. Even as they shake their heads at what’s happening to the newspaper industry they left behind.

From a crime reporter-turned-yoga instructor:

“I have to say, overwhelmingly and surprisingly, I don’t miss it . . . I’m very happy at what I’m doing.”

And from an investigative reporter and editor laid off in his ’60s:

“My health has never been better. My blood pressure is down 25 points. I exercise.”

Of course the flip side is a frightening one — the prospect of losing health coverage, or being unable to afford a COBRA extension, and a dismal job market and economy that shows few signs of improving for months. A young laid-off journalist could say only that “I guess it was the wrong time to get into the newspaper industry.”

An outplacement company executive interviewed by AJR naturally suggested that journalists are well-suited for jobs involving writing, but they also tend to be “internally focused” and could become even more isolated without an office to inhabit. Stay in touch with fellow members of your tribe, and expand your professional circle. Even more importantly, don’t sit around and wait for the light bulb of inspiration to switch on. You’ve got to make it happen:

“Challenger advises out-of-work newspaper people to ‘get a fast start. Don’t think about it too long. A lot of people spend a lot of time thinking about what they want to do next instead of getting started. They’re waiting for an epiphany about what to do next.’ “

Former New York Times entertainment reporter Sharon Waxman is diving into the murky waters of entrepreneurial journalism — perhaps the best career bet for displaced journalists to stay in the profession — by starting a Hollywood industry-oriented Web site. (Yes, I know, but it’s the example of what she’s attempting, rather than the nature of the content, that’s important to keep in mind here.) It helps that she’s managed to get her hands on some rare loose venture capital change, but admits that the success of her project is far from guaranteed:

“The allure of being your own boss and making a difference has inspired many journalists-turned-entrepreneurs to launch Web sites and leave behind the relative safety of writing articles and publishing books.

“The failure rate is very high. Journalists are often woefully unprepared for the challenges of raising money, managing a business and building a reliable staff. I asked Waxman pointedly why she is jumping into the deep end of journalism.

” ‘Why am I doing this?’ ” she answered with a laugh. ” ‘I see an opportunity. If I don’t do it, someone else will. It’s a challenge to create a vehicle where professional journalists can thrive at a time when professional journalism is imperiled.’ “

There are plenty other examples of what post-newspaper journalists are doing that are quite a bit more stable than that, and some interesting stats about us, in the AJR story. So go read the whole thing.