The Thrill is Gone
Working for a newspaper used to seem like a noble and exciting calling. Now the business side has triumphed and angst reigns in America's newsrooms.
By Carl Sessions Stepp
Carl Sessions Stepp (email@example.com), AJR's senior editor, teaches at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.
You remember the good old days. The newspaper man and woman engaged in a holy calling, admired if not loved, feared if not revered, licensed to cross-examine presidents and lounge alongside heartthrobs, intoxicated with the rush of insider access, immune from the indignities of crass commerce. Making a diff)rence. Commanding attention. Mattering.
For all the trials of poor pay, lousy hours and grinding pace, the payoff was high: deference, entitlement, the buzz of recognition, the glory of it all. Readers grumbled, but they paid attention. They had to. Always would.
These are different days. The newspaper person is just one more harried newshound, a mere molecule in the maligned Media Horde. Newspapers are old news, byte-sized cogs in giant infotainment conglomerates. Television is hotter, has been for half a century. Online is magic, will be into the next century. Larry King trumps David Broder. Mickey Mouse buys the Kansas City Star. Home pages are cooler than home delivery.
Newspaper people saunter into parties and nobody stirs. The yawns hurt most. The criticisms were bearable, honorable scars from the ramparts. But irrelevance truly singes, the gnawing feeling that the spotlight has moved on forever. Like DJs on AM radio, newspaper people will work on. But will anyone notice?
The result: Angst and anxiety are pandemic across American newsrooms, as newspaper people collectively sense the end of an era.
For all their poor-mouthing, newspapers remain prosperous, more so than most corporations. Yet this fact too unnerves the newsroom, where skeptics often quote the Vietnam-era chestnut about destroying the village in order to save it.
Maintaining profit margins has had at least two profound consequences on the newspaper village: Marketers have seized the chance to run roughshod over editors, and a venerable way of thinking about newspapers has been debased.
You feel it in virtually every newsroom, the sag, the deflation,
the suspicion that a special way of life is teetering. Sometimes newspeople feel like vaudevillians who strutted before entranced throngs, then faded into oblivion as the crowds defected to moving pictures.
Gene Miller, a near-legendary reporter, has written for the Miami Herald since 1957. At 66, he loves his work and appreciates the freedom the Knight-Ridder paper yields him. But he senses the change.
"I get up, I come to work, I have a good time, I work good stories," Miller says. "But things are different. Knight-Ridder's terribly schizophrenic – they speak of quality and they talk of profits. They're so interested in money, and that's not why I became a newspaper man."
It's not why anyone became a newspaper person. Most journalists accept that the news is a business; they're not complete innocents. But they've lived a lifetime with the formidable truism, or at least the very durable myth, that the news business could be News first and Business second. They've accepted the incongruous, but definitive and brilliant, First Amendment interpretation that public service offsets private profit-making.
Now, says St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editor William Woo, these people face a "failure of confidence." Newspapering has always provoked griping and whining, but the difference today is that basic values are under assault. The qualities that once compensated journalists for all the bother – public notice, the sense of a shared crusade – have withered.
"Something is qualitatively different about the mood or morale in newspapers today," says Woo, who has thought a lot about this as chair of the ASNE Change Committee. "When I was a young reporter with the Kansas City Times in the 1950s, the kind of frustrations were essentially the same kind that had existed for a long time – being underpaid, difficult hours, grubby work."
But journalists took pride in their "sense of themselves as keepers of a noble flame," he adds, and management carefully tended that notion. Those who have carried it forward now find it "very, very emotionally difficult" to see newspapers fading in stature, marketers bullying editors, readers redefined as customers.
"A customer is someone who goes to Macy's, but you can't be a reader without a newspaper," Woo says. "For the first time, we're looking at radical differences in the things we're said to value, the way our product is going out, the way the public appreciates it and uses it. All these things are tightly bound up in your sense of yourself and your value as a journalist."
The irony is that change will almost certainly save newspapers as business enterprises. But will it save them by killing off a treasured way of life?
aybe historians will trace the turning point to Gene Roberts' resignation as top editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1990, or Jim Squires' from the Chicago Tribune the year before, or Geneva Overholser's from the Des Moines Register this year. Or Tony Ridder's ascension at Knight-Ridder, or Mark H. Willes' move from General Mills to Times Mirror.
Maybe it came much earlier, and we only now realize it, like those folks belatedly getting word of pivotal Civil War battles long since ended.
But it seems clear that in the age-old battle between the editorial side and the business side, the editorialists have lost their long-held but tenuous upper hand. Perhaps the matter isn't permanently settled. But there's little doubt the business side has, for now, gained ascendance.
All at once, the evidence is breaking out everywhere.
"Many of these [newspapers] have been able to operate with two out of three decisions being made by editors," Salomon Brothers analyst Lanny Baker told the New York Times. "But we are moving into an era where two out of three decisions are going to have to be made in favor of publishers."
Few developments symbolized this new era more than the May appointment of General Mills cereal executive Mark Willes to head the Times Mirror Co. His hiring, The New Yorker editorialized, "seemed to represent an encroaching soullessness." In his very first appearance with reporters, Willes cited the marketing success of Hamburger Helper as a possible model for newspapers.
Jokes multiplied about Cap'n Crunch and cereal killings as one blow fell on another. Times Mirror announced plans to close the Baltimore Evening Sun on the eve of Willes' ascension; once ensconced, the new president and CEO moved quickly to kill the money-losing but prestigious New York Newsday, to cut 700 jobs and several sections at the Los Angeles Times, and to offer buyouts to 13 percent of the Hartford Courant staff.
And the news was grim elsewhere. The Houston Post closed in April, papers merged or folded in Milwaukee, Providence and Norfolk, and a nasty newspaper strike erupted in Detroit in July, rekindling fears that the Detroit News faced closing.
Except on the equivalent of the obit pages, newspapers seemed to vanish from media coverage, shoved offstage by the infatuation with electronic expansion and experimentation.
Newspapers were barely mentioned in Walt Disney's $19 billion offer for Capital Cities/ABC (though Cap Cities was, once, known as a newspaper company). In a $2.3 billion deal, Gannett, the nation's largest newspaper company (and one that made a $465 million profit last year), acquired Multimedia Inc., a company that owns 11 dailies; the Washington Post's lede described it as "a publishing and broadcast company best known for producing the TV talk shows of Phil Donahue, Sally Jessie Raphael and Rush Limbaugh."
The first quarter report from Knight-Ridder, a company associated with newspapers if ever there was one, listed five paragraphs of "strategic initiatives." Every single one involved new media; newspapers were mentioned only as contributors to such services as the New Century Network, "an outlet for new products customized for the Internet."
Sometimes the glancing blows seemed the cruelest. A New York Times article announcing the appointment of Mark Willes, for instance, mentioned matter-of-factly that losing contender Richard T. Schlosberg III, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, "might have been too closely identified with the newspaper business..to assure investors that [the company] was focused on the future." And a William Glaberson media column in the Times noted gathering doubts "about the fundamental idea that the way to succeed in the newspaper business is simply to put out good newspapers."
Unsparing and unrelenting, these blows keep landing like jabs to a punch-drunk prize fighter. Little wonder newspaper people have settled into a kind of group funk.
Consider how The American Editor, the magazine of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, launched its coverage of the society's convention this year. "If you think this was a bad year, better get used to it" was the headline on the lead article. Then came, "Changing is a way of life for people and business," "Newspaper's place in cyberspace still cloudy," and an article on attracting young people, "Just give them what they want."
"Job satisfaction in newspapering appears to be in significant decline," wrote respected Indiana University researchers David Weaver and G. Cleveland Wilhoit, reporting on their latest national survey of journalists. "Only 25 percent say they are very satisfied with their job, about half the satisfaction rate 20 years ago... More than 20 percent..said they plan to leave the field within five years, double the figure of 1982-83."
And if journalists themselves are fleeing, how about the public, where condescending dismissal of newspapers has become almost a mantra in the turn to talk shows, tabloids and cyberchat? The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz convened a dozen Baltimore-area consumers to talk about their media habits. Furniture salesman Norman Brown, for instance, told Kurtz he's too busy for daily news but loves Oprah and Geraldo. "They have interesting topics, daughters running around with their mother's boyfriend. It's entertaining."
Kurtz linked this view to "a growing sense of alienation from the political system, and the belief that the major media are an integral part of that system."
Importantly, newspapers are far from alone in their problems these days. A scan of the business press turns up article after article on downsizing, rightsizing, transition and turmoil in the car, computer, department store, defense and utilities industries, among others. Plugging the word "transition" into the online Business Index, a financial news database, attracted 3,850 hits. The word "angst" alone brought 97 items.
But, rightly or wrongly, newspaper people have always considered themselves different. The First Amendment bestows special status. Social responsibility has long been a cherished value. Public dependence has been an article of faith.
Perhaps it's been a myth all along, but newspaper people have lived with a vision of themselves as a kind of chosen tribe, doing important work with high stakes and healthy strokes.
In his autobiography "The Good Times," Russell Baker reminisced about his first day delivering newspapers. "The romance of it was almost unbearable... I imagined people pausing to admire me as I performed this important work, spreading the news of the world, the city, and the racetracks onto doorsteps, through mail slots, and under doorjambs. I had often gazed with envy at paperboys; to be one of them at last was happiness sublime."
To be a reporter and editor was the "ultimate dream" when veteran writer and teacher William Zinsser was a child reading the New York Herald Tribune. "All the people who put out that paper," Zinsser believed, "were having a wonderful time; I felt that they were putting out the paper just for me."
Writing in the New York Times Magazine, Max Frankel reflected, "Serious journalists are not hard to define. Deep down, they think of packaging news not as a business but as a public service. They want to provide the information and analysis that a citizen would – or should – want to have to make political choices, to prevent abuses of power and to enhance the quality of life."
But what once seemed a destiny combining service with ego gratification now seems more and more like day labor. In an AJR interview last month, former Des Moines Register Editor Geneva Overholser wearily described banging up against the market mentality. "For six-and-a-half years, I sat there at those tables and made arguments. I spoke out as much as I could... But I was like a little fly on a slumbering elephant. There was no more some way I could have changed that than the man in the moon... I gave up on trying to save the thing."
an the thing be saved?
The bluntly provocative Richard Harwood, longtime Washington Post editor and ombudsman, turned that question back on journalists in a recent column about the death of New York Newsday. In what he called "the usual outpouring of sentimental obituaries..no one seemed to wonder why this model of journalistic excellence failed to attract more than a handful of readers in a metropolitan market of 20 million people." Maybe, Harwood pointed out, journalists ought to examine their own roles in producing unappetizing products.
He added ominously, "We know what has happened in other industries unresponsive to changes in the marketplace."
Here a key point reemerges: Change itself isn't the enemy. In turbulent times, newspapers can't sit still, any more than car makers or steel producers can. They cannot over-romanticize the old ways, defending a system that was often, in fact, snobbily contemptuous of its public. They can't force-feed the audience a product that is out of date and out of fancy.
So they accept the necessity of change, and they recognize the possibility that their current dejection may be unwarranted.
In fact, they recognize the powerful other side to this story. Newspeople don't have to be victims. They hold strong cards, including substantial control over the goods. "Newspapers..are written by journalists," Harwood wrote, "not bean counters."
Ideally, journalists can still stand up for the core values of their profession, principles that underlie the sense of mission central to their identity.
While it may be naive to leave it to corporations to promote those values, professional journalists can do so independently and together, by defending and keeping the public service thinking of the First Amendment, and keeping faith with the Society of Professional Journalists' ethic that "the duty of journalists is to serve the truth." It may sound puny, but such altruism has been an indestructible characteristic of the world's freest press for a long time.
More practically, newspaper work still guarantees a pulsating excitement that can make other jobs seem like slow motion. Newspapers still chase excellence with a vitality that makes millions of people welcome them every day.
To be paid good money to write remains one of life's most delicious fortunes. "Newspapering is kind of like sex," sportswriter Jim Murray once quoted a friend as saying. "When it's good it's terrific, and when it's bad it's pretty good."
Even the Weaver-Wilhoit research has a good side. While the percentage of newspaper people who consider themselves very satisfied has dropped, it remains a solid 25 percent; moreover, 53 percent call themselves "fairly satisfied," 19 percent "somewhat dissatisfied" and only 2 percent "very dissatisfied." "It's important not to conclude that you have vast dissatisfaction within the newsroom," Wilhoit says. "What you have is less 'high satisfaction.' "
In the end, though, the gathering angst cannot be ignored. Newspaper people have less and less faith that today's direction can be reconciled with public service traditions, the freewheeling spirit of the unconstrained newsroom, the goose bumps that come from performing in the center ring.
The age of newspaper domination of the public consciousness and the media boardrooms seems over. Newspapers will likely live on but, for now at least, as modest shops in gigantic corporatized information supermalls.
Perhaps they will drift into a respectable scaled-down role just outside the mainstream, like off-Broadway theater. Maybe, though it seems doubtful, they will mutate into unrecognizable electronic hybrids.
It's even conceivable that someday soon, the public may aggressively demand the return of public service journalism. The editorial side may regain the initiative. The cachet and brio of the old ways may reascend in triumph.
Maybe. But at the moment journalists feel the uncertainty of coastal dwellers watching a hurricane begin to spin in the ocean, not knowing where it will move next, how destructive it will become, what precious belongings will soon lie in ruin.
Perhaps their dread is overdramatic, and this will be nothing more than a passing bluster.
But the feeling has built that a Big One is blowing in. l ###