Newspapers have been in the news lately, not just writing it. The sale of The Washington Post to Jeff Bezos and the Boston Globe to John Henry made serious ripples–and well it should have. The reversion of newspapers to private hands is a big shift from the publicly traded past.
In the midst of all this hubbub, I have a confession: I majored in journalism in college and worked for three newspapers… but I’ve never had a newspaper subscription in my name. And I don’t plan to.
It feels a bit traitorous to admit that, but it’s true. Now don’t get me wrong: I loved, loved working for a newspaper. I don’t know if I’ll ever be so happy with my work as I was at a copydesk just before deadline. It’s exhilarating, intense, heady work. You know your tiniest mistake will be nitpicked by hundreds if not thousands of readers, but you also know you can maybe change minds. You can certainly inform, and entertain. It’s intoxicating, and there is nothing like it.
And if you ask me if its The End of Newspapers, I’ll tell you no, probably not, and I’ll really hope that’s true. I think the world, if not the United States, needs a thriving Fourth Estate. I think it’s very important, highly undervalued work. Those people work very very hard for very little pay–unless you’re a bigwig, you’re barely making ends meet. No, people get into journalism because they are hungry for it; it’s a passion. And it’s a passion that is increasingly derided and pooh-pooh’d, and that’s a damn shame.
I do think newspapers will stick around, but they’ll probably shed some if not all of the paper. And that’s as it should be, really, though the Guys On Top have been really loathe to admit that. And that’s part of the reason that most news organizations have been very slow to adapt to the electronic revolution.
I saw it. That’s why I got out. I saw my bosses working 14-hour shifts, literally never getting to see their children because of their hours; I saw them storing up their sick leave for years so they could have a needed surgery without losing their salary during recovery, only to have management put in a new policy just before the schedule surgery, wiping out all unused sick leave–to “save money.” The people on the ground are miles away (sometimes literally) from the people making the financial and organizational decisions.
I worked with THE website guy (yeah, there was only one), who had to maintain the website, learn all the coding, and try to contain the fires in the comments section (unsurprisingly, he often failed). There was no way he could get ahead of the curve for online; the bigwigs wouldn’t let him. They had only begrudgingly created a website, anyway, why would they actually bother to staff it? (Nevermind that the website was the only way our readers could find out what was going on in their homes after they had to evacuate for a hurricane; print still came first).
It was infuriating to me when–in our rather low-morale workplace–the editor-in-chief, a guy who reminded me of no one so much as J. Jonah Jamison from Spiderman, rounded up the staff and told us that although our paper was the highest-earning publication in the company, it wasn’t enough, so more corners were going to have to be cut. So they cut, cut, cut from the very heart of the publication, the parts that made people care, and learn, and desire, to keep the stakeholders–stock holders on Wall Street–happy, while our newsroom became ever more empty, ever more decrepit.
It would be poetic if I said I quit out of moral outrage for the industry, but that’s not true. I left because I was terribly alone, worked weird hours in a small town and couldn’t meet anybody friendly, and I couldn’t stand the idea of riding out another hurricane after I’d been without power for 2.5 weeks. It just didn’t seem worth working so incredibly hard for an industry that didn’t love me back.
So I said goodbye. I didn’t want to work at the newspaper in my hometown after it went through three waves of layoffs; I knew it wouldn’t matter how good I was the next time someone upstairs felt the margins weren’t profitable enough. What was the point of building a career when it could be taken from me at any moment? So I moved on.
And so far, that has also meant saying goodbye to subscribing; for one, I can’t afford it, a cruel irony for the newspaper publishers, who have lost advertising and so “must” raise subscription fees.
I wish Jeff Bezos and John Henry, and the staffs of the highly regarded Washington Post and Boston Globe, much luck, and good leads. I hope that private owners can maintain the respect for good journalism without giving into the merciless bottom line.
I’m sorry I can’t be with you on that journey.