There’s much to admire in the passion and commitment displayed by comments posted here and elsewhere by journalists worried about their jobs, their profession and even their country. But there is much to fear in how retrograde it feels.
I yield to no one on dedication to first principles of journalism, my affection for the newspaper business or the thoroughness of my inculcation in it. I can get as misty-eyed as anyone at tales of city rooms past or newsroom characters fondly recalled or old watering holes warmly remembered; if I was still drinking, I imagine I’d be doing a fair amount of that right now.
All of us put out the best newspaper we knew how to 15 years ago (and some of us were doing it 30 years ago, too), but even if we were as good as we’d like to remember, that won’t work today. I’m not trying to trash our history or legacy here, friends; I’m trying to make sure everybody is awake. We must celebrate our roots, but our future is not well served by roseate memories. Our profession demands and deserves more of us.
I started getting the Sacramento Bee on my doorstep 12 years ago. Yes, there were star players and stunning projects – but it was not, day in and day out, a better paper than I get today. There, I said it. Add the Bee’s online presence nowadays and it’s not even close. The Anchorage Daily News I edited had much more staff and a larger newshole than now – yet its reach and influence have never been greater than today.
Many of your comments seem to reference Sacramento memories. Here are a couple of mine.
I got here after Pete Dexter (damn it) but by the time I started reading, there was nowhere near enough sharp commentary, fine writing or great storytelling in the paper. Though the Bee was indeed all over the social services beat, my wife once noted that California must have the cleanest state government in the country, since she hadn’t seen a single scandal in the paper in two years. I recall that while some readers in our survey said the Bee reminded them of Tom Hanks (a Cal State Sacramento graduate), even more picked “Grumpy Old Men” as the movie surrogate for their morning paper.
Does this seem harsh? That's not my intention, of course. I’m picking on the Bee because it’s my hometown newspaper and I’ve read it every day for many years. I’m ignoring much fine, prize-winning work and highlighting these tough examples to make a point: to whatever degree your argument is “All we need is to get back to the kind of (beat reporting) (community coverage) (bigger sports section) (whatever) ...” you’re wrong.
Of course we have to cover the state senate (and btw, Jim, Andy Furillo says he sees you there and can’t figure why you don’t see him). But if all we do is fill the paper with the kind of incremental process stories that routinely appeared 10 or 15 years ago, we’ll lose. One of you even expressed fond memories of days when Bee reporters “covered local civic associations.” Oh, please.
Memory highlights folks like Dexter or Deb Blum – and how I wish we had them both, and many others like them, on staff still. But does your memory encompass the whole of those old newsrooms? Please, go to the microfilm and read a week or a month’s worth of papers 15 years ago.
Here’s the good news: a great deal of what Jim and the Anonymice have to say is exactly what we need to hear: get out of the office; listen to the community (even if we sometimes call it “audience” these days); eliminate layers of editors and operate with less hierarchy ; tell unique stories that matter in readers’ lives; work with confidence and swagger; don’t panic.
And you know what? We also have to feed the web 24/7, learn to tell video stories, engage with readers online (thank you, Marcos), create attractive blogs with rich personalities, be flexible and forgiving when editors make bad decisions in new circumstances, speak up when the boss is wrong, and abandon our excuses.
Anything less is surrender, no matter how much nostalgia you wrap it up in.