Thursday, June 19, 2008

Nostalgia is not your friend

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.


  1. Anonymous7:38 PM

    You say don't panic, but people are panicking at the McClatchy paper I work at, and the flop sweat is coming directly from the department heads and raining down upon the staff like a smelly spring shower. Monday was several years overdue here and they feel another Monday is just around the corner.

    Keep talking though, Howard - we're listening to you - but management here is suddenly dysfunctional: they just can't cope anymore. It's a problem. But at least morale isn't a problem. It's totally gone now.

  2. Anonymous11:37 PM

    Howard –

    Again, thanks for the conversation. I appreciate your candor and bluntness. Here is more from me.

    Believe it or not, I am not nostalgic. I left the paper 10 years ago, and there really is life after The Bee. I’ve been cleaning out the garage lately and coming across a lot of old Bees that are headed, finally, to the recycling bin. Some of them were pretty good, others not even worthy of fish wrapper. I do not pine for the good old days – they were not as good as some remember. To claim I am merely nostalgic is to misread my points.

    Here is what I think you are avoiding: the depth and completeness of coverage is not as it should be. It just isn’t. You are not doing more with less. You are doing less with less. I gave some examples and I could give many more. You don’t have the resources you once had and it shows in the coverage, and that is disturbing. Rather than talk of platforms and media environments, I would like to hear conversation from the leaders of McClatchy and The Bee about what you think is really important to cover and how you will cover it. Starting a new wine website may or may not attract new advertisers but is that the core mission? The core mission is coverage of public affairs in a democracy, and there really is no other reason for the news media to exist than that.

    Frankly, I find all the discussion of “reinventing the newsroom” to be smoke-and-mirrors. If you really want to reinvent the newsroom then change the old-fashioned Deadline USA hierarchy. I lived under that kind of hierarchy at three newspapers. The top-down management never worked very well in the good old days except to teach us how to outsmart it. It works even less well now in this web-driven age where the readers can be the publishers. You ask for innovation at the newspapers, but newspaper managers have never created a culture that truly values innovation. That, I believe, is a major reason you are in the fix you are in. I cannot underline too strongly how important that single change would be to changing your fortunes.

    You have a major morale problem, not just because of layoffs, but because of that top-down management. It shows in these blog entries. Why are so many of these entries signed “anonymous”? You can say they are mice (and some are), but I see it as evidence of a deeper problem whereby people who work in newsrooms do not feel safe in offering an opinion or engaging in a free exchange of ideas in a collegial environment. We say we value the First Amendment rights of free expression, but isn’t it funny how that is so limited among those who work in America’s newsrooms? You are organized more like the military than you care to admit. Tell me how hanging onto that kind of organizational structure isn’t nostalgia at its worst? There are better ways to organize.

    I am also concerned that those who run The Bee and McClatchy (and Gannett and the Los Angeles Times and every newspaper in the land) need to get into the community more than you do. I fear that you are mostly talking to each other, and that is not healthy for the organization or the individuals in it. By the way, churches have the same dreadful problem, but that is another story. I am very serious in urging that editors and reporters need to find new ways to work on listening to the community, not just read your email or the latest reader survey or engage in gimmicks like “Dr. Risk.” The old ethos that journalists and editors don’t join anything is nostalgia and counterproductive. Get out into the community, listen to real people, see what really motivates them, hear their wisdom, listen to their hopes, fears and dreams.

    Finally, what I am asking is that editors and reporters make it clear every single day to us, the readers, that you are devoted to the first principles of journalism: Accuracy, fairness, depth and fanatical integrity. None of us in this democracy should ever take that for granted. Thanks.

  3. Anonymous7:39 AM

    Re: eliminate layers of editors and operate with less hierarchy.

    We've done exactly the opposite at my McClatchy paper. Every single person we've lost or will soon lose in our newsroom was a clerk, reporter, copy editor, designer, artist, photographer or a manager on the lowest rung of management who still put content in the paper and the Web every day.

    And yet in these 40 positions or so gone, we CREATED a new upper-level management job.

    And while we're going through wrenching changes, it's still business as usual for our supervisors. They are still micromanaging our work. There are lots of them, and they have the time to do it. It's worse than ever for the rest of us because they have far fewer people to micromanage now.

    Finally, there is no way I would post my name on here. I have children to feed. If the people at the top knew who this was, I'd be out of a job, too.

    Fear is the only tool left to manage with, and it's being used very effectively. We're scared. To death.

  4. Honestly, I have no idea what you're describing here.

    I read the layoff lists from all the newsrooms and didn't see anything that sounds like what you are describing here.

    Please get yourself a fake hotmail account or something and email me directly with details. I will look for your email.

  5. Anonymous11:32 AM

    I don't know what layoff lists you are reading, Howard. I am not the previous poster. Yet, I have the same experience at my newsroom. Upper managers' jobs were saved. Department heads were spared. Line editors, who actually put out the paper, are the ones on the block. Total BS.

  6. Anonymous5:10 PM

    Hey Howard, your buddy Anonymous here -- well one of them.

    I would echo the strange decisions made to cut the "content producers" instead of the higher-paid managers. Makes little sense.

    Of course now some of us are doing what the clerks used to do, at a much higher price. I don't feel bad about it, I have mouths to fee.

    I'm not a particularly nostalgic person, and I understand your larger post. But the problem I see is that our industry is full of people who know how to do one job - put out newspapers with interesting stories - yet claim to be trying to do something else(web, rss, video, etc).

    The people who are making the decisions usually have no idea what they are talking about. Perhaps instead of trying to beat the Google's of the world with managers who put out newspapers, we should be hiring the brightest minds from those companies and letting them take the reigns.

    Meanwhile, with managers distracted the newspapers suffer.

    I'll give you one example of the tech mess. One of your newspapers has a completely dysfunctional classified ad system. People in that market can't find out what things are for sale and what they cost. Using Craigslist is not just an option, it's the only option.

    If I were running a small business and knew my customers couldn't access my product I would work day and night until the product was fixed. But the corporate culture has people saying things like "we are aware of the problem, but it's a software problem and we can't fix it until we get new software sometime next year."

    Those kinds of completely unacceptable answers are all over our business these days. The excuses outweigh the productive actions.

    And we wonder why things are rough.

  7. Anonymous10:20 PM

    Or we have our editor, our publisher and yes, even you Howard, talking to us in the newsroom about "the future" and yet the very web programmers who we need to help build that future are given their walking papers this week.

    Lots of corporate speak, but little real world logic, at least to these lowly copy editing eyes.