A Pain(e)ful Time

These are indeed sad times. I was a newspaper reporter for 45 years. In that length of time, I covered everything from end zones to war zones, and I felt privileged to do so. And today, I am witnessing the demise of a profession I loved and respected.

As usual, the failing newspaper industry in America has nothing to do with the hard working journalists, the worker bees of the industry.

I realize there are dim bulbs in every newsroom. But for the most part, my colleagues were smart, enterprising, believed in what they were doing, and were quick to run down the bad guys in every facet of society.

It was a calling, not a job. We worked for less than top wages for the education that many of us had. I’ve seen PhDs slave away for low salaries, just to be in a newsroom, to be called a journalist.

Our guiding light was Thomas Jefferson, who said this: Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.

Today, our nation is in serious trouble economically as well as facing a growing threat from within. A nation without newspapers is a nation in peril. We simply cannot afford to allow big business to destroy the only real watchdog we have—a free and unfettered press.

Here, when I write “press” I am referring to the printed page. With all due respect to televised media, and there are some excellent reporters in that realm, we cannot rely upon that one resource. There is no substitute for the printed page. None.

You cannot replace The New York Times with 30-second sound bites, or a 15-second image/interview, and remain informed on what is happing in this republic.

There is plenty of blame to go around. Old-time editors would look to the front offices as the culprits. Business managers and the bean counters did not protect the printed word. Flat out didn’t do it. They were too interested in making money, building profits, scoring large salaries, rather than serving the community with news it needs.

Newspapers changed after World War II. They became profit oriented, answering to shareholders, who cared not one whit for news, investigative reporting, and indeed might have been subject to journalists ferreting out the evil doers.

Once the chains gained control beginning in the 1960s, they began swallowing up smaller dailies and mom and pop weeklies. The chains gorged on acquisitions, growing ever bigger, more influential, more and more profitable.

Then when the Internet lurched over the horizon, the large chains, dinosaurs themselves, failed to recognize the danger quickly enough. Once they looked into the mirror and saw their demise, they began to move to the Internet, but giving away the product. And now they find themselves in a huge dilemma: how to make paying customers out of those people they attracted to their Online free news sites.

The dogma was that news chains were moving to the Internet to attract younger readers who would be the newspaper readers of tomorrow. Only problem is, those younger readers, 18 to 35 year-olds, didn’t read news, cared very little for what news outlets put up on their websites outside of entertainment and celebrity worship.

And, the ironic fact is, news organizations didn’t understand they would not be around by the time those younger readers needed glasses to read a printed page. They would be gone, just like the T-Rex.

At the same time, there was a major shift in newsroom culture. In the old days, when I began as a green cub reporter, business types would not dare enter the editorial den. To do so was to feel the hot breath of the editor, who was very serious about not allowing reporters to become contaminated by the business/advertising side.

In addition, editors would not only investigate leading community businesses, but would also report on the shenanigans of publishers and editors with equally alacrity. No one was above the law, or free of press examination.

Sadly, that is no longer true. In the old days, we could not run a quote unless we got it on record. Today, we have anonymous sources, or someone close to the administration, etc.

My first editor, Art Cobb, told me once: “If you are not good enough to get a quote on record, you are not good enough to work for me.” He meant it. A reporter did not, could not, write a quote without backing it up with a name.

The practice of anonymous sources began in the late 1960s and early 1970s. By the 1980s an internal indifference gripped newsrooms that has all but hulled out the integrity of the editorial departments across the nation.

Newspapers across the nation are dropping by the side of the road on their long death march. The Rocky Mountain News, a Pulitzer Prize winning newspaper owned by Scripps Howard, closed a week ago. The Pulitzer Prize winning Philadelphia Inquirer is bankrupt, as are any number of other major newspapers.

We are witnessing the end of an era, and it is that demise that I truly fear for our nation. An uninformed republic is a republic that can be duped, and can be conquered from within. We are in dangerous times, sitting on a precipice, looking down into an abyss.

That is gloom and doom, I know. We as old journalists did not speak up, or if we did, it was under our collective breath, in fear of losing our jobs. The old-time editors would have fired us all for not following our training, for being less than courageous.

My hope is that we will return to the days of small, community newspapers, the kind which fostered the likes of Thomas Paine or even Mark Twain. Recall it was Paine who wrote: When men yield up the privilege of thinking, the last shadow of liberty quits the horizon.

For too long, we have allowed newspapers to ignore the responsibility it has as a free press. By that I mean we have not held newspapers, the press, accountable in any actionable way. People have a voice, but it was not heard in the newsroom.

And now, I fear that that voice is growing dimmer as our newspapers fail one after the other.

These are indeed the times that try men’s souls.

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