Thursday, March 15, 2018

CALLING CASSANDRA

This week the Denver Post cut 30 jobs. That’s about a third of the newsroom. 

It wasn’t that long ago — around 2005, 2006 — when there were 300 people in that newsroom, some of the best in the business, with nine Pulitzers proving their prowess as journalists. Today the newspaper is owned by a guy with a hedge fund and zero interest in journalism, only an eye to the bottom line.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to make money. Al Neuharth, the guy who created USA Today and built Gannett into the country’s largest newspaper chain, used to tell people who mispronounced the company’s name that “the emphasis is always on the net.” Snazzy dressed, that Al. But odd guy. Proof:

•Raging ego.
•Staccato writing style and heavy reliance on bullet points.
Pumpkin Center.

But Al Neuharth was a journalist and that mattered. He understood that it costs money to cover news, and he wasn’t afraid to spend it. I was lucky enough to work for Gannett for almost a decade; at its peak, the newsroom in Springfield had about 70 people. When a big story broke the editors insisted on scorched-earth coverage. We didn’t just beat our radio and television competitors, we buried them in copy.

It was like that in every U.S. city. The daily newspaper was The Source — not just for news consumers but for our competition. Every radio and TV newsroom in the country subscribed to the local paper because that’s where you knew you’d find the real stories. The daily paper set the news agenda for the city. TV and radio newsrooms followed the (news) leader.

It was sometimes close-quarters combat, trying to scoop the competition. When I started in Springfield media in 1985, there were four radio stations offering local news, with nearly 20 reporters staffing the shops. Journalism at its high point in the late 20th century. Readers, viewers and listeners were well-informed.

Within a decade there were two local radio station offering local news with half as many reporters. Newspapers started experiencing the same kind of contractions by the late 1990s. Blame it on the internet. Why not? It’s the all-purpose scourge of humanity. It’s certainly the best/worst thing that ever happened to journalists. To hell with the creation of the internal combustion engine, the airplane, radio, television, crush porn ... the internet makes all those things seem about as important and enduring as pet rocks.

The net and its appliances changed every way we live. The alarm clock on my phone wakes me up. Facebook tells me who’s doing who and why I should care. Twitter is the tripwire for news — who needs The Associated Press? A thousand books on my Kindle. I order food online, clothes online, movies online. I can spend all day online and never have to deal face-to-face with another human.

News without papers, video without TVs, porn without the glossy pages, drugs without the back alley — the internet makes it possible to live a rich and solitary life.

You don’t need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows, according to Dylan, and with the internet you don’t need a journalist to tell you what’s news. The net feeds our lust for information — HuffPo for liberals, InfoWars for conservatives. Straight news? Who needs that mainstream crap? Nobody wants it anymore. We only listen to the things we believe because we believe we know everything.

But it’s a mile wide and an inch deep, this river of information. And it’s full of shit. It’s bad to swim in. It’s the digital equivalent of the frozen burrito and hot fries lunch I used to nosh on from the local Kum & Go (I used to pair it with a large Code Red but after a friend called the drink a Kum Guzzler I went with water).

We are choking in the shallow waters, but first we’re drowning the mainstream media. And we seem happy about it. Places like the Denver Post, they might have a couple decades left. They will continue their digital lives and boast about MILLIONS of page views while not saying much about dwindling revenue. It's nice when the world can read your story. But people in Kyrgyzstan are not buying local ads or subscriptions.

The days of picking up a newspaper and leafing through the broadsheet are close to an end. Ask anyone under the age of 25 when they last picked up a newspaper and read it. While you're at it, ask them the last time they watched a TV newscast. They get their news on Facebook, whatever that means. They are the Cassandras, only we can believe them. The data don't lie.

And that’s a goddamned shame because mainstream journalists are as vital as police, as necessary (and often as heroic) as firefighters. They’re the people who keep government accountable; they’re the ones who ask uncomfortable questions of people in power — not to be dicks but because that’s the job. It’s ugly and uncomfortable. It’s hard work. But it’s not a gig where you’re supposed to be liked. It’s a calling. After 30-plus years of responding to the call — as a reporter, editor and producer in radio, newspapers, magazines and television —  I miss it every day.

Being a journalist does not mean posting "thrifty Thursday" Instagrams of your latest fashion find that you're going to be wearing on tonight's newscast. It is not about the likes and followers on social media. That's being a news personality. An entertainer who thinks they're important because they're on television. Horrifying.

Being a journalist means being belittled, being ignored, being indefatigable. It means busting your ass to be accurate and fair, even knowing that when you show people the work you’ve done the response will often be a shrug, a meh, or a cry of “fake news.” It means shaking that off and going back out the next day to ask questions and get answers, because people have a right to know.

As newspaper newsrooms swirl, and as daily newspapers become digital ghosts of their former glorious selves, too many civilians will see it as self-pitying journalists mourning a dead way of life. At first they will not see the ripple effect, as government officials realize they can do things without the prying eyes of a free press. Only when people are fed up with the secrecy and the corruption will they realize what they've lost, and with a mixture of desperation and anger they will turn to what’s left of the media and ask, “Why the hell didn’t you tell us?”

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