Archive for Scrawl
I ran across this cover letter I drafted awhile back, that was way too long to send. It’s not, however, too long for this here blog!
It used to be so much more empowering, being a journalist.
From the time I first turned teenager and maybe before that, I regarded the people who scoured for and then disseminated the news as citizens of the highest order. It was sports columnists at the San Francisco Chronicle at first, then my peers and teachers as I began to study the craft myself.
The journalism I learned was empowering partly because people feared it, because you didn’t have to have any status of wealth or even education to be a reporter and ask difficult questions and let people know about something they wouldn’t have otherwise, something that might even outrage them, or force a call for change. It was a tool of democracy, a nearly unrestricted guaranteed American freedom whose loud voice called attention on corruption and oppression and unchecked power.
There are and have always been poor examples of journalism, of a tool used to influence and control people, to spread propaganda, to sell useless or harmful things. Journalism can be unethical, careless, low-budget and gaudy. Freedom of the press and freedom of speech are rights so inalienable that they are open to abuse.
But these flaws are tolerable, and well worth the result of an unfettered network of inquiry and information. Journalism is often the public’s last hope of stopping the greedy, powerful and inept from doing something bad.
It used to be so much more empowering. In junior high and high school, I worked for newspapers full of people who believed in what they were doing even if they theoretically had little real power or sway. But that belief led the writers and editors at these publications to act as if what they did mattered, and because of that, what they did mattered. The stories we wrote were picked up by regional media and paid attention when they ran. Most of the campus’ students picked up the weekly issues of the Berkeley High Jacket when I worked for it, though in the interest of full disclosure I should admit that we ran a free personals section that allowed students to send each other all manner of messages.
At college I found a similarly inspired group of colleagues, who put out a newspaper as students that competed with the town of Columbia, Mo.’s other daily broadsheet. We similarly reached out for impact, for stories that were new enough and interesting enough that enough people would read what we wrote for it to matter. And it did. Several years after I graduated in 1999, the paper uncovered a group financing terrorists that was posing as an Islamic charity.
Then in nine years of reporting for mid-sized dailies in the Pacific Northwest, the real world set in. It wasn’t so much the reality of discovering that corrupting powers were omnipotent in government and the deck would always be stacked against change. It was the diminishing power of journalism, the change I saw take place during a relatively short career so far.
At my first newspaper, we competed against a glorified loudspeaker for a North Idaho real estate magnate. Maintaining the moral authority came easy. Matching the competitor’s pandering to the area’s powerful interests proved more difficult. As the years went on, we increasingly fought the pressures to dumb down our coverage or crank out as many minor stories as our lesser rival did. Imagine the Washington Post trying harder to emulate USA Today. The more we emulated the Coeur d’Alene Press, the less time we spent investigating more important stories or spending time perfecting and completing the ones we decided to print.
Then came the cutbacks, as declines in newspaper readership caught up to advertising rates, and the Internet competition from free providers of everything from classifieds to news made every dollar we earned that much harder to find.
Then came more cutbacks, and the people I worked with started to get picked out of my bureau, one by one, until half the office was empty.
That meant we had to choose among two options, both of which would degrade the quality of the journalism we produced and the empowerment I once felt as a reporter: either we’d produce more stories with less time spent on each one, increasing the chances for an error or a critical missed piece of information; or we’d do fewer stories altogether, giving our competitor fewer reasons to stay sharp, giving the power brokers more control over information and the voiceless fewer people to hear them.
I left the paper because so much about it had changed during the three years after I came to work there. We were once a loud, spirited, hilarious crew that reveled in telling one another about a good scoop, or reading aloud a crisp lead. We all talked about the story of the day and we celebrated with one another when we beat the competition or won some other small victory in the Battle for the Right to Know. We had become a quiet, surly shell of what once was, in a tomblike office reminiscent more of Steve Carell than All the President’s Men.
Then I got this job, writing about the Oregon Coast from a home office in a tiny town of 8,000 people, writing about a place that is off the grid for most Americans as anything but somewhere to go on a pretty drive. The stories I write usually get picked up by the Associated Press because I am the one of the only reporters at an AP-member newspaper to find them. I’m not changing the world, necessarily, but I reveal a part of it that often goes ignored. There’s something empowering about that.
Meanwhile, my newspaper is bleeding. Having lost $5 million last year, the publisher has been forced to slice millions from this year’s budget. The unions that represent many of our employees agreed to concessions to stem much of the damage, but the newspaper laid off 7 percent of the workforce in June.
And we are less empowered. The staffers who have left put more pressure on the ones of us who are left behind to produce.
We still have it better than most newspapers our size. The Register-Guard is family-owned, which means only the company’s earnings, not its stock price, determine our fate. We won’t get sold or closed by a corporation like Gannett because we are the least profitable in the chain. We either make enough money, or we don’t.
We also have excellent market penetration, as much as 75 percent in Lane County, which is as big as Rhode Island, if not as populated. We reach more people on our web site than we do in print. If anyone is poised to help advertisers find people in this region, it’s us.
But we haven’t figured out a way to make the transition from the increasingly expensive and decreasingly profitable paper product to, maybe, one that exists solely on the web, or at least competes with the web for advertising dollars. The ads we sell online are worth about a tenth the comparable price they would fetch ROP, or “run on press.”
There are all kinds of opportunities to catch up, it seems like. We could reach into the Web’s bag of tricks at targeting ads to certain users, linking them to relevant stories, tracking the identities and habits of our customers and using that information to sell more successful ads that make more money.
But we’re squeamish about that. Newspapers are quasi-governmental, often referred to as the fourth branch of government. We have a certain power in society, and we have to be above reproach in order to keep our credibility intact, a statement that will draw snickers from some thanks to the poor examples some lazy and glory-seeking journalists have set. We’re leery of anything that crosses the line between the ad side and the content side, because we don’t want businesses to have any interaction with the reporters who are supposed to write neutrally about them. And there are ethical issues about sleuthing out information on web sites, as far as we’re concerned.
So what do we do? We shrink, which may make us less valuable to the readers we have left and the case more difficult for paying a costly subscription, especially as free content abounds on the web. As our money and influence shrivels, so does our clout, and the ability of nefarious people to accomplish nefarious deeds gets a jolt.
But won’t we all just be replaced by bloggers and twitterers? Isn’t the media being democratized in the same way that the media democratize society, by providing voices to people who didn’t have them before, by diversifying the sources of information such that no one from one big newspaper owned by one big man can control what the world knows?
On the surface, yes. Bloggers have called attention to stories the mass media have stupidly ignored, and that’s a valuable thing. But this is a parasitic relationship. Bloggers tend not to do their own reporting. So if they cause the death of the medium they criticize and replace because their content is free, they ultimately hurt themselves, too. With fewer people gathering the news, there’s less unearthed material to discover and shout into cyberspace. We are eating each other alive.
I feel less empowered as a journalist today, and it makes me sick to see people in this country celebrate the demise of my profession as a moment we deserve because of the mistakes we’ve made as the vice has tightened on our temples. These celebrations are ignorant, but by the time anyone realizes that, it’ll be in a few paragraphs of a history book, or maybe a Flash-powered history computer game, in the chapter on extinct forms of communication, if not of government. For every day that I am less empowered, so is this democracy of ours. So are you.