The coming golden urn of journalism

In his recent essay in these pages on “The coming golden age of journalism” (RN&R, Feb. 19) the excellent Mr. Burghart touched on a point I once raised in a staff meeting at another publication.

“Are we sure the way to combat declining reader interest,” I asked, “is to publish a less interesting paper?”

It just slipped out, and I was sorry. The consultant who was explaining the latest can’t-miss plan to save print journalism—latest at that time; there’ve been others since—had already indicated he took his job, and himself, seriously.

There was a mass intake of breath, and the people around me edged away.

Fortunately for me the consultant, in addition to having no plan, had no feel for sarcasm. Rather than give me the corporate-clone Death Stare, he patiently re-explained how staff cuts, elimination of beats and a general belt-tightening—except for the Board of Directors, who courageously voted themselves six-figure bonuses—would reinvigorate readership.

You think I’m exaggerating? If only. Brian, the aforementioned Mr. Burghart, is much closer to the business end of journalism than I am, and he sees a larger picture. In this case, though, we are thinking as one.

Craigslist and the other explanations you’ve heard for print’s perceived demise are valid, but only part of the picture. I worked for Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper company, for nearly three decades, and I was often struck by the shortsightedness of the corporate overlords.

Conditions weren’t awful, and good journalism was sometimes practiced. I was treated well and defended the company against critics. When times were good, they could spend some money and still keep the stockholders smiling.

When times got hard, though, the wings fell off.

Brian detailed some changes that are being repeated all over the country. I probably know 40 people—experienced, dedicated journalists—who’ve seen their jobs vanish, and many more who fear every day may be their last.

In every case I’m aware of, the changes have one goal: reduce costs. No one talks about making the “product” better to rekindle reader enthusiasm. The First Amendment gets lip service, and investigative reporting is still in vogue if it can be done by spreadsheet, so the numbers distributed across a page look like Research. Overwhelmingly, though, the question has been, “How can we do this cheaper?”

The rationale among optimists is that print journalism is “in transition.” Ward Bushee, editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, told me he’s confident his paper and the industry will emerge from the present scrum changed, but healthy and profitable. (This was before Hearst announced that the Chron may close its doors, which may have dimmed his outlook.)

That’s where Brian and I begin to diverge. He’s optimistic daily papers will recover their old glory or at least find validity in the modern world.

“Call me old school,” he wrote, “but I believe newspapers must go back to doing what they did [when they] provided a high-quality product and service.” Then he listed several ideas: well written local news, in-depth coverage and investigations, insightful commentary and more.

An emphasis on in-depth local coverage is especially critical because the days when people turned to “the paper” for big news aren’t coming back. I’m the biggest newspaper junkie left standing, and even I think of what I read every morning as day-old product. If daily print journalism is to survive, it needs to go in the direction Brian is pointing. He thinks it can.

I think it can’t. It waited too long, waffled too much and diddled the readers too many times with “exciting changes” that didn’t excite anybody but the accountants.