former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

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Introduction to Out of the News

In Blog on August 8, 2012 at 9:00 am

Some of you may have seen an early version of this excerpt from the Introduction to Out of the News.  It first appeared a year ago, on the Columbia Journalism Review website:

On September 17, 1982, the Courier-Express unit of the Buffalo Newspaper Guild voted to do something no other media outlet in the U.S. had done or would do: it voted to turn down an offer from Rupert Murdoch’s News America Publishing Company to buy the failing Buffalo morning daily. The vote meant that Buffalo would be left with one newspaper, The Buffalo News. And it meant that the daily paper’s 1,100 employees would lose their jobs.

But to the union, being bought by Murdoch was about more than saving their livelihoods. It was about the future of journalism. I was the reporter assigned to cover that vote and the end of my own newspaper. I will never forget the emotionally charged night meeting, or the words of Richard Roth, a CourierExpress reporter and Guild international vice president. Roth was a legend at the Courier. Big and tough—he’d once threatened a meek city editor with physical violence if he ever changed his copy again—Roth was one of two reporters inside the prison yard in 1971 when Attica prison erupted in a bloody riot which resulted in the deaths of 29 prisoners and 10 hostages. At the tender age of 22, Roth was nominated for a Pulitzer for his work covering the riot and its bloody aftermath.

Murdoch demanded substantial staff cuts in the newsroom, and wanted the power to decide who would go and who would stay. Giving Murdoch that kind of leverage seemed wrong to the vast majority of the 250 guild members who crowded into the Statler Hotel that night to vote on Murdoch’s final offer. The guild wanted the rule of “last hired, first fired” to prevail.

It seems almost quaint now, but Courier reporters believed that experience should count for something in a newsroom, that there was a value and a dignity to working for a newspaper and learning a beat and a community. They also believed that reporters should have the freedom to write the truth, without fear of reprisal. Journalists, Roth said, needed “to be protected from ruthless publishers who may not want unfavorable things written about them or their friends.”

But there was something more leading up to the vote. Courier journalists, myself included, had researched Murdoch’s U.S. papers at the time and were not impressed. We did not want the CourierExpress, whose past editors had included Mark Twain, to be transformed into a sleazy tabloid. We wanted the daily that had existed for well over 100 years to be remembered with dignity.

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