former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

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.

Fast forward to 2008 and another acquisition by Murdoch, this time the purchase of a jewel in the crown of American journalism, The Wall Street Journal. This time there is no newspaper guild to get in Murdoch’s way. Journalists may have cringed, but they did not try to fight Murdoch. The little struggle they put up was to write pleading letters to the Journal board not to sell.  The notion of experience counting for something at a newspaper had died years before, after thousands of reporters and editors had accepted buyouts or been fired at the whim of owners. Murdoch faced no rebellion. Sarah Ellison writes that Journal editors “had few options to find jobs outside the newspaper…. This crowd was a captive workforce. At another time they may have faced their new owner with a righteous protest, but that kind of romantic resistance they could no longer afford.” When they met the new owner, “they were meek, easily disheartened, and scared. They were auditioning for jobs they already had.”

The transformation of the American economy and the demise of unions is not the story of this book. But the story of journalism and journalists at the end of the twentieth century cannot be told without understanding this context.

When I interviewed him in 2010, Roth was senior associate dean for Journalism at Northwestern University’s Qatar campus. He had very mixed feelings about that Guild vote. “I lost a lot of sleep about that over the years, in part because a lot of people who were my friends there never did find other jobs,” Roth said. He also regretted that with the Courier’s closing, Buffalo was reduced to one daily newspaper.

Whether the Guild vote was right or wrong for the community and for the paper’s staff, it’s clear that what happened at the CourierExpress nearly 30 years ago likely will never be repeated. And the Murdoch style of media management, with its focus on cost- cutting and keeping journalists on tight leashes, has won. “So many companies are no longer investing their money in newsrooms. They see it not as investing but as a cost center,” Roth said.

In the past decade, there have been tectonic shifts in journalism, disrupting the lives of tens of thousands of its practitioners and unsettling those Americans who care about fact-based news. Any industry that has lost nearly a third of its jobs within the past decade is in trouble.

This is a book of short stories—albeit true—of individuals caught up in a fundamental change in journalism at the end of the twentieth century that has not yet fully transformed itself to meet the challenges and limitations of the twenty-first century.

These stories give us insights into why journalism foundered and what may save it. But they also speak to something more fundamental: how individuals, facing difficulties they didn’t expect, adapt, survive and often thrive.

This book features the stories of journalists because I am a former journalist, and these are the people I know best. But it also is about journalists because millions of Americans continue to consume the news and to search out news and information they can trust. Democracy thrives on information, so journalism always has been crucial to participatory government. Its future is linked to ours. When journalism is at risk, so is democracy. Fact-based information about one’s community, state, and nation cannot be outsourced.

If you think that social media and citizen journalism can replace what reporters and editors do, ask the citizens of Bell, California, 10 miles from downtown Los Angeles. For years, it paid its city officials outlandish salaries, salaries that dwarfed the average pay in the working- class Hispanic town in Los Angeles County. Ultimately, in July 2010, the Los Angeles Times flexed its big- city reporting muscles and unearthed this story. By all accounts, the Times reporters deserved the Pulitzer Prize they earned for public service. But if Bell’s city hall had been routinely covered by just one enterprising reporter with roots in the community, one wonders how long Bell’s citizens would have had to wait. Even the Pulitzer Prize board recognized that the Bell story had been  “hiding in plain sight.”

Social media best expose evils when people have everything to lose (think Arab Spring) or nothing to lose (think gossip) but not when those involved depend on the very institutions that are failing them. For that reason, even stories of national proportions can get buried, despite the plentitude of blogs, tweets and websites that spew information. Remember the plight of disabled vets at Walter Reed Hospital? In 2007, The Washington Post reported the horrific conditions for wounded soldiers who were Walter Reed outpatients, who lived in moldy, rodent- infested buildings. But patients had been enduring these Dickensian living conditions since 2003. Despite the fact that these problems touched hundreds, if not thousands, of patients, and received coverage from a few online media outlets, it was only after The Washington Post weighed in that change happened at Walter Reed.

Journalism, at its core, has been and always will be as good as the people who practice it. “The first link in the chain of responsibility is the reporter at the source of the news,” observed a blue- ribbon Commission on Freedom of the Press in 1947. “He must be careful and competent. He must estimate correctly which sources are most authoritative. He must prefer firsthand observation to hearsay. He must know what questions to ask, what things to observe, and which items to report.” Sixty years later, journalists and media critics Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel made the same point: “In the new century, one of the most profound questions for a democratic society is whether an independent press survives. The answer will depend on whether journalists have the clarity and conviction to articulate what an independent press means and whether, as citizens, the rest of us care.”

There have been seemingly endless discussions, congressional hearings, seminars, reports, and conferences about the economic viability of the news media of the future. We hear talk about government subsidies for news, the role of foundations in supporting good reporting, and the possibility of online newspapers achieving enough subscribers to sustain themselves financially. But the survival of the news media will depend first on individuals and their integrity, their powers of observation, and their dedication.


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