I left journalism a dozen years ago, well before The Plague struck.
It had been twenty mostly happy years since the first day I walked into a newspaper office in Texas and was surprised to find that it smelled like ink; that every desk in the small, dark newsroom had an oil can filled with rubber cement; that the building shuddered when the press started up; and that—although I didn’t know it at the time—I had joined a cult that measured things in picas and points.
Mao died that day, and I felt like I was on the inside of something because I knew about it a little while before the rest of the town did. I would figure out much later that the rest of the town didn’t care about things like that. These were people who worked in refineries and chemical plants. They were glad to be coming home alive after another day of tending a big tangle of hot pipes full of explosive poisons.
And when they picked up The Baytown Sun that night, they looked to see what the weather was going to be tomorrow, and then skipped to the sports section to read the stories previewing the football games the town’s two high schools were playing the following evening. The schools had football stadiums whose combined seating could accommodate nearly all of the town’s 60,000 or so inhabitants.
Mao caught a break that day. He was above the fold on the front page even though he wasn’t local. I’d be willing to bet that most people, though, looked first at the “theater ear,” a little coupon in what would traditionally be white space at the upper right-hand corner of the front page, awarding two free tickets to the movies for someone whose name had been picked from the phone book.
Pretty much every household in town took the paper, even though the quality of the product was marginal. The reason was simple: it gave them something they wanted but couldn’t get anywhere else.
About two-thirds of the reporters and editors were local and had no plans to leave. The remaining third were people like me, drifters looking to get their ticket punched so they could move on to big metropolitan newspapers.
As I moved first to a larger newspaper in the north, and then to The Associated Press, finally winding up in Washington, those newsroom proportions would flip, and most news people I saw were rootless, always looking for something and someplace better. We were like carnival workers with better dental plans and without the tattoos. We had no ties to the land or to the people.
We gave them journalism, which has become the answer to the question: “What’s wrong?” They wanted news, which is a request: “Tell me something I want to know about.”
Newspapers lost sight of that, and it’s one reason they’ve found themselves in trouble.
Still, when the Internet came along I thought newspapers were indestructible. They were supposed to have been killed by radio and then by television. They were club-footed and dim every time they had to address a new medium. But they always managed to survive and eventually to thrive.
Not this time. At least not yet.
This is the biggest threat the newspaper business has faced since the Stamp Act.
Part of the problem is of newspapers’ own making. They gave the product away because some silly-assed Internet millionaires told them that’s how you make money. Tell that to the Mars candy family and see how many free M&Ms it gets you. After a while, the newspaper companies saw how stupid this was, and a few of them tried to wring some money out of the freeloading readers. It didn’t work. They had succeeded beyond their wildest dreams at establishing the retail price for Internet-delivered news at zero.
They’re screwed for the time being but maybe not forever.