I thought hard before sitting down to tap this out, because I didn’t want to seem insensitive about changes that have so severely disrupted the careers, finances, and self-esteem of so many.
But, after years of reading Romenesko, countless other blogs, and endless articles on high-minded media Web sites, I’ve heard enough complaining, enough nostalgia for a golden age of journalism that never really was. So, here are some insensitive thoughts.
Your employer, loathsome and inept as that corporation may be, does not owe you a job.
Only university professors have tenure, and they probably shouldn’t.
Past performance - prizes, exclusives, clean copy, all that overtime you didn’t claim - does not count. Newspapers have always been a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business. In more than thirty-one years at The Denver Post, I worked under twelve editors. Not one of them cared about the great work I and other people did for his predecessors; we all had to reinvent ourselves for the new guy. (Truth to tell, many of those front-office transitions were more traumatic than being laid off.)
Newspapers are not struggling just because of greedy corporate owners. We are in the middle of a structural change that is caused primarily by the fact that the Internet offers cheaper, more effective ways to advertise for the people who used to be captive to daily newspapers—car dealers, real estate agents, and human resources recruiters. Structural changes in retailing didn’t help newspapers either. And, on the content side, the Internet (and cable TV) provides readers with wider, faster access to everything from foreign news to sports stats. (Yes, owners have clung too long to double-digit profit margins. But slashing margins to supermarket-industry levels won’t stop those structural changes.)
It’s not just the owners’ fault that newspapers didn’t respond quickly enough to the ’Net. I launched denverpost.com in 1995, part of the first wave of metro papers to tiptoe onto the Web. My eight years running the Web site were the best years of my career, but also some of the most frustrating. For most of the ’90s, the suits in the front office just didn’t get it—but neither did my former pals back in the newsroom. I suspect many of the same people who lost their jobs in 2007 and ’08 were telling Web editors like me a decade earlier that they had more important things to do than help build their paper’s site. (And smart people have written good books about how legacy industries almost never have been technological innovators or even good adaptors.)
Newspapers aren’t (and weren’t) as good as we’d like to think. There’s lots of hand-wringing about how current changes are threatening newspapers’ civic and watchdog roles. Nobody ever mentions that, in terms of column inches, that type of coverage is (and was) a small part of what newspapers provide. Much more ink is used, overall, for everything else, from ads to comics to crime news to weather to features to sports. (Ever compare the column inches in your paper’s sports section to the total in your metro section?) Don’t get me started on investigations, series, and special sections produced for contest judges, not readers.
Democracy will not die if the 1980s-style metro newspaper we pine for goes away. American democracy has more or less survived wildly partisan newspapers full of false stories, bribery, voter intimidation, ballot-box stuffing, robo calls, push polls, cable “talk” shows, and even TV ads. Democracy probably will stumble along in a world of different kinds of newspapers, blogs, and niche news Web sites like the one I now happily help run.
Your job is not your identity. This really is veering into insensitive territory, but think about it. Change, even involuntary, can be liberating.
There. I said it. Call me insensitive.