I recently read an article where three doctors my age (mid-60′s) asked one another when and why practicing medicine stopped being fun. It prompted me to ask the same question about news reporting. When and why did it stop being fun?
Follow the Money
The newspaper business hit a plateau between 1988 and 1992. It never recovered. It went from flat into decline. Newspapers continued to make money, in some cases a lot of money. But they stopped growing, and started losing, on average, 15 percent of their subscriptions a year. People died and moved away, or got their news from TV and the Internet. Fewer young read newspapers. Circulation managers had to replace 15% of their subscriptions every year just to stay even, and it got harder and harder (and more expensive) to sell subscriptions.
USA Today was revolutionizing the look and writing style of local newspapers when I arrived at The Eagle-Tribune in 1985. Our managing editor was in charge of making our paper more like them, so we could compete on the news stands with all that color, those big charts and graphics, and short stories. It was all very expensive, and a big change for the writers and editors, especially because USA Today had computers that could take a story from the writer, through the editors and layout people, to the press without ever touching paper. In 1995, the Eagle–Tribune was still struggling to bring that technology in. The few older guys in the composing room, which new technology would eliminate, tried to subvert it until they could to retire.
Family-owned papers began selling to big newspaper chains. Tax laws made it hard to transfer ownership to heirs. Heirs needed cash, and the chains had plenty. Owning a newspaper became very hard. Working hard was no longer enough. You had to make the right moves. Owners who made the wrong moves eventually had to sell out at Fire Sale prices. Heirs could save themselves all that heartache and risk by selling to a chain for the huge sums they were being offered. Heirs could invest that money in businesses with more growth potential, or secure incomes with lots of time for leisure or other pursuits.
Young people still go to work in journalism for the right reason: it’s the only job where a single person can do a lot of good for a lot of people just by doing the job well. I’m very proud of the way I brought down a few local bullies, exposing them just by quoting them and their public records. Opportunities to do that in newspapers are disappearing. Radio and TV news, especially local news, never offered much opportunity for enterprising news people. And the Internet — already a terrific medium for opinion writers — has not yet achieved its enormous potential as a news medium, especially if you exclude online versions of newspapers.
Working on a Chain Gang
The difference between writing for a family paper and a chain was night and day. I base this on my experience writing and editing for a chain of weeklies owned by Ottaway-Dow Jones on the NH Seacoast, and the family-owned Eagle-Tribune in Northeast Mass,and Southeast NH. Ottaway bought the eight weeklies hoping to start a daily to compete with Foster’s in Dover and the Portsmouth Herald. The industry went sour, and Foster’s started moving South very aggressively, before they could do that, but they did have time to wreck three country weeklies, including the one I edited.
When the corporate publisher told the three editors they could stay on as town correspondents, a big demotion, he summed up the business’s editorial philosophy: ”Even if there is no news, people will still pick it up to look at the classified ads. We’re not a public utility.” In the next few years, the Internet stole most of their classified advertising by offering readers better technology. It took me a year to find a job on a family-owned daily. When I got there, the Eagle-Tribune editor told me I could never work for a corporate paper. I was the wrong age, and my writing had too much personality. Chains want their writers to bee nameless, interchangeable parts.
“I probably couldn’t work f or one either,” Dan Warner said.
Ottaway treated me like part of the overhead, with a cost but no value. Dan Warner and the Rogers family, which had owned the Eagle-Tribune for generations, treated me like part of the product. And when I showed a flair for column writing, management encouraged me. I was downsized in 1995. It had not been a nice place to work for some time before that. Downsizing meant there were fewer people to do the same amount of work, and meet the same high standards. Dan Warner, one of the last pure print newspaper geniuses, had turned into an angry, bitter old man. After Irving Rogers died, his adult children tried to hold on, but finally sold the paper to a chain.
Why It Stopped Being Fun
I’ve written very little about my newspaper days. Few of my old “war stories” from small cities and towns — ordinary people doing ordinary things — would interest anyone but me. And I don’t want to be one of those bitter old journalists lamenting the sad state of journalism today. I interviewed a few big celebrities who passed through my beat, and covered several First-in-the-Nation Presidential Primaries that made or changed history. I’m particularly proud of three of the awards I won, and the few local bullies I brought down. Maybe I’ll hit a few of those stories someday if a current “news peg” makes them worth revisiting, like a new biography of Henry Aaron, that made the story behind my revealing 1980 interview with him interesting to readers in 2010.
A good story that’s never been told, as far as I know, is the New Hampshire zoning wars,1970-1990. In those years, immigrants from Massachusetts and New York struggled with old-timers to rewrite local land use and zoning laws, build new schools and modern curricula, municipal water and sewer systems, and create modern, professional police and fire departments. That will be a very hard story to tell. It covers 20 years and played out differently in each community, depending on the decision-makers and voters in each one. Maybe I can paint a picture someday by focusing on each little town I covered. The key words there are maybe and someday.
Considering that I spent 15 of my nearly 65 years writing and editing newspapers in small communities, how much I loved that work, and how interesting I found it, it’s remarkable how little I’ve written about it since I left. I’ve touched on most of the reasons it stopped being fun for me. Two incidents will need separate treatments: the 1992 Presidential election between Bill Clinton and the first George Bush, and the sad story from 1989 that was the first time I was ashamed of my profession. Those will come soon.