Note: This week, we’re doing something a little different; this essay was sent in by a reader, and we thought we’d just give it to you unfiltered. The author tells us she’s “not bitter, just sad” about the decline of newspapers, and even has a few opinions on what went wrong.
Newspapers are dying. It’s like watching a terminally ill loved one wither away to nothing before your eyes. You are simultaneously filled with dread even as you wish they would just go, already, and end the suffering.
I entered journalism all earnest and idealistic. A child of two social workers, I was determined to save the world and believed fervently that the pen was, indeed, mightier than the sword. I would shine a light on injustice, stand up for the little guy, balance out the negative stereotypes of people of color, find the humanity in a sometimes inhuman world. I would be a griot. A storyteller. A historian.
Most of my stuff was routine, but there were stories of which I was particularly proud. A five-part series on African orphans. A feature on the loved ones of a man in a vegetative state as the Terry Schiavo controversy raged. Profiles of former wards of the state who had aged out of the foster care system and had nowhere to go.
Sometimes, I had to be content with merely raising awareness. Other times, there were concrete changes as a result of my work, like the time I got a bank to reinstate the stolen funds of a sick, elderly couple who had been victims of identity theft. The wife called me in tears to thank me.
Calls like that more than compensated for the fact that I never made much money, worked lousy hours, relocated frequently and was essentially on call seven days a week. The day the United States initiated the war in Iraq, I was pulled out of my sick bed on a Sunday to get local reaction from the Muslim community. I had the flu and kept shivering and sneezing through my interviews. But the Muslims had their say.
In those days, the nation’s most prestigious newspapers were still mostly privately owned by families with deep roots in their communities. Before long, though, big, publicly traded media companies started gobbling them up. They didn’t care about the communities they served. The CEOs running those companies had never even set foot in the towns where half their properties were located. Their loyalty was to shareholders, and shareholders demanded profits at any cost.
In less than a decade, long-form journalism vanished. It took too much time and energy to report those pieces, and editors insisted readers didn’t have time to read epic tales anymore, anyway. Short and sweet became the mantra. Sometimes, you couldn’t write a story at all. Wouldn’t a graphic suffice? Or a stand alone photo? Or a two-inch news brief?
Then, to pour salt on an open wound, the Internet arrived. How, exactly, did we come up with the business model of giving current, up-to-the minute news away free online and charging readers for day-old news printed on wildly expensive paper that has to be physically hand-delivered? Why did anyone think that would work?
And so, predictably, we’re broke. A number of marquee newspapers, some of them centuries old, are bankrupt and folding, and the rest are hanging by a thread. The watchdogs who work for these papers are slinking off to new careers, and power brokers on Wall Street and in government are running amok, unchecked. The public doesn’t find out what they’re up to until far too late. No weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Go figure. Bernie Madoff was a crook? Who knew?
Newspaper owners, meanwhile, are desperate. They’ve tried just about every strategy there is to stay afloat. Nothing has worked. The latest is to toss out stories about poor people and people of color and focus on our loyal, core readers. Poor people don’t subscribe to the paper, and advertisers don’t care about reaching them. Rich white people, that’s who we want to cover.
This, too, is failing, which is why my employer laid off a quarter of the newsroom last month. It was our third round of layoffs in two years. I survived. I don’t know how.
I’m not bitter about the firings. They had no choice. You can’t just keep losing money forever. If I owned a newspaper, I’d be cutting staff, too.
No, not bitter. Just deeply, deeply sad.
At least this time we knew it was coming. Unlike previous rounds of cuts, management had the decency to warn us. So, just in case, we cleaned out our desks, paid a few bills ahead, and prayed that we wouldn’t be among those selected for the axe.
My co-workers and I wore black on the day we knew the plague would come. It was our symbolic act of solidarity. Then we tried our best to do actual work, all the while dreading the approach of the executive editor, who was as white as a ghost as, about every 20 minutes, he plucked a staffer from his or her cubicle, saying softly, “Would you come with me, please?”
We had quietly circulated emails asking one another, how do we handle this? Do we run over to our colleagues and hug them and cry, or do we, to preserve their dignity, stare at our computer monitors, pretending nothing is happening as our friends are escorted out of the building?
Somebody came up with the brilliant idea that we should all stand quietly. That’s all. Just stand. Every time they carried one of us off, a sea of people, clad in black, rose and openly gawked. We will bear witness to this carnage. It will not be ignored. We see our fallen comrades. We feel their pain.
I can’t say I’m relieved that I was not escorted out of the newsroom that day. They’ll get me, eventually. It’s just a matter of time. And when I join the ranks of the unemployed, and there’s no safety net to catch me, nobody will see my suffering, because no reporters will be left to cover it.
Courtenay Edelhart has been in print journalism for 20 years. She currently resides in Bakersfield, California.
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