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Brian Fies

The paper I wrote for 30 years ago went from small-town family ownership to distant corporate control, with the usual empty assurances and broken promises. It taught me valuable life lessons about the difference between "business" and "friends," and that when someone says "we're like family" it doesn't mean they'll let you sleep on their sofa after they lay you off. At least those new owners were a "media group" newspaper chain that ostensibly wanted to stay in the business, and last I checked that paper was still publishing, albeit with a newsroom staff one-third the size it had when I was there (which is to say about four instead of 12; it was a SMALL paper...).

I'm watching my current local paper with great interest. Circulation about 80k, long-ago family-owned, then owned by the New York Times (which brought some meddling but also some cachet), then sold to one of the strip-mining carrion munchers you mention. That was a few years ago and their intentions were clear: strip the paper of anything valuable and skip town. By all accounts they nearly did it, until a group of local investors/community leaders stepped up and bought it back. There are some potential conflicts of interest--some of the paper's new owners are the sorts that a paper would normally watch like a hawk--but editorial independence was promised and so far appears to be lived up to. If this works, it could be a model other communities and papers could follow.

Newspapers can still work, especially at a local level, and there's nothing that can take their very important place (not even "citizen journalists!"). In my mind the danger isn't that newspapers actually become irrelevant, but that everyone (especially young readers) THINKS they're irrelevant, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.


There are lots of these floating around, but perhaps an interesting sidebar to your piece...


Mike Peterson

I remember, just about that time, being tremendously impressed that the editor of one of the local papers could log on at home and check out the news feed -- even edit text if he wanted to.

The rest of the conversation didn't really start up until the graphic interface began and home computers became more common, if not ubiquitous.

That's the point at which the fragmented culture of newspapers became toxic -- I've worked in the newsroom, in marketing and in circulation, and given rare privileges if not an official seat in production. But when you sit in a dept head meeting, you realize that they have no idea how anything works around their own little sphere, and, while publishers used to have a more cross-departmental awareness, they're coming right out of sales or accounting now, and have since papers went corporate.

The decisions being made -- on this and other topics -- have been a combination of protecting your own turf and having no clue as to what else goes on the the building, and the result is as we see.

It's fun to remember the Wild West days when not just newspapers but businesses across the board were bringing in random geeks to try to get them into the computer age, but hearing those guys blithely say they wouldn't make money, they just want to see if they can do it? That was useful as an experiment, but they never should have let the kids do more than drive the car back and forth in the driveway.

Rupert Murdoch still has his email printed out for him. How I wish his level of technical awareness wasn't such a worthy symbol of it all. We had Rupert and his printed-out emails at one end of the building, and a group of "Magic the Gathering" freaks making decisions at the other end, and everyone else caught in the middle.

It wasn't the technology -- it was the lack of oversight, the lack of insight, the lack of competent decision-making.

Mike Peterson

And, Brian, I am so with you on the self-fulfilling prophecy aspect. There is a piling-on that isn't simply unoriginal and unseemly but harmful, and, when it is fueled from within, it's a real head-scratcher.

Last weekend, when I was orienting our new reporters, I told them one of the obligations was to read the publication each week, and I asked them, if they were running a restaurant, would they hire a cook who said, "Oh, no, I'd never EAT here!"

I told them that, if they want to work in my kitchen, they need to eat in my restaurant.

But newsrooms now are full of reporters who don't read the paper, and they aren't all 23 years old. And they are hired and supervised by editors who don't dare ask them to please do something so unhip as "read the damn paper" for fear of looking old and square.

Neither Perry White nor Lou Grant ever suffered from that fear.

Brian Fies

(In these discussions I hate to keep drawing on my paltry experience as a newspaper reporter ages ago, but it's all I've got...)

Back in those dark ages, I always took a few minutes at my desk to read our paper pretty much front to back (small paper, didn't take long). The news editor and I were out to lunch once and he mentioned he'd noticed that. I started hemming and hawing, thinking I'd been busted for wasting company time. "No no," he said, "you're the only one who does it. Keep it up."

Mike Peterson

Well, now you're giving me flashbacks ... I was the main business writer, so I'd start each day going through the WSJ looking for trends that could be localized as well as stories and briefs about local companies. I got busted for it by the city editor -- reading papers instead of working. (Never mind that I was inputting three or four briefs a day, beyond the features thus generated.)

I explained that it was my job to be familiar with what was going on in business, particularly as it related to the local economy, and was told maybe I could do that at home so other reporters wouldn't see me doing it. So, I asked, are you going to have a separate subscription to the Journal sent to my house? And, oh by the way, I'll consider myself on the clock while I read it at home.

This, mind you, was back in the days when the idea of beat reporters who know what it going on in their area was still alive in newsrooms. Today, they're spread too thin. Find an expert. Ask him questions. Publish whatever the hell he tells you. Go on to the next story.

And thus a darkly humorous horror story becomes the default. *sigh*

Mary in Ohio

The "Sun" newspapers are mostly canned stuff and ads, with a few page of local stories (the Medina edition includes Strongsville news, which is a bit like having Pittsburgh and Philly covered by one paper) They "serve" the small communities whose local papers (such as The Wadsworth News-Banner and The Lodi Advertiser have long been run out of business. )They used to throw the Sun in your driveway every Thursday, but so many piled up in the ditches (along with The West Side Leader and The Trading Post) that they sent out cards where you had to enclose $1 to acknowledge you wanted it "delivered" in perpetuity. I didn't, so I no longer get The Sun. Just so you know, the PD is not being partnered with The Times, here.

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