News & Nostalgia: By Ed Kociela, Guest Writer
I was 15 when I earned my first byline.
There was a small daily newspaper in Southern California that was hyper-local in coverage, as they like to say in today’s media world, and I had pretty much set my course in life when I started high school, with the desire to be a newspaperman.
Of course, you had to take journalism classes to become a news person, even though to this day I hate, no, make that, passionately loathe the term journalist. I mean anybody who keeps a diary, which is really nothing more than a journal, is a journalist. Reporters? They are something different, something special.
At least they used to be.
So, I’ve been at it, stringing words together, for a long, long time now, beginning in the days when we banged out stories on old Underwood manual typewriters on lengths of yellow paper torn from rolls that we used to collect the news on from our wire service teletype machines.
We had cut and paste back then, only instead of punching a few keystrokes on a laptop, we cut off sections of that yellow paper using a pica pole as our straightedge guide, and pasted them together in proper order, dipping freely into the rubber cement bottles that were a staple of yesterday’s news rooms, to piece the thing together.
We would then take our copy back to some cranky guy who sat at a Linotype machine. Usually, at least one of the typesetters had a cigar going to mask the smell of the hot lead as it passed through the machine. He’d set the type, put it in a galley tray, ink it up and roll out a proof for us to read. Of course, these guys were so good, so experienced, that they could read our stories backwards and upside down in the trays as fast as we could on the proof sheet.
Then we went to press. There is still something magical about hearing a newspaper press as it rolls and hums, almost like a sacred hymn echoing in a candle-lit cathedral on Christmas Eve.
Most of the good ones I’ve known in the news business tell a similar story, at least the old-timers, and even though some separate from the job for a short time to pursue things like more money or better benefits, they always come back – or try to come back – to the business.
Of course, this comes from somebody who came up through the ranks in the days when a publisher was successful if his newspaper took in a dollar more than it spent at the end of the fiscal year.
It’s all different now on so many levels, which is why we have seen, recently, more layoffs at Utah’s largest newspaper, The Salt Lake Tribune. Unfortunately, this is globally contagious as newspapers fail to conquer the Internet, where information, and sometimes news, is available with just a few keystrokes and, mostly, free.
During the golden age of newspapers, there were a few national chains, but they were miniscule in comparison to today. We had some mammoth newspapers, however. The New York Times, New York Daily News, New York Post, Washington Post, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Chicago Tribune, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Atlanta Constitution, Kansas City Star, Dallas Morning News, Portland Oregonian, and my alma mater, the late, great Los Angeles Herald Examiner, were lively, iconic, and interesting reads.
The corporatization of the news industry has turned everything, unfortunately, into a product, a commodity, which is why newsroom numbers are dwindling.
Where newspapers were once a hard, daily habit, they are now the recreational drug of a world that can get the essence of a breaking news story in 140 characters or less on Twitter within seconds of something going down. There’s no waiting until the next day, no slipping a quarter into the newsstand box on the corner, no waiting for the thud of the paper landing in the driveway in the morning. By God, you want news? You’ve got news. Now. Free. On your phone. On your tablet. On your laptop. Not even television or radio can keep up with the speed of delivery that today’s technology offers. And, while it is the best of times for news junkies, it is the worst of times for news professionals. It also plays hell with those who have a genuine interest in the news, but are subject to the wild extremes in reporting that have become part of today’s media landscape.
And, therein lies the problem.
Newspapers are dying off at an alarming rate, but, it’s not because we are no longer interested in the daily events of the world. Quite the contrary, our news appetites are as voracious as ever. Newspapers, however, far too late in the game, discovered that they simply cannot compete with the Internet. No matter how good their reporters are, no matter how deeply they carve into a story, they are still not cut out to go toe-to-toe with Twitter, Facebook, and the online news agencies that are taking greater hold on the news-consuming public. Add to that the tidy – or not so tidy – element of being able to comment on any story that pops up onto your screen and you have a situation totally foreign to the old-school delivery system. As a result, more and more people are turning away from print editions of the news and toward the communication implements of the day. They don’t want to wait until sunrise to find out what happened at the city council meeting; to learn what the President had to say about an emerging world hotspot; to find out if the Red Sox beat the Yankees again; or what some knuckleheaded rancher in the Nevada desert is doing to turn public opinion against the federal government. They want it now.
As they turn away, circulation numbers dwindle. As circulation numbers dwindle, advertising rates take a nosedive. As advertising revenue decreases, so does available money for salaries, equipment, the office light bill. Most importantly, as cash decreases, so does the dividend paid to stockholders who, in corporate America, stand at the head of the line.
So, to keep the investors happy, newsrooms are getting leaner, and leaner, and leaner. Which means the product suffers, and suffers, and suffers. Not staffed well enough to devote time to deeper, more expositional reporting, they turn more and more to fluff, which means less newsworthiness, which means fewer readers. And, of course, there are the advertisers themselves who know they have the upper hand and do not look fondly upon the newspaper if it runs something that may not be terribly flattering to their industry or, perhaps, is at odds with their political, religious, or cultural persuasion. It also means that the veterans of the industry who have held the ideals of solid, credible, integrity-driven reporting are also being shown the door because all of their years of service have resulted in them being at the top of the payroll and, well, they can get a couple of newbies for the price of one grizzled old veteran.
I was actually still in the business when the term citizen-journalist was struck. It was a buzzword for the corporations that decided that all of the training and experience of real-world reporters could be replaced with untrained amateurs who did not have a love affair with the English language or a handle on the meaning of the words integrity, credibility, objectivity.
They were true journalists who would pen little ditties about what they happened upon, complete with passive photographs that looked like they came from Grandma’s family album. They had no idea about the imperatives of the story and, usually, buried the lede – the essential parts of what makes a story newsworthy – as we say, about 12 paragraphs deep, a cardinal sin in the news business.
It becomes relevant today because we have seen the mushrooming evidence that people have lost all ability to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to news gathering. Instead of relying on reliable sources for news, there are all of these offshoots where you can find a story to suit your political, religious, cultural, or other socio-economic position, as journalists piece together poorly researched bits of information in poorly written fashion because to them, it’s simply a job, not a passion.
The beef between whack-job rancher Cliven Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management is a classic case in point.
The Internet was filled with all kinds of stuff. There were conspiracy theories linking the situation to a Chinese cabal taking over the little strip of desert for a solar power plant. There were claims of secret government orders and plans to rob the little man of his treasure – in this case, a little less than 1,000 hungry cows – in a show of muscle and contempt for the U.S. Constitution and all, by God, that it stands for, providing a rallying point for all of those with a generations-old hatred for the government, even though they don’t really understand what it is they are hating on.
It proved fodder for vengeful leftists who took umbrage to the outpouring of support for the scofflaw Bundy to the extent that heavily-armed goons in camouflage swept onto the land, ready to snap a round into the chamber at a moment’s notice, bravely taking their stand behind women and children they used as shields. Although they would not have accepted the potential for violent confrontation, they wondered why nobody stood up when they participated in the Occupy Wall Street protests, which resulted in a number of peaceful protesters getting hauled off to jail, being sprayed with mace, and, in some instances, having their heads cracked by jackbooted thugs disguised as local cops.
Meanwhile, in the desert standoff, there were specious stories posted on both sides of the issue by sites patronized by these cliques while any even-handed attempt at news delivery was, generally, scorned, perhaps because it lacked the rhetorical flavor necessary to please their partisan palates.
All of this, of course, put the fear of God into the so-called mainstream media, which ratcheted back its coverage and posed mindless editorial stances of limp neutrality for fear of alienating a readership that was, for the most part, on the side of the Bundy family. Instead of establishing a leadership position within its community, which is its job, and instead of demanding order amid the chaos, we saw some soft-peddling of the issues. As they tiptoed through the cultural, religious, and political minefield – yes, they are inextricably connected here in Utah – we saw one prominent news source try to lay a little blame here, a little blame there, and ask in spineless fashion, if we all just can’t get along. Later, when the public started sorting it out, when case law was established, when the armed militia had packed up and gone home, a little more blame was dropped at Bundy’s feet, but gently so it would not cause backlash among his local supporters – particularly those with advertising dollars to spend.
Meanwhile, the truth be damned, or at least sent to Purgatory until the market is ready to deal with it. Besides, truth isn’t as sexy a sell online or in print as the image of dusty militia guys carrying loaded semiautomatic weapons in the desert, itching to drop the hammer on a federal agent or errant hippie peace protester who ambled through their rifle sites.
In the meantime, the desert was crawling with these citizen journalists who were writing and posting pictures of what was, in their mind, really happening in the confrontation between the BLM, the Bundy family, and the paramilitary forces assembled, each promising a scoop.
In the pre-Internet days, a scoop was something that hung in the air for 24 hours as readers realized that their favorite newspaper had something the other paper missed. It was a horrid situation as editors and reporters had to endure a full day knowing that their competition beat them to an important story. And, most editors were not terribly understanding when they were on the losing end. In fact, if you got scooped once too often, you had better have your book of clippings up to date and be headed out the door to another news room.
Today, however, a scoop is a scoop for maybe five minutes before everybody else starts reporting on it, giving even the far-fetched claims sounder footing than they deserve. We saw plenty of that as extremist reports challenged the mainstream media to report on the various conspiracies and Machiavellian efforts that were, they said, going on behind the scenes.
With few resources to throw at the story, it became a monumental task for the truth-seekers to wade through the detritus and pull together cold, hard facts. We also heard from some correspondents who admitted they were unprepared for the scope of what they were covering and, quite shaken by it all.
And, therein lies the danger we face today.
It takes a certain passion, a certain fearlessness, a certain courage to wade into the tough stories, to endure the intimidation placed upon them by opposing factions, to stand behind their stories as being fair and just when the great unwashed body of readers has already written the story in their own minds.
It also takes a real understanding of the power of words one uses when reporting on a situation as volatile as this, and some experience in understanding that, well, nobody really won this round.
Most of all, it takes a passion for the job, a desire that lights a fire in the soul to pursue the absolutes, the truths, if you will, and expose them to the light of day without fear or favor.
We didn’t see a lot of that. We saw, for the most part, half-efforts from most who didn’t like the idea of hanging out in the hot desert sun all day with people they didn’t understand or even want to stand next to under circumstances that could ignite at the slightest provocation.
The outfit I work for, STGnews, did a good job of straight-up reporting on the newsworthy events. It also had columnists who attacked the issue from myriad sides, examining it, chewing it up, digesting it, then presenting it with passionate expression.
You could separate the news from opinion, which you couldn’t always do elsewhere. And, when there was opinion, it wasn’t rooted in fence-sitting.
Even though its delivery is borne of modern-day technology, its roots were purely old-school: here are the facts, here are the opinions, now make a reasonable judgment.
The unfortunate thing is that even valid efforts by mainstream media get lumped in with the other stuff that litters the Web and when the sensationalists out there start spewing wild-eyed conspiracy theories and mix opinion with news, it casts a pall upon us all.
But, that’s what happens with the corporatization of the media.
Dan Rather warned us about this not long ago when he talked about how five or six corporations control the news for the entire nation.
He was right, you know.
But the important aspect of his story is that those five or six corporations are more interested in satisfying the needs of their investors rather than the needs of their readers.
As long as that is the priority, the Salt Lake Tribune, and every other traditional news outlet in the nation, will continue to lose staff and, eventually, close up the shop.
The only solution, of course, is to dig a little deeper into your pockets, reinvest in your product, and reinvent yourself to engage your market in a format that has become comfortable instead of forcing a newsprint product down your readers throat.
I worked with a couple of guys in the print business who were fairly short-sighted.
One guy, in a position of authority, told me seven years ago that newspapers had at least 15 good years of life before the impact of the Internet hit. The guy who ran the show? His vision was so limited that one day while working on developing a Facebook page for the product, he said, “Great…just another thing to distract my employees when they should be working.”
Neither one is still in the business, but the harm done along the way, the reluctance to change and the subservience to budgets rather than owning a real passion for their work, is what will turn newspapers into the fossil fuel for the new technology-driven media.
As news people, it is our job to now make such an impact that our readers can distinguish real news gathering from the amateur and extremist rantings that proliferate.
Ed Kociela is a veteran newspaperman who has won numerous awards from the Associated Press and Society of Professional Journalists. He has written two books, ‘plygs,’ a journalistic novel about a fundamentalist Mormon sect in southern Utah, and “It Rocked! (Recollections of a Reclusive Rock Critic),” which is a memoir of his days as a rock critic for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. He has also written the play “Downwinders,” which was presented as part of the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s New American Playwright Series. He now works as a freelance writer and weekly columnist for STGnews, an online news outlet, and preparing his sequel to ‘plygs.’ You can find more of Ed @ St. George News