The Medium is the Mess

We’ve lately been spending a lot of time with some fine people who work in what’s left of the local news media, preparing for our annual brief appearance on the amateur stage in the Society of Professional Journalists’ satirical song-and-skit “Gridiron” show, and although it’s been fun and a good reason to get out of the house we sometimes wonder what’s the point. The show is a fund-raiser for journalism scholarships, after all, so we can’t shake a guilty feeling that we’re contributing the delinquency of a minor.
Better that those fresh-faced youngsters should be preparing for careers in horse-and-buggy engineering or telegraphy, as far as we’re concerned, and we’re apparently not the only ones who think so. A recent survey by something calling itself CareerCast just published its annual survey of the worst careers to pursue, and for the third year in a row being a newspaper reporter came in number one. Newspaper circulation has been plummeting rapidly, with advertising revenues falling even faster, the resulting salaries are also low, and by now the prestige factor is in negative territory.
Things were vastly different way back when our fresh faces embarked on a career in newspapering. We had recently dropped out of college, and after a series of desultory jobs were eager to accept an offer to be an “editorial clerk” at the local newspaper, which meant writing obituaries and listening to the police scanner and answering calls from irate readers and doing whatever menial errands almost anyone else in the newsroom might find for us, and it was grueling but fun and seemed to hold out some promise. Almost all the reporters were “J-school” graduates who had been inspired by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman bringing down Tricky Dick in “All The President’s Men,” but we were drawn to profession by “His Girl Friday” and “Nothing Sacred” and all those black-and-white movies about men in fedoras shouting “get me re-write” into a candlestick phone, and we even managed to work our un-credentialed way to a “staff writer” by-line as the last of the up-from-copyboy reporters.
That was so long ago, though, that we were on the job the night Ronald Reagan first won the presidency. It was a grand old time in the journalism industry, when almost every city in the country was becoming a one-newspaper town, and it was before Reagan revoked the Fairness Doctrine and unleashed talk radio and then the internet and all its gloriously unedited commentary and more up-to-the-minute sports results and stock market quotes, and even worse Craig’s List and all the other on-line advertising options, so for a brief shining moment journalism was the monopolistic place to be. Our newspaper was basically printing money along with all its widely distributed daily editions, the raises kept coming along with every threat of unionization, the drama critic and fashion writer were getting annual paid trips to New York City, the political writers got their calls immediately returned from even such disdainful sorts as Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, and even we were pretty cocky about it.
In retrospect, of course, we should have seen it coming. That night Reagan won the presidency we were the only ones in the newsroom who were glad of it, and we’re still owed twenty bucks from a reporter who bet us that the world surely would end in a nuclear conflagration within four years but who’d moved on by then, and we look back on their discredited crusades against nuclear energy and that “red-lining” nonsense that led to the subprime mortgage fiasco that led to the great recession of ’08, which somehow led to the disastrous Obama presidency with the unabashed cheerleading of our local newspaper, and even without the internet and other aspects of the creatively destructive nature of capitalism it was bound to end badly. Now the paper isn’t even printed here, but is for some reason or another outsourced to the now corporate-sister Kansas City paper, which used to be the paper that our local paper hated to be scooped by on any Kansas story, and what difference, at this point does it make?
Our friends in the radio media aren’t faring much better, with all those internet stations that play only the songs you want to hear stealing their audience, and the conservative talk radio hosts splitting into every smaller shares with every new schism in conservatism, the one of the only people we know from local television was fired for letting the “f-word” slip at the end of a broadcast and is now vying for a state House of Representative seat. It’s a sorry state of affairs for the people who decided to pursue a career in any sort of journalism, and for the city at large.
For all the windmills that our colleagues tilted at over our quarter-century of local journalism, they also pointed to some serious problems that were quickly addressed, and on other occasions they at least forewarned their readers of the problems to come. Our radio friends have warned of us upcoming tornadoes and traffic jams and tax hikes, and even that foul-mouth and quite likable TV reporter also brought us some valuable information, although we’ve told him we’re not supporting his out-of-our district campaign, and we hate to think of what our local officials might be up to without such watchful scrutiny.
Still, we hold out no hope that “J-schools” are going to do any good, given that they all still seem obsessed with inculcating Reagan-hated into their charges, and what with all the computerization in the dying newspaper business there aren’t any copy boys left to work their way up to “staff writer.” Which leaves us wondering how people will know what their public officials are up to and what problems need to be addressed and which problems can only be forewarned, and whether anyone will really care. We’d like to think that there is still a demand for such information and that a free market system will therefor provide a supply, but so far no one’s figured out how to make it profitable, and until then we’ll enjoy the company of our last remaining media friends and encourage those fresh-faced youngsters to into gerontology or video game-making or some other promising field.

— Bud Norman

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One response

  1. Which leaves unanswered the question: why are people who produce the content of the newspaper – the part that goes around the ads for bedding, clothing and automobiles – so unlike the people in the community? Do Leftists just naturally graduate to journalism and conservatives not? Does J-school turn Kansas farm boys into admirers of Karl Marx? Why is the newspaper business the only one that makes it a point to spurn its customers? Could that be part of the problem rather than the growth of alternative sources of information?

    Which leads me to a second question: will people trust the admirers of Obama and the Castro brothers to actually tell them “what their public officials are up to and what problems need to be addressed?” If, for example, the problem is the coming crash of ObamaCare will the people who are left in the newsroom write articles warning about it? Or will they be referred to very obliquely on page 7 so that a year or two down the road – when people who get sick won’t be able to find a doctor or pay for the deductible or afford the insurance premiums – the editors and writers will be able to point to the lonely article cut-and-pasted from an AP story and claim that they really did warn people? These are referred to as “cover your derriere” stories.

    When ideologues write instant history it’s relation to reality is tenuous indeed.

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