Hard Times at Your Hometown Newspaper

Have you noticed lately that your hometown newspaper is a mere shell of its former self? That seems to be the case all over, and it pains us to say that the situation is particularly dire around here.
A couple of days ago we were taking home some blue-hot Khao-Paad chicken fried rice from the terrific Thai House joint over on West Street, and we ran into a fine old newspaper colleague who glumly told us about the latest round of newsroom layoffs that had come down earlier in the afternoon. We long worked with all three of the victims she mentioned, and well know all of them as good guys who did good work, and it occurred to us that they’re the kind of ever-loyal employees a business lays off right before it goes under.
Our friend told us there were still nearly 20 newsroom employees left, between the writing and editing and photographic and clerical staff, but that’s hardly enough to cover all the daily newsworthy events in a fascinating metropolitan area of half-a-million complicated souls, much less a fascinating state with some two-and-half-million complicated souls. Back when we first started as college drop-outs at the very bottom of the newsroom hierarchy, way back in the year President Ronald Reagan was first elected, the newsroom had well over a hundred extremely complicated employees we dealt with, and even then that remarkably talented group was never quite up to the task.
That was before the epochal internet, however, when the only way to get stock quotations and baseball scores and maybe a few relatively in-depth paragraphs about the latest local and state national scandals was by paying a full 25 cents for a thick and full-sized ad-filled copy of your hometown paper. Our hometown paper was printing money almost as fast as the basement’s presses churned out the state and county and hometown editions, and lavishly endowed its newsroom with well-credentialed new hires and generous expense accounts for statewide travel and even the occasional visit to Broadway for the theater critic and the Paris Air Show for the aviation writer, and it was an exciting time to be in the newspaper racket, and we’d always walk home through the empty downtown streets of early morning downtown Wichita with satisfaction that we’d helped to put out a pretty damned good newspaper for our hometown, and that it was at least worth one measly quarter from a Wichitan’s spare change.
These days the up-to-the-minute stock quotations and baseball scores are just a couple of free clicks away on the internet machine where you’re reading this, and high-tech targeted job sites and the clunky-looking Craigslist and various other for-sell sites have stolen all the once lucrative classified advertising business, so the old business model is no longer sustainable. Which leads to the lay-offs that devalue the product, which then goes up in price, and these days the paper is literally smaller — not quite tabloid-sized, but less than the full broadsheet of the glory days — and the remaining staff is stuffed into a start-up sized office space in Old Town and the rag now costs a full buck and a half. There are still some capable journalists left, but as much as we admire their daily efforts they’re hard press to come up with a full buck and a half’s worth of journalism from a dwindling number of readers every day. The news out of Topeka is mostly reported by the skeletal crew at the fellow McClachy-owned Kansas City Star, which the hometown paper once tried to scoop on any statewide story, the national stuff is all from the decimated wire services, and now that the paper is printed in Kansas City and trucked down the turnpike all of the Royals’ west coast baseball scores are a full day old.
By the time we’d scratched and clawed our way from the copy boy’s desk to a front-page by-line things were changing, but it was just in time to get in on the last of a golden age of local journalism. The expense accounts were no longer so generous, but we still spent an entire legislative session in Topeka, and routinely a couple of fill-ups in the western expanse of Kansas, There was plenty to gripe about with our local newspaper, but its crusty old executive editor frequently feuded with his corporate bosses and allowed us to freely vent during the daily staff meetings, and the paper did a lot of good work. Most of our colleagues had been inspired to enter journalism by the movie “All the President’s Men”, and wanted nothing more than to bring down the local equivalent of President Richard Nixon, whereas we’d been inspired by the movie “His Girl Friday,” and mostly wanted to wear fedoras and shout into candlestick phones and wind up with such a hot sassy gal as Rosalind Russell, but between us we came with a full half-bucks worth of daily reading.
Those crusading left-wing baby-boomers did uncover a lot of shady dealings by both Republican and Democratic officials, and  for a couple of decades we enjoyed a middle class lifestyle by filing factual accounts of some obscure public  another as well as some occasional right-of-center commentary and numerous well-told New Journalism tales of what it was like for some folk artist recreational vehicle owner to be alive on the Kansas plains on a certain day. Despite the occasional corrections and the numerous times that the factual reports largely missed the point, none of it was “fake news,” except in a couple of cases the paper fully confessed while firing the offending reporters, and we still say it was well worth the two or four bits you’d have paid for it.
There was always a certain left-wing tilt to paper, and those out-of-town editors the corporate owners brought in never did get the hang of a place like Wichita, but it wasn’t “fake news,” and we mostly blame the internet and Craig’sList and those high-tech targeted advertising sites and the creative destruction of capitalism that has also wiped out coal-mining and the photographic film industry, as well as the growing indifference and illiteracy of the reading public. We can’t at all blame any of our three recently laid-off friends, and only wish them the best.
The three most recent lay-off victims are just the latest in a decades old decline, which has seen the defenestration of several dozen top-notch reporters and writers and photographers, and reduced our hometown paper to its current sorry state. The paper had already laid off several worthy staffers when we quite in disgust, and we’ve been astounded about who’s been laid off since, and we wonder how long the rest of the emaciated staff will stay on the job. We put in enough time in the corporate chain to be vested in a pension, which assured is not invested in media stocks, and we hope our erstwhile colleagues will eventually enjoy the same benefit, although we don’t know what kind of deal offered when they came on board, and we wish all of us the best.
Which is bad news for everyone who used to enjoy a middle class lifestyle by working in daily journalism, and bad news for the rest of our prairie hometown and everyone in your locality as well. Those public officials can now pad their expense accounts with less worry, the state legislature can more comfortably do something astoundingly stupid with less public notice, and voters will wander into voting booths less knowledgable about the scoundrels they’re voting for. It should go without saying, but these days we feel obliged to vouch that our three recently unemployed friends are by no means enemies of the people.

— Bud Norman

The Shrinking Globe

Many years of toiling for newspapers have cured of us any sentimentality about the industry, but it was nonetheless sad to read that the once-venerable Boston Globe has been sold.
In yet another sign of the steady decline of newspapers, the publication went to the owner of the Boston Red Sox for a bargain-basement price of $70 million, which won’t even buy a good shortstop these days. That’s a 93 percent loss from what The New York Times paid for the property back in 1993, if you don’t take into account inflation and the $100 million of pension liabilities which the old owners will retain, and even a typically math-challenged journalist will recognize it as a rather poor rate of return on investment. The figures bode ill for the value of newspapers in less densely populated cities such as ours, but should not be surprising to anyone who has been paying attention to recent trends.
Part of the problem is newfangled technologies such as the internet, of course, which have not only lured away readers but also provided formidable competition for classified advertising revenue. The inherent advantages of the internet as a news medium first became clear to us years ago when reading an on-line obituary for the great jazz singer Anita O’Day which featured a video of the chanteuse performing with Roy Eldridge and the Gene Krupa Orchestra, the sort of thing no newspaper can provide, and we are reminded every time we check the web for baseball standings that are freshly updated with the west coast scores. Selling an old lawn mower or seeking a clandestine sex romp on Craigslist is faster, easier, and less expensive than placing an ad in a local paper, and the big advertisers are able to target their pitches to a more specific market on a well-chosen web site. Without the much-vaunted layers of editors found at newspapers, who mostly serve to ensure a uniformity of polite opinion and bland prose, the internet also offers a greater diversity of opinion and far livelier writing.
Even the shrewdest publishers would be hard pressed to survive the modern era of communications, and today’s newspapers are not blessed with shrewd leadership. The money-drenched era that followed the monopolization of every town’s newspaper and preceded the age of the internet and talk radio inculcated a dangerous complacency in the nation’s editors and publishers, and they arrogantly refused to respond to the rapid changes taking place until they had left too far behind to ever catch up. Most of the people running today’s newspapers began their careers in the post-Watergate era when journalism was a prestigious profession and everyone was looking to be portrayed by Robert Redford in a movie about their speaking-truth-to-power exploits, and few of them have any practical business sense or empathy for their unwashed readerships. In our experience most newspaper workers would rather go broke with their rigid orthodoxy than to thrive by allowing an occasional alternative viewpoint to infiltrate their pages, and we note that the Times’ even passed up a more lucrative offer because the would-be buyers might nudge the Globe a few notches to the right.
If this sounds slightly embittered, so be it. Although the various news media are currently in a transitional stage that has left the public without crucial reporting we expect that someone will eventually devise a business model for the internet which will result in something far better, and we are pleased to see that the generally baleful influence of the American is on the decline. Still, we have some regrets about the demise of the newspaper, and not just because it means fewer freelance opportunities and causes some anxiety about our own pension. An untold number of local scandals are going unreported because of newsroom cutbacks at papers around the country, just as a number of national scandals go under-reported because they involve the wrong party, and we are old enough to remember a time when newspapers occasionally did some good.

— Bud Norman