A few weeks back, there was fever around a hashtag on social media.
As the print side of the journalism business continues its periodic contractions, it has been necessary to prop up spirits with such devices.
Using that hashtag, people celebrated and sang of the intrepid journalists of their local papers: Truth-tellers like none other, who do the dirty work of scouring through public records to find what officials would like to keep quiet, then asking them over and over for Real Answers.
It’s that sort of accountability journalism that drives the self-perception of being industry workers at this point: Print reporters, by and large, are a species driven by romanticism for a bygone era. One in which the paper was something that everyone read in the morning, and one in which the paper set the agenda.
Does that happen now? It depends on who you ask.
We all know now, of course, that The Florida Times-Union, under new ownership at GateHouse, which owns more than 500 papers nationally, dropped the ax on some journalists last week—not too long after canning the 50 people responsible for printing the paper locally.
Reporters Roger Bull, Drew Dixon, Terry Dickson and Tiffanie Reynolds, and photographers Bob Mack and Dede Smith, graphic artist Steve Nelson, editor Carole Fader, and office manager Brenda Compton.
Every one of them is looking for new gigs now. It will be easier for some than others. It will be a challenge for all of them to make up the income. Not to mention the feeling of playing a central part in one of the more vital roles one can have in any community: explaining what is being done to citizens by their government.
Dixon, for example, had been with the paper for 15 years. He and Bull were the business desk.
There are some who say, well, NBD, the Jacksonville Business Journal and the Daily Record can pick up the slack. But those papers are smaller, too, with fewer reporters and fewer resources. And is it a wise strategy to hand-deliver one of your beats to the competition?
While you can task a freelance stringer with an assignment and get some copy out of it, getting context is a different matter.
Freelancers are decent factotums in assignments of that ilk, but with no institutional knowledge or protection or investment, how deep are they really going to go on a story?
I did a lot of freelance work before the last few years; ever tried writing copy from a cubicle? Interviewing sources from an unused conference room, whispering like Deep Throat so some officious team leader doesn’t pop in and blow things up like some episode of Cops? Cramming a rewrite into a lunch break? It’s an exercise in humility and futility, and conditions aren’t conducive to winning any awards doing it.
And freelancers, quite often, have to crawl over glass before even being considered for salary jobs. To think of the quotidian shit I applied for and was told I wasn’t good enough to do … it would have broken some people’s spirits, and didn’t exactly bolster mine, but it spotlighted the decision-making process and hubris of the decision-makers (many of whom have since been shown the door).
All of this is to say that there is a lot of churn in the journalism business, a lot of previously canonical thinking that’s now about as relevant to what is happening as chunks of unusable flesh and puddles of blood on an abattoir floor.
What is left is a concern—always—for shareholder profits, for quarterly dividends, for bonuses at corporate headquarters. The people doing the jobs now, unless they are killing it, unless they’re young and getting better, might as well appeal to PETA for intervention. Because, in those boardrooms where the big-dollar mandarins negotiate budget cuts and staff trimming, they are assets and liabilities, not people.
In this market, the local paper has a strong core of reporters under the age of 35, and those reporters and the product have their fanbases.
Nate Monroe and Chris Hong represent that vision on the City Hall beat. Andrew Pantazi and Ben Conarck break their share of stories about criminal justice and the legal system. Tessa Duvall has taken the potentially sleepy beat of children’s services and made it bristle with conflict.
Their work, locally, was largely celebrated with that hashtag. And they aren’t going anywhere (though their work will continue to be undercut by an editorial board that sees its function as cheerleading local millionaires and billionaires).
God help you if you are on the news side, older, prone to health problems, and seen as replaceable by younger, cheaper talent.
People may #LoveMyNewspaper. But corporate loves its profit margin.
Advice: Clean the floor before the previous owners sell the building. And next time, put down dropcloths first.