Unwittingly, the prestigious men of letters at the Columbia Journalism Review have discovered a few reasons why the newspaper industry is dying.
The overriding motif in a recent issue of CJR is the angst felt by newspaper reporters as their industry shrivels into a black hole. A staff editorial called “More Than a Job” weeps:
Losing any job can be traumatic, and we are not suggesting that this emotional toll is unique to journalism…
O! But they are.
The suffering of a downsized journalist, you see, has grandiloquence and pathos. As CJR informs us…
The job is a calling; the mission is to try to improve small corners of the world.
What twaddle (h/t Parsifal).
Aren’t we all trying to “improve small corners of the world” by trudging through the existential nausea of being? The fact that Downsized Factory Worker With 5 Kids doesn’t broadcast his struggle to captive readers makes his loss even more noteworthy.
The joy of irrelevance
The problem with newspapers and newspaper personnel may run deeper than dead trees and antiquated business models. Many aging journalists lack skills outside the inverted pyramid. Strangely, they seem proud of it.
Journalist Don Terry was laid off by the Chicago Tribune. These days, he’s a CJR “Encore Fellow.” Terry regales us with his personal tale of woe, one dotted with references to Lou Grant. (Yes, the Lou Grant TV show. In committing the sin of Pop Culture Reference, Terry opts for “hopelessly outdated” rather than just “dated.”)
Since getting laid-off/axed/downsized/right-sized/fired last February from the Chicago Tribune, where I worked as a staff writer for eight years, I’ve downloaded and watched almost every episode of the first three seasons of the old Lou Grant television show on my iPod Touch. It helps me sleep.
That passage is electric, full of immediacy and a sense of “now,” isn’t it?
Admittedly, I’m being an asshole. Terry has no duty to appeal to young readers, and honestly, I’d rather he reference Lou Grant than “royale with cheese.” But, as a sage chronicler of the human condition (cue laugh track), Terry has a forum — and a privilege — to offer the world something timeless. Naturally, he sabotages that privilege with pop culture gimmickry and a narrative style that feels as dated as his Lou Grant reference.
Soapbox of the Web triumphalist
If journalism adhered to my rules, the following edict would roar through the halls of every J-school:
- Pop culture, by nature, is ephemeral and fleeting;
- Pop culture references are poor narrative tools; and
- Pop culture references that only Baby Boomers understand are pure shit.
More from Terry, though, as he weaves drunkenly between self-indulgence and Lou Grant:
Lou confronts his star reporter, Joe Rossi, about his demeaning attitude toward an older colleague, a veteran cop reporter desperately trying to stay on the wagon and in the business. “You don’t like Driscoll, do you?”
“He’s a dinosaur,” Rossi says. “It’s all over. Whatever happened for him was over a long time ago.”
“I’m a dinosaur,” Lou says.
Rossi doesn’t say anything.
“It would be nice if you argued the point,” Lou says.
More silence from Rossi.
Lou grabs his arm.
“It would be smart if you argued the point,” he says, pointedly.
Can you feel the allegorical wonder? Terry is a dinosaur too, but he can teach these “new media” whippersnappers a few things. Sigh…if only he gave a damn.
Quitters never win, and winners never…
…languish proudly in a weird shame spiral. O! This fast-paced world has no use for the ennobling waters of my gruff wisdom. Today’s hatchlings can’t change a typewriter ribbon, much less hammer out a sports brief with the requisite 5 Ws! Despair! Calamity!
Twaddle again. Maybe Terry isn’t Web savvy, but so what. He was beating deadlines long before Pip Tweetcock won his first Lord Snowden trophy. That’s worth something, isn’t it? Yes, reader! I’d say it is!
Look at Roger Ebert, practically at death’s door — the man tweets like a hummingbird and writes long-form blog posts. Millions read him in an age of instant gratification. Perhaps there is hope for Don Terry.
Encore Fellow No. 2 is Terry McDermott, late of the Los Angeles Times. Unlike Terry No. 1, Terry No. 2 embraces nouveaux médias. He articulates what many of us feel:
I hated the conventions that bound daily journalism, the stilted, odd language in which it was written as well as the contrived structures into which that odd language was shaped. The common newspaper style is so heavily codified you need a Berlitz course to interpret it. More than formal, the style is abstract and artificial.
Agreed. Thanks for understanding, Terry No. 2. Please share your notes with the other Encore Fellows. (BTW, McDermott is Irish for “free from envy.”)
It’s last call at Typo’s, a fictional pub I just invented to add color and charm to this drab narrative. Typo’s is a putrid shitscape where journalists go to die. Naturally, that’s where I find Jill Drew (ex-Washington Post). She’s drinking Singapore Slings and heckling the piano player. Big Jim Tucker sits to her left.
Jill can’t understand why the market for stilted, odd language and heavily codified abstractness has dried up. However, she appreciates that time constraints factor into the mystery. Says Drew, mouth afoam with gin and pineapple juice:
Few people have the time to really experience the wonders of a newspaper. You have to commit time to it, to devote the time, which gets harder and harder to do in our fractured, distracted, multimedia world.
That’s true. I definitely don’t have time for the wonders of Mitch Albom, Dave Barry, Steve Duin, and Maureen Dowd. (Although Erma Bombeck still arouses my love tendrils. Wait, no, she doesn’t — she’s dead. Sorry, I regret the error.)
Drew’s solution is to raise prices:
If people pay more, perhaps they’ll place a higher value on what’s delivered, and spend more time with it.
Whiskey Tango Fuck??!
Look, I’m not heartless — I can appreciate newspapers’ nostalgic qualities. I lament the downfall of a lost industry. But I won’t sob as Scoop Q. Columnist lolls about in his fellowship hammock and 401K plan. His downsized counterparts in “lesser,” “unchosen” fields can barely pay their bus fare.
But what do I know? My surname means “swelling lump,” and I’m rarely “free from envy.”
Lou takes one last look at Typo’s before hailing a cab. He feels the icy wind slap his rotund backside. He then collapses into the snow and dies.