I don’t know how many parts this series will be. I want to share some of the journalism wisdom I’ve been lucky to have thrown at me during my 10-day internship residency in Lincoln, Neb. I hope you find some of this information as practical and valuable as I did.
I couldn’t help but lean forward on my elbows. I had to get as close to the action as I could. Sitting across from me was a journalism lifer, a woman who had devoted her career’s work since 1974 into an industry evolving beyond her recognition. She had started the day with pride and hope in her voice, but as her lecture dragged on, her cynicism stabbed through.
Now, she was retiring at 55. Earlier than she had perhaps thought, but the new way of doing business at her regional Midwest paper demanded more than she had left to give, and she planned to use the tired-but-tolerated excuse of spending more time with family to escape.
“When I go into work, I just think, ‘How can I get through tonight?’” she told us.
I’ll keep her name to myself because I appreciated her raw honesty. Too often we up-and-comers hear nothing but praise and opportunity from the old guard. They’re full of kind words, but it’s hard to believe them when you know they bear resentment — toward their industry for which they’ve sacrificed everything; toward us, bred as their digital-minded replacements; to their bosses for not stopping the financial hemorrhaging before it got this bad.
But here was refreshing honesty. Would you still be retiring if your paper wasn’t undergoing this massive change? I asked.
“No,” she said. “I would never tell them that because I don’t want to burn any bridges. But no, I wouldn’t. … I felt like I’ve hit this dead end in my job.”
Isn’t the truth good to finally hear?
She told us about design studios, how hubs of mass production are designing up to 20 different newspapers per night. Iowans are assembling papers read the next day across the country, from Louisiana to Minnesota. The streamlining should create jobs in design and cut costs across the board, but what will it do to a publication’s individuality? Or what happens when the placement of stories and photos isn’t agreed upon by the two sides of the process? We’re told those concerns don’t carry enough weight.
Copy desk payrolls are being decimated, and I use that term literally. More than ever, employees don’t feel they can complain about the increased workloads because, hey, at least they have workloads. And, she acknowledged, content quantity might be going up to meet online demands (perceived or otherwise), but content quality is suffering.
Doesn’t that hurt morale?
“There is no morale,” she said. “Everyone is working harder than they ever have. I’m doing the work of five people.”
Stories are going unedited due to time constraints. She figures she spends about 20 percent of her time as a copyeditor actually copy editing. The rest is coordination between online and print, catching up on content, etc.
I understand her frustration stems from the situation being out of her control. Corporate boardrooms are hunting for efficiencies and shortcuts in the process. Copy editors, the only workers I can think of whose proficiency and acknowledgment from the masses is arguably inversely proportional, fall by the wayside because they work hidden behind the curtain — even from some of their bosses.
To her credit, she remained upbeat. She smiled, laughed and joked, and even though her sarcasm sometimes bordered on the spiteful, her practical advice was absolutely useful. We all got actual practice time editing actual stories under fake deadlines. I can honestly say I feel more prepared for my internship after listening to her, and isn’t that all that matters?
So while I may never pay for a print subscription in my lifetime, and while I was constantly reminded of the bleak lyrics to Ben Folds’ “Fred Jones, Pt. II,” I still have hope for our future with print journalism.
Leaning forward on my elbows, I asked her the question I’d been turning over all afternoon.
If you could go back to 1990 and run a newspaper knowing what you know now, what would you do?
Silence answered me. Then, “I don’t know. I really don’t know. The Golden Age has just ended, and we didn’t even know it was here.”
And even though it wasn’t the answer I wanted to hear, I respected it because I believed that she believed it, and that’s all I could ask from her.