liz_marcs (liz_marcs) wrote,

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A tiny rant about newspapering...brought to you by The Wire and PTSD flashbacks....

Do you know what the Internet is awesome for?

Finding out that you're not the only one in the boat. Not to mention that said boat also has an international cast of characters.

Plus, pointers to stores that I will just have to check out when I next go clothes shopping. Yes, indeed. This will be very helpful once I find out if some of these chains have any stores in New England. (I will drive my ass to Northern Maine if I have to.)

My time online is pretty limited today. I have to actually clean some parts of my apartment. Plus, I decided to go kayaking in the late afternoon because I haven't yet done a sunset row before and it'll give me a chance to see some different wildlife on the Charles. I promise I'll try to respond to everyone.

Question about Season 5 of The Wire for people who watch it.

I was a lucky, lucky girl and got Season 5 on Tuesday, way ahead of the "official" release date. So I've already watched the whole thing.

Anyway, during one of the commentaries with Clark Johnson and William F. Zorzi (writer for The Wire and a former Baltimore Sun reporter), Johnson mentioned that he had a lot of fun learning the patois of newsroom speak, and that he was totally unaware that the normal, everyday conversation in the newsroom was so lingo-heavy.

Ummmmm, I actually didn't notice the fact that newsroom speak does have a specific patois that you wouldn't find anywhere else and that it might actually be difficult for outsiders (read: people who are not and never were newsroom denizens) to follow.

So, for those of you did watch The Wire and have no connections to the newspaper business: was the lingo difficult for you to parse at first? Did you have to figure out what they were talking about via the context of the conversation? Were there some exchanges that went completely over your head at first because you couldn't figure out exactly what those characters were saying? Also, were you able to get why the reporters would grumble when they only got a "contributed to" credit for a big story? Or the background pressures (not explicitly stated until the very last episode) that all the reporters were under to make front page above the fold, despite the limited real estate?

Okay, lots of questions there. But I guess I was surprised by the fact that there seemed to be quite a few of otherwise educated and savvy people (this going from The Wire commentaries) for whom the newspaper storyline in Season 5 was this huuuuuge revelation about how daily newspaper newsrooms actually work, and the various pressures that are put on reporters and editors to "do more with less" to the point where there just aren't enough bodies to do even the basics.

Oddly enough, I remember thinking the same thing earlier this year, but I suppose I didn't think to comment on it at the time because I was avoiding spoilers like the plague. I confess that I was shocked as all hell when people on my FList who watched The Wire in real-time on HBO were waxing philosophical about the title of the last episode (the title was "–30–"). First I was surprised that they found it so mystifying that they did research on what "–30–" meant and were shocked and surprised that it was newspaper lingo meaning "the end" (actually, –30– means "end of the story," but I digress).

They were going on and on about what "–30–" really means in the context of The Wire. And there I was saying to myself, "Ummmm, considering that half of the writing staff of The Wire are ex-Baltimore Sun reporters, it means the end of the series. Really. There's no deeper meaning than that."

Anyway, did I mention that I got post-traumatic stress flashbacks watching the newspaper storyline? Because I so totally am. The depiction of the newsroom, the types of conversations that occur in newsrooms, and the people who work there were so bang-on accurate that I actually got homesick.

God, I miss that stuff so much that if physically hurts. Sometimes I forget how much I miss it, but whenever I'm reminded I get all nostalgic and want to go back home.

Until I remember the constant paring down of the news staff that happens on daily newspapers. Luckily, The Wire reminded me that, too.

I was in the industry just at the start of the age of never-ending layoffs. Let me tell you something right now, the Internet is not what's killing newspapers. The Internet may be hastening the decline of newspapers, but the rot was in looooooong before the first Web browser ever went public.

What started the decline of newspapers was the mentality that reporters are pure "cost center," which was so accurately portrayed in Season 5 of The Wire that I was practically weeping tears of blood in recognition.

A tiny real-life anecdote:

Back in the mid-90s, I was a city reporter for a fairly good-sized, crime-ridden city in central New England (sorry, the geography isn't going to get more precise than that out of fear of someone figuring out my real-life ID). This daily newspaper had some daily and weekly competition, but it was pretty much the only in-town game. Anyway, it was owned by a cheap-ass newspaper chain that believed the employees were slaves and that slaves should be milked for all they were worth before they were killed (no selling allowed here).

The corporate-appointed "publisher" of the newspaper came from the sales side of the business, which was SOP for this particular newspaper chain. And like a lot of guys from the sales side of the business, he actually didn't see the worth of the news department. That's right. The very people who actually created the daily product he could sell to advertisers had no worth in his eyes.

This publisher had a habit of twice a year holding "town hall" meetings with the entire newspaper staff to give us the "health" of the newspaper. To give you an idea of this guy's ego, we were all seated in a circle around a small stage and we were seated by department. Said publisher would stand in the center of said circle to give his talk.

The news department was forced to attend, even though we all knew that we would be the only department who would get no praise for getting the job done with no resources and that we'd be the only department beaten on and blamed for whatever went wrong.

At one particular memorable town meeting event, the publisher pointed at the group next to us (the sales department) and spun slowly in a circle as he said, "You. All of you make the newspaper money. You help pay our bills."

Then, when he reached the news department, he stopped and kept his finger pointed at us. He said, "Except for you. You cost me money. If I have to cut, I'll cut from you first."

It was a clear-cut example of the saying, "The beatings will continue until morale improves."

Anyway, it took a few more years, and one more newspaper job, to realize that this particular attitude was now what passed for normal in the newspaper world. The home office might be making money, but if they made a little less money you could bet that the news staff would be the first budget item cut.

When I saw that was the way the industry was going, and that I'd be faced with getting laid off once every year or two because I was low man on the newsroom totem pole (back then, the newspaper biz hadn't caught on to the idea of "buying out" older staffers), I got the hell out of dodge and switched to a different industry with a lot more stability.

Needless to say, whenever I read about another "buyout" or layoff in big newspapers and newspaper chains, I wince in sympathetic recognition and thank my lucky stars that I'm not in that position any more. Whenever I hear them blame the Internet, I call bullshit.

The newspapers were steadily cutting muscle out of their newsrooms for a good decade before the Web even became a factor. By the time the Web came along, most of what was left was already a house of cards grimly manned by determined souls fighting to hold on to what was left of newsroom culture. At best, the Web is the big bad wolf huffing and puffing at something that had already been undermined by the chase for corporate profits and editorial decisions to give people what they wanted, instead of what they needed.

Here's the problem: people who read newspapers may be charmed by occasionally getting what they want, but they also understand that there's a lot of information that they need. If the local newspaper won't give them that, then they will go out and find something that will. And if that means going online and reading blogs, or finding English-language overseas publications, then they'll do it and stop buying the newspaper.

I suppose the easy answer is "re-staff the newsrooms up to full level, stop with the tabloid bullshit, and start actually giving people what they need again."

Unfortunately, it's easy to say, but I'm not sure that it would solve the problem at this point. It doesn't address the fact that reporters a chronically underpaid (because, again, in the eyes of bean counters reporters cost money, not make it). It doesn't address the fact that at this point, all reporters regardless of experience and quality of work are under the constant threat of annual layoffs.

Those factors in the paragraph listed above have resulted in a "brain drain" for the majority of daily newspapers in the U.S. Most promising journalism students will not be fighting for a staff reporter slot on most newspapers, especially when they've got former reporters like myself telling them to avoid the newspaper business like the plague and to use that journalism degree to do something else for better pay. As a result of these realities, there's a very, very tiny "next generation" of reporters ready to step into the shoes of older reporters with institutional memory who are getting laid off faster than water can flow downhill because personnel can hire someone right out of college for half the pay.

Had the newspapers (and their owners) been investing in the newsroom all along, they might've been able to better adapt to the wider accessibility of the Web once the wave hit. They would've had the personnel and the resources. They would've had something to sell, like institutional memory and a well-trained reporting staff, to advertisers and to readers. They might've even had the technological talent in-house to respond faster than they did to the age of "free information."

The problem is (as I've said) the infrastructure was already on life support when the Web became broadly accessible to anyone with a computer and an Internet connection, so in that sense the war is pretty much already lost.

I honestly don't know what a daily newspaper will look like 10 years from now. I have no idea what the industry is going to look like.

All I can tell you is that current condition of daily newspapers is every bit as grim as The Wire paints it.

Take it from someone who's speaking from experience.

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