This is my final column for the Union-Tribune. The road ahead has a bend in it and I’m eager to see what hides beyond, and hope it doesn’t require Xanax.
Newspapers, my life’s work, are struggling for survival. Just a few years ago, they were the Michael Jordan of mass media, scoring at will. However the Internet in a couple of decades has reduced them to the fleeting sepiatone image of the village blacksmith watching the horseless carriage put-putting by. He has no expression; he has no anger. That is swallowed up by woeful acceptance of what can’t be stopped.
Newspapers know the future is online. No one has yet made any money on it, but there has to be a way, somewhere, somehow, and smart people are looking for it.
And it will be found. The hunger for news is as inevitable as those two other things.
Until that day, journalists peck away at keyboards and try to push out of their minds the fear of downsizing and missing the next payment on the kid’s braces. They are you. They drive 7-year-old Hondas and buy their shirts and skirts at Ross.
Even if you sometimes don’t like what they write, they write it for you. And that makes it really important.
They work twice as hard — yeah, twice — as 20 years ago when huge newspaper profits were more of a sure thing than a back-alley hustler with shaved dice.
These journalists and the people who work with them are good people, middle-class citizens who do what they love and are quietly terrified that market forces — that shadow behind the screen — will make them stop doing it. But they soldier on, and be thankful they do.
I’ve known lots of shady people in other trades, but I don’t know a crooked journalist.
The reporter’s job is made more difficult by austerity. Opportunists can spot an opening as easily as a salamander can a beetle. PR people, corporate and especially political, see the opportunity of slim staffs and harried reporters and try to sneak in slanted, self-serving stories. And, surprise! Those “announcements” make their bosses look good, often to the detriment of accurate information to the public. When that happens, weep for society and your own well-being.
To combat this, I urge reporters and editors to strap on their breastplate and sharpen their swords against the blandishments of the “public-service press release.” Insist on talking to the administrator or politician flesh to flesh and voice to voice. That’s where the truth lies. When they hide from you, they hide from the public. And they always have a reason.
Though they are swimming upstream, newspapers have to battle for readers the same way Hearst, Pulitzer and James Gorden Bennett had to in the New York newspaper circulation battles at the turn of the 20th century.
Journalists love the fight, love the words, and love the story. Glorious things all.
Cheer for the good guys. Hang in there with them. You need each other; ultimately, you more than they. That’s the truth.
This is my U-T valedictory. (Words like that are candy on my tongue.)
You have been a warm audience, and for that I am grateful, because my soul smiles at an artful phrase, just as does a mechanic’s to a purring engine.
Thanks to Jeff Light for trusting me with his audience. Thanks to my editor, Hieu Tran Phan, for enduring my whines and bluster as I argued for phrases that were important only at that moment.
If my efforts have helped some people who needed it, or challenged or chided others whom I felt also needed it, or made some easily amused readers chuckle, then the effort has been well spent. Remember, as I say — Your life is an adventure.
You have changed me a lot. And I you, maybe just a little.
Be well. Be happy. Be kind.