I have attempted to be discreet on the decline and fall of the media empire, mostly because I am still in it. With layoffs and furloughs announced every quarter, the consequences of being brutally honest could be dire. But I am disgusted by the complete hypocrisy of the newspaper industry, whose leaders are staking a claim to the sacred art of journalism, as if it has sole rights to it. The assertion by newspaper executives that newspapers are the torch-bearers for a community (or global) moral and ethical center would be laughable, if it were not being used to cloak the greed of corporations that have enjoyed healthy profit margins for decades, all the while failing to invest in anything other than expanding their arrogance.
These corporations profess it is their duty to hold the world to a higher standard but conveniently overlook their failure to substantively investigate major issues and their own increasing immersion in the very organizations they profess to watchdog. Three words. Yellow cake uranium. Need more? WMDs. Economic meltdown. Climate change. Want a book? Death by Journalism. Into the Buzzsaw.
And when confronted with the natural results of competition and poor business practices, they are suddenly willing to edge up to the lines they claim to guard. (And the notion that this decline blindsided execs or is solely caused by the current economic meltdown or Google is ridiculous.)
Journalism has, as most human efforts do, the good, the bad and the ugly. There are legitimate uses of the freedom of the press to expose abuses, explore the human condition and serve as a vital check on corruption and secrecy. There are boring and poorly written stories that miss the point, or just serve no more purpose that fill some space around advertisements.
Then there is the ugly: Deliberate quashing of stories because the business in question was run by the editor's brother-in-law. Or because a major ad client objected. Or because the publisher played golf with the senator. Headlines that push agendas. Leads rewritten to not be controversial. Every journalist who's been in the business more than 15 minutes has a story that doesn't corroborate the image of the crusader protecting the public from vice and sin.
But so what? Human frailty has been part and parcel of journalism for years, whether you like to believe it or not. It's the pretending that newspapers are somehow immune and other forms of journalism are not that is such bullshit. Really? Blogging can't be journalism? If you want to flog that dead horse, you'll have to go elsewhere.
The tarnish on the halo newspaper execs have spent so much time polishing isn't just their unwillingness to acknowledge their own limitations and failures. It's how they treat their people. The betrayal of the Fourth Estate contract by newspaper management has played a huge role in their impending doom. It may be the one thing that guarantees their slide into irrelevancy.
Why? Because when the companies need their best and brightest to pull together, to help work smarter and better, they've got ... nothing. Many of the best and brightest have moved on because they can. Or they were the first out the door in layoffs. Those left feel trapped, bitter and betrayed. No pay raises. Furloughs. "Doing more with less." Not exactly a prescription for an ailing industry.
Journalists, with notable exceptions of course, tend to take the idea of a free press seriously. Starry-eyed reporters dreaming of Watergate-exposes see those stars circling their heads as soon as they smack into the reality of a newsroom.
The hours suck and always have. Many newspapers have round-the-clock shifts. Morning dailies mean people work until the wee hours, at odds with the rest of the world. Everyone works overtime and most places encourage it to be donated to The Mission. Holidays have curtailed staffs, but people have to work.
And we took pride in that. We were not shift workers. We stayed until it was done. Came in early. Worked weekends. This not to differentiate journalists from other lines of work. I'm certain there are employees all over the world whose companies create a culture in which devotion and commitment to The Mission are touted as the keys to success.
Guess what, loyal drones? Your employers profit handsomely off your willingness to donate time and labor. If the media industry is any example, guess what happens when times get tough? Newspapers have traditionally cut costs by cutting people.
Read how employees were treated when companies had to pare down. No parties. No farewells. No thanks. Sometimes not even for people who were employees for decades. Upper-level managers refused to personally deliver the news or acknowledge employees who had lost their jobs. Newspapers buried stories of their layoffs. I have friends who were told they were laid off, then escorted out humiliatingly by security personnel.
The whopping salaries of even high-ranking newsroom personnel hover around $68k.Not woeful, but is that really fair for college-graduates with 20 years experience in light of the 30% profits the companies were raking in just a few years ago? To put that in perspective, let's look at a profit margins in other industries: Convenience store distribution companies, 1.4% Wal Mart, 3.3%; Oracle, 24%. At Oracle, though, expect to start off making about $44K. If you want to make that as a newspaper reporter, strap in for about 10 years.
If that's not enough, the long hours, the low pay, the bitterness have bred a culture that is, at best, unpleasant. Would you want to work with these people? Or in a place like this? With people who can't move forward?
It's not as if these firms have been regularly reinvesting these profits into the newsroom. I challenge anyone to show me a major media company that has consistently, for more than a decade:
1) Enthusiastically kept the newsroom up-to-date in the latest, most
efficient technology, including keeping abreast of digital
developments and updating both hardware and software.
2) Readily and willingly invested in training for employees other than mandated HR courses and sales. (What are jobless print journalists who were still using Windows 2000 going to do now?!)
3) Mentored and promoted people regardless of race or gender to the highest levels of newsroom hierarchy with the same fervor they showed when demanding reporters find a minority to quote.
4) Regularly evaluated compensation to make certain all employees were paid fairly not only in-house, but in comparison to similar industry positions both nationally and locally.
5) Treated creative, talented people with anything other than barely concealed contempt.
Long ago, one of my bosses told me that staffers were "like lightbulbs" If one left, you just screwed in another.
Screwed being the operative word.