And now it’s McClatchy.
This month’s news that the nation’s second largest news company has filed for bankruptcy was inevitable. McClatchy had been struggling for years and was the latest in a long line of bankruptcies, closures and layoffs that have plagued print publications in recent years. The once highly profitable newspaper industry has become a shadow of its former self.
McClatchy owns The Idaho Statesman, where I spent virtually my entire newspaper career. Gannett, the company that owned The Statesman for most of that time, also has fallen on hard times and recently was forced to merge with another media company. Experts have said the combined company could slash up to $300 million in costs, which could cost a lot of journalists their jobs.
We didn’t realize it at the time, but my fellow journalists and I were lucky to have experienced a golden age of the industry. It didn’t seem like it when we were going through it, of course. The hours were long, the pay modest, the deadlines relentless. We regularly grumbled about “feeding the beast,” newsroom slang for having to fill the space every day.
God knows we didn’t do it for the money. We did it because, among other things, we believed we were helping our communities by reporting things people needed or wanted to know, from the outcome of the big game to things our elected officials and business leaders were doing in our interest, or, more importantly, not in our interest. Nothing else was as important as the watchdog role.
It was a golden era because we had the resources we needed. Newspapers were making lots of money. That those who worked in their newsrooms saw relatively little of the profits mattered less than having what we needed to do the job properly — enough reporters and editors, enough logistical support, enough funding to do what was required.
That changed, of course, with the advent of the Internet. Cheap or free online advertising cut advertising revenue to a fraction of what it had previously been. Layoffs became epidemic. The number of employees at most newspapers is now a minuscule fraction of what it was at peak employment. It’s a credit to those working for them that they’re able to put the papers out at all.
This is vastly different from the days when newspapers not only had the resources they needed to do important stories, but to do stories on a regular basis that weren’t necessarily important but were great reads.
One of my early editors sent me on a two-week train trip around the country. My assignment was to do a story a day. One was about an elderly man in a small town in Arkansas who helped Ernest Hemingway save the manuscript to “A Farewell to Arms” from a fire.
That trip, that story, wouldn’t happen today.
Early in my career there, The Statesman sent another reporter and me to the Soviet Union for two weeks to write about what life was like on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
Those stories wouldn’t happen today.
A photographer and I went to Sicily and Albania to cover Idahoans involved in the Kosovo War. I spent weeks working on a series of stories that led to a corrupt state official going to prison, and the better part of a year reporting on two of Idaho’s Indian tribes. I was fortunate to be able to travel to every county in the state to write stories about the unique characters who helped make Idaho Idaho.
Few of those stories would happen today.
And far fewer newspaper journalists are doing what they do best today. The majority of those I worked with are now jobless or employed outside the industry. Talented reporters, photographers, editors and graphic artists, now working in everything from public relations to retail. A loss not just to themselves, but to the Idaho communities where they live. They were doing important work that made this a better place.
Now they’re doing whatever work they can find, in some cases entry level jobs. It’s happening everywhere. More than 2,000 newspapers, according to the Brookings Institution, have folded in the last 15 years. Cities across the country now have no local newspaper.
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You may love your local newspaper; you may hate it. That said, how would your life be different without it? Sure there are other news sources. But for generations, it has been newspapers that have done much of the heavy lifting in reporting everything from national news to local stories about state legislatures, city councils, courts, schools, sports, arts, entertainment …
The plight of the newspaper industry isn’t just sad. It’s ominous. The founding fathers made freedom of the press the first amendment for an excellent reason. We need the free press, especially its watchdogs, to hold those in power accountable.
It’s no accident that one of the things dictators invariably do is smear the press or, worse, control it. They don’t like being watched. With the press discredited or in their pockets, they can get away with more.
I have never known a reporter who has written a fake news story. There are good and bad reporters, but at the very least every reporter I have ever known has made an honest effort to report the news as accurately as possible.
Why is it that almost anywhere you look, from your local paper to the big national papers to the network news programs, you see essentially the same facts reported? It’s because the reporters responsible are doing their level best to report news events accurately. They are rightly insulted by the term “fake news.”
Sadly, there are fewer of those reporters, and will be even fewer still. The thousands of dedicated journalists who have lost their jobs are working now as “spokespersons,” as ride-share drivers, as substitute teachers and stock clerks and waitresses.
We are less informed, our democracy less secure, without them.
The results of my request for readers’ opinions on a state legislator’s plan to make Standard Time year-round in Idaho were mixed. Six more readers said they preferred that to keeping Daylight Savings. Some wanted to keep both, and a few wanted to make Daylight Savings year-round. Seven states have approved legislation to do that, but it requires congressional approval.