Editorial: THE DEATH AND LIFE OF JOURNALISM
by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
"Fatigue makes cowards of us all. It also makes it tough to sound coher= ent," the lettter from an old newspaper pal back East begins. After a long=
time in the trenches, she's taken over the reins of daily newspaper on the= Atlantic coast.
But rather than being a reward and privilege earned for selfless years= of service, the job has become akin to that of a major disaster triage man= ager in a Red Cross field hospital who is forced to choose between which of= the injured will be treated and which must be left to die. And the job is = killing her.
"My job has turned into a real meat grinder," my friend says. "I've had = to cut my photo department budget by $17,000 by forcing out my best reporte= r, something I was forced to do by my owner.
"He also instructed me to demote my sports editor, a guy who's been wit= h the paper for 21 years and is the heart and soul of the place. Naturally,= he's quitting. The newsroom is in open revolt over the tactics of the fina= ncial manager -- the guy who's been engineering these moves -- and I may be= losing more reporters and editors in the coming weeks.
"And with the switchover to AM publication coming in January, we stand = to lose a lot of people in the pressroom, mailroom and circulation.
"The paper's circulation is still down and things aren't good. The promi= sesthat were made to me about making a great paper have not come true. Sadl= y,this story is being repeated everywhere else in the country. The newspape= rbusiness sucks right now, and it's really getting to me."
I read her lament with a sense of dread. America's newspapers are dying= in a thousand little ways, and with them may die the only reliable source o= f trueinformation in a world that is overwhelmed with words and images manu= factured by the ream in corporate boardrooms to convey their alternative ve= rsion of reality.
It hurts me to think about my own relationship with newspapers. For the= Village Voice, in 1970 I once traveled 3,000 miles on a budget of $75 (I n= eeded to borrow $18 to make it home) and spent several weeks getting interv= iews with two of themost elusive men in South America, the radical Jesuit p= hilosopher Ivan Illich and the man who had Che Guevara's personal diary, An= tonio Arguedas. I wrote a 5,000 word story that filled a couple of pages o= f the Voice, and got their checkin the mail about two weeks after I sent th= e piece. It was for $75.
In 1979, I was living in real poverty, and my lack of food had brought m= y weight down from 200 pounds to 135, my waist from a 42 to a 28. Huge boi= ls grewin my armpits from cheap deodorants, and I had to lance them myself = with a pin.But what looked like another great alternative newspaper was bei= ng founded inLos Angeles at the time by a former editor of the Free Press. =
Oblivious to my circumstances, I went after a big storyabout how an extr= emely controversial private-public land swap in Beverly Hillshad become the= epicenter of a vast sea change in the cultural identity of that city as th= ousands of wealthy Iranians fled from the Sha's crumbling empire and the as= cendant Ayatollah Khomeini. I spent three months on it, and published it a= s a cover story that came out one day before the Iranian takeover of the U.= S. Embassy in Tehran.The paper's ad revenues literally quadrupled in a sing= le month.
The Los Angeles Timestook my story fact by fact and wrote 12 mo= re. I got a check for $300.
Over the years, I've been shot at, kidnappped= , bombed and beaten up, beaned with bottles and threatened with a firing sq= uad and nearly starved to death for two alternative newspapers who gladly u= sed my work but nevert offered me a job. I'm suspended from the second one= now -- and with that suspension lost half my record-breaking $13,000 incom= e -- because I had the temerity to advance myself and my ideas in the polit= ical marketplace as a "vanity" candidate for Mayor.
My friend works in the very dangerous battlefield of a war against truth= waged by profit for power over the people. While it may not seem so, my wo= rk has been far easier than hers; I have called my time my own, and no man = owns me or my newspaper.
I have earned the indulgence of an honest landlord and the grudging acc= eptance of a lovely wife who cleans other people's houses for a basic wage.= Neither of us have SSI or life or health insurance or any other income fr= om our government, and only I manage some extra income in the form of gifts= from my family. We don't get a tax rebate; I don't make enough money to o= we any taxes.
At the end of the day, my friend and I may be losers, but w= e have fought the battle.Those who have not are still at work.
In my case, both papers are now owned by the same company, which for a= ll I know is a branch of one of the other corporate behemoths that own virt= ually everything you read. My friend works for an entrepreneur, which a rar= e thing in this business that grinds so many of small newspaper owners to a= powdery, weightless dust.
I am dying, too. My brave journalists who once chased the news across t= he globe have largely vanished from these pages, lured to meaningful pay fo= r meaningless work in countries where journalists are even more under the g= un. We still hear from some of them, like the incomparably brave Andreas Ha= rsono who eluded a three-week manhunt in Suhartos's Jakarta after we publis= hed his story on the military's plans to topple Megawati from power as head= of the Indonesian Democratic Party.
Bill Johnson is so fine a journalist that his work would grace the fro= nt pages of any newspaper in the world, as it did for four decades with the= Associated Press that left him living close to poverty in Oklahoma City. = Randall Holhut struggles on at thelmof another daily much like my other fri= end, who would lose her job if I mentioned her name and newspaper here.
There are many, many journalists who own a piece of this last from the= last "worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening," = as William Faulkner described our essentialposition, who will not notice if= it sinks beath the waves.
I am dying, yes, but not for forty years. And this newspaper, widely de= rided by the millionaires who own my former haunts, will also endure and pr= evail. That is because,as Faulkner also wrote, we are possessed of an immo= rtal soul that pours itself into this payless work, and elevates the terrib= le simplicity of our architecture to a towering thousand-year-old redwood s= tanding alone at the deserted peak of journalism, free, independent and tru= e.