by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
April 10, 2009
THE ROWBOAT AND THE DESTROYER: A PARABLE
DUMMERSTON, Vt. - When it comes to newspapers, I'm locked into a love-hate relationship.
The love part? I flat-out love them. Always have. As a kid in New York, I came from a mixed marriage - Mom read The New York Times and Pop read the Daily News. Between the two, newspapers made the world real to me.
I love the investigative, "gotcha" stuff - when it's backed by real reporting. I love the "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable" ethos. I love the opinions, especially when they're counterintuitive. I love the feature stories about people and things I would never encounter on my own. Style, sports, scandal, travel, inventions, obituaries - the whole world all in one place, all for under a buck, all new, every single day. Newspapers are just a damned miracle.
And just because newspapers always break your heart, now they're dying on us.
I was literally in shock last week when the Times threatened to close The Boston Globe. New England without the Globe is unimaginable to me. True, it ate its own with the plagiarism scandals of the Nineties. And the Times has already fairly well gutted it.
As former Globecolumnist Eileen McNamara wrote Tuesday - ironically, in the Boston Herald - "From the moment The Times Co. purchased The Globe in 1993 it has treated New England's largest newspaper like a cheap whore. It pimped her out for profit during the booming 1990s and then pillaged her when times got tough. It closed her foreign bureaus and cheapened her coverage of everything from the fine arts to the hard sciences."
And here comes the hate part. While it was doing all that pimping, the Times also gutted my journalism career. I covered western New England for the Globe for more than three years. I often led their New England section - when they still had one. I wrote travel stories. I wrote magazine stories.
Then came the Internet, and I started learning how truly dumb newspaper management could be. The Globe, through the Times, required all us freelancers to sign contracts giving away our copyrights. Instead of offering us a few cents more per piece, they fought us all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to steal our work. They lost, by the way. But the freelancers of my generation lost our jobs.
Then newspapers began giving away all their work for free. It left a lot of people scratching their heads. In the mad rush to have a presence on the Internet, newspapers actually gutted themselves.
When combined with management greed, this lack of foresight became deadly. For years, newspaper owners were skimming off profit margins of between 25- and 30 percent. And they weren't putting any of that money back into their products. Instead, they were using the money - and more that they borrowed from Wall Street -to buy more papers, build buildings, create empires and fly around in private jets. The Times buying the Globe wasn't the half of it.
When your ownership is the "afflicter" rather than the "aflictee," the "sticking up for the little guy" ethos goes down the drain. Newspapers became monopolies engaged in consoling the wealthy. At the end, you got Judith Miller and the Times pimping for the Iraq war and the eight years of undisturbed and unexamined corruption of the Bush-Cheney Administration.
My beloved newspapers became the "MSM," the scorned mainstream media. Coupled with scandal-driven, testicle-free television news, they earned the contempt of everyone with eyes to see and a lick or two of common sense. Even National Public Radio became toothless.
So, an inability to "monetize" the Internet, corporate greed, a passion for the status quo, a corrupt and unregulated Wall Street - what else could go wrong?
I'll tell you. Journalists are only writers looking for their next big story. So we all started writing about the death of newspapers. First one or two articles appeared. Then came a flood. There's even a Web site for these stories: Jim Romenesko (www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=45) posts them every day. Talk about self-fulfilling prophesies!
Most people in the industry think newspapers are dead and good riddance to them. But there are tons of ideas on how to save journalism The Internet, obviously, is where the future lies. But no one has yet come up with money to pay for real Web journalism - for example, the Globe's pedophile priests print investigation cost over $1 million.
Things on the Web tend to fracture into niches. Celebrity gossip over here, progressive opinion over there, right-wing opinion here, there and everywhere. and no one paying someone to examine the state budget line by line and report on where our money is going.
Love and hate. Crocodile tears and real tears. I love the Globe. I hate the Globe. I'll miss the Globe. But I won't pay $4 for the Globe on Sunday when I can read it all on-line. And I won't bother to read it all on-line. So I'll miss a lot of what's in the Globe. We will all miss newspapers.
A death in the family is always a tragedy.
Joyce Marcel (joycemarcel.com) is a journalist. You can reach her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.