by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
June 16, 2001
"Fatigue makes cowards of us all. It also makes it tough to sound coherent," 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 manager 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 reporter, something I was forced to do by my owner.
"He also instructed me to demote my sports editor, a guy who's been with 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 financial 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 promises that were made to me about making a great paper have not come true. Sadly, this story is being repeated everywhere else in the country. The newspaper business sucks right now, and it's really getting to me."
I read her lament with a sense of dread. America's newspapers are dyingin a thousand little ways, and with them may die the only reliable source of trueinformation in a world that is overwhelmed with words and images manufactured by the ream in corporate boardrooms to convey their alternative version 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 needed to borrow $18 to make it home) and spent several weeks getting interviews with two of themost elusive men in South America, the radical Jesuit philosopher Ivan Illich and the man who had Che Guevara's personal diary, Antonio Arguedas. I wrote a 5,000 word story that filled a couple of pages f the Voice, and got their check in the mail about two weeks after I sent the piece. It was for $75.
In 1979, I was living in real poverty, and my lack of food had brought my weight down from 200 pounds to 135, my waist from a 42 to a 28. Huge boils grew in my armpits from cheap deodorants, and I had to lance them myself with a pin.But what looked like another great alternative newspaper was being founded in Los Angeles at the time by a former editor of the Free Press.
Oblivious to my circumstances, I went after a big story about how an extremely controversial private-public land swap in Beverly Hills had become the epicenter of a vast sea change in the cultural identity of that city as thousands of wealthy Iranians fled from the Shah's crumbling empire and the ascendant Ayatollah Khomeini.
I spent three months on it, and published it as 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 single month.
The Los Angeles Timestook my story fact by fact and wrote 12 more. 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 squad and nearly starved to death for two alternative newspapers who gladly used my work but never offered me a job.
I'm suspended from the second one now - and with that suspension lost half my record-breaking $13,000 income - because I had the temerity to advance myself and my ideas in the political 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 work 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 acceptance 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 from 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 owe any taxes.
At the end of the day, my friend and I may be losers, but we have fought the battle. Many of those who are still at work have not.
In my case, both papers are now owned by the same company, which for all I know is a branch of one of the other corporate behemoths that own virtually everything you read. My friend works for an entrepreneur, which a rare 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 the globe have largely vanished from these pages, lured to meaningful pay for meaningless work in countries where journalists are even more under the gun. We still hear from some of them, like the incomparably brave Andreas Harsono who eluded a three-week manhunt in Suhartos's Jakarta after we published 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 front 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 friend, 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 derided by the millionaires who own my former haunts, will also endure and prevail. That is because,as Faulkner also wrote, we are possessed of an immortal soul that pours itself into this payless work, and elevates the terrible simplicity of our architecture to a towering thousand-year-old redwood standing alone at the deserted peak of journalism, free, independent and true.