Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Is This Where It All Ends?

Off and on (mostly on) for the past 15 years or so, I've written about small business for the Los Angeles Times. At one point in the heady '90s, I had three regular columns going at once.

This week, I learned that my weekly Q&A column has been cancelled, the victim of "reduced revenues" and editorial budgets strained to the breaking by events in Japan and the Middle East over the past year. My editors, who were kind and apologetic, explained that the freelance budget at the paper has been basically squashed entirely. Of course, they didn't mention bankruptcies, terrible decisions by shifting owners and corporations that demand Wall Street-level returns from an industry that should rightly be seen as a public service. But, they didn't need to: We all know about that.

We also know that newspapers are dying. It's just that the death rattle has become increasingly pronounced as the months have flown by in 2011.

Our local San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Pasadena Star-News is now owned by hedge fund managers whose priority is the bottom line - period. As a result, reporters and editors have undergone a painful series of layoffs, pay cuts and furloughs at the papers.

The L.A. Times, one of the nation's best examples of daily journalism back in the day, has not fared any better. I remember having lunch in the Los Angeles Times cafeteria back when I was a downtown reporter for the Los Angeles Daily News (friends got me in the door) and always being wowed by the thrilling glimpse of a big-time news operation.

When I went back last year for a holiday party, I was shocked: rows and rows of empty, debris-strewn desks piled up around the edges of cavernous news rooms where a tiny group of layoff-survivors still worked at desks huddled together in the center. Carpets were literally threadbare, walls badly in need of paint. Many offices and departments, formerly filled with busy writers and editors, were simply shuttered, the rooms dark.

And this is at the newspaper that won the Pulitzer Prize last year for public service.

This article, by former New York Times correspondent Christopher Hedges, lays out the dire situation of journalism in all its sad, stark reality.

The whole piece is worth a read, but here's how he concludes:

The death of journalism, the loss of reporters on the airwaves and in print who believed the plight of the ordinary citizen should be reported, means that it will be harder for ordinary voices and dissenters to reach the wider public. The preoccupation with news as entertainment and the loss of sustained reporting will effectively marginalize and silence those who seek to be heard or to defy established power. Protests, unlike in the 1960s, will have a difficult time garnering the daily national coverage that characterized the reporting on the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement and in the end threatened the power elite. Acts of protest, no longer covered or barely covered, will leap up like disconnected wildfires, more easily snuffed out or ignored. It will be hard if not impossible for resistance leaders to have their voices amplified across the nation, to build a national movement for change. The failings of newspapers were huge, but in the years ahead, as the last battle for democracy means dissent, civil disobedience and protest, we will miss them.


  1. I'm sorry Karen. Sad, sad, sad.

  2. I hope your column finds a new home. It should; it will. And yes, it is like a ghost town there. People left in a hurry, or so it appeared. Some left their awards, little glass statues, behind on the desk. "The Best!" has to be in reference to something.

  3. Thanks for the condolences. It was a sad day Monday when I got the news. Having just read a sci-fi novel about a future bereft of reading and thinking (Super Sad True Love Story) has not helped my mood. That dystopian scenario seems to be playing out all around us these days.

    AH - yes, it does have that look of a place where people left quickly, as in a disaster, leaving half of their stuff behind. Weird vibe going on there, and the mass layoffs were akin to disaster, of course. I don't know how the survivors continue in that environment but I know they are all pretty depressed.

  4. Karen, I'm truly sorry about the column. And the picture you paint of the Times is sad, too.

    I respectfully disagree with Hedges, however. One need only look at Egypt and Tehran to see how the internet will take part in future revolutions.

    I don't believe journalism is dead. I don't believe reading is dead. I don't believe thinking is dead. Just like TV didn't kill movies, just like the automobile didn't kill the bicycle, the kindle will not kill the book.

    Things are changing. Things have always changed. Things always will change. We can lament the old days all we want, but we must be ready.

  5. Petrea, I'm an unqualified optimist and most days I'd agree with you.

    But I do think that with the demise of newspapers, we lose something important. Some may survive on the Internet but I wonder what they'll really be able to provide, particularly in terms of local investigative journalism that is so crucial.

    And of course the idea of journalists as professionals who deserve a living wage,at least, is a whole 'nother troubling phenomenon.

  6. Well, here's a big difference between Kindle and online news. Kindle provides the book in the same format as paper, just without the paper.

    Online news is pretty much a one screen snapshot of something that screams to compete against the 2 billion other screaming screens. So rather than turning the pages to let news unfold, or something small but significant catch your eye, our news is trapped in showbiz.

    And it's really, really hard to find anything other than the top two or three stories everyone else is running into the ground. So in the olden, paper days, we might have perused 40 stories a day, now it's three.

    Yes, there are local blogs. But do they have credibility? I'm not so sure. In fact, I can't think of any news source I trust anymore, other than The Economist.

  7. You've definitely got me there, Karen. I guess someday we'll be telling the kids about newspapers. Maybe they'll think "wow, that sounds great" and start them up again.

  8. Interesting, re the Kindle. I'm reading my first book (detective story by our mutual friend) on Steve's Kindle.

    My main beef: Lots of characters with difficult names and nicknames. Normally I'd leaf back through a few chapters and look it up: "Wait, who's that guy again?"

    And I'd find the spot where the character was first mentioned, remind myself who it is, and proceed.

    In this format, it's not easy to do that. You have to guess around where the character first came up. Yes, you have to do the same thing with a paper book - but I'm much more spatial and it's easier for me to judge where the right place might be than to figure out around what page it was on. That's too much work.

    So I'm proceeding through the book without full comprehension and I really don't like it very well. It's light and easy to hold - yes - but it doesn't thrill me at all.

  9. Oh I'm sticking with books for sure. Kindle would be nice for travel, but since I'm not a regular traveler, it's not worth the initial outlay at this point.

    As for journalist bloggers, I'm concerned about the credibility, too. There are exceptions, certainly, but how many of them are trained as journalists? Too rare. It's the wild west out there. In here.

  10. Someone pointed out to me that the Kindle has a search function, so it would be possible to search a character's name, go back to where it first was mentioned and then re-read that portion.

    But that just seems like so much "work" compared to flipping back a few pages. I'm sure it's all what we're used to and comfortable with, in the long run.

    I'll give the Kindle one big advantage and that's availability. I have ordered my next book club book but it hasn't shown up nearly a month later. If it doesn't arrive today I'm cancelling my order and downloading it on the Kindle!