Pressing On

Pressing On

From the pages of Volume 12 of Matter Journal, released in June 2009 by the literary working-class heroes at Wolverine Farm Publishing, this is a rambling confessional on the media shitstorm and my own historical take on the loss of independent journalism in Fort Collins and northern Colorado. This essay is also available at MatterDaily, a fledgling website of WFP.

Pressing On

A Dispatch from the Frontlines and the Headlines
By Joshua Zaffos

“I am an exile from newspapers because of the most grievous sin of all—I have lost my belief. I no longer believe that the front page, the business page, the sports page, the arts page can tell a story that matters.”
— Charles Bowden, Blood Orchid

“Remember what I told you a long time ago?” my grandmother asked me over the phone. My ears perked, thinking she was on the verge of revealing some sage advice that she earned through her long years. “There’s no future in the papers.”

Grandma Sue’s hint of ancient wisdom was actually a warning, a taunt of sorts, that she likes to repeat to me quite regularly when I see her in person back East or occasionally when we talk over the phone: Newspapers are a dead end for a smart fellow like her youngest grandson.

My grandmother wasn’t disclosing some lesson gained from a career as an editor at the Washington Post or a beat reporter for Newsweek. I presume her shared insight was something she picked up watching Fox News.brookgreen_reading

“They’re giving it away for free here,” Grandma told me, “here” being New York City and “it” being the city’s tabloid dailies, including Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post. “And there’s nothing in there. It’s all crap. People, they’ve got the intercom now.”

I love my grandma, even if she sometimes confuses an in-house communication system with the World Wide Web. And I don’t argue with her over the phone. What’s the point? I’m glad I still have regular conversations with her, and, besides, her diagnosis of the press is only partly skewed. The New York Post is filled with crap, and publishers are facing a crisis. That’s why dailies are dumping free copies on potential readers, and, more critically, slashing bureaus, beats and staff and even closing their doors.

It’s happening up and down the print-media food chain, and I am a minor witness to the carnage. My own (mis) adventures working for local, independent newspapers—far cries from the Post and most other New York City media—have both ended with abrupt closures and tears in beers.

How rough has grown the jungle of print media?

It’s nearly impossible to post an accurate account of the industry’s well being, if only because the casualties keep rolling in. Writing on the topic requires constant dismal revisions. Not that the prognosis has really changed from my grandmother’s conclusion. After weighing the consequences of job cuts and profit-based management at our country’s newspapers, media critics determined 2008 to be a disastrous landmark for the press: Worst. Year. Ever.

In February, the New York Times cut 100 jobs, the paper’s first staff layoff ever. Later in the year, the newspaper revealed that its stock value had plummeted 15 percent in a single month. To stave off a more severe disaster in December, the company borrowed $225 million against the value of its Manhattan headquarters to augment its dwindling cash flow.

The Los Angeles Times cut 150 newsroom jobs (17 percent of the department) and 100 additional staff; the Chicago Tribune lopped off 80 positions. Both major dailies are part of the Tribune Company, which has made similarly deep cuts to daily newspapers in Baltimore, Orlando and elsewhere. The corporation declared bankruptcy in December, citing $13 billion in debts.

In June, McClatchy Co., the third-largest newspaper publisher in the US, disclosed it would eliminate 1,400 jobs, roughly 10 percent of its workforce, among its 30 dailies across the country. For those that survived the purge, there is a locked-in yearlong pay freeze.

E.W. Scripps, which owns newspapers in 15 states, including the Rocky Mountain News, announced in the summer that the value of its print holdings had dropped by $874 million. Before the end of the year, Scripps put the Rocky up for sale, claiming it would likely close down the 150-year-old newspaper if a buyer didn’t emerge in early 2009.

Gannett, the country’s largest print publisher, declared a loss of $2.4 billion in the value of its 84 daily and nearly 900 non-daily newspapers, including the USA Today. A first round of August layoffs chopped 1,000 jobs, which was followed by another cut of 3,000 positions in October, totaling more than 10 percent of the company’s staff. Perversely, but not surprisingly, Gannett’s summer staff reduction caused its stock to jump on Wall Street.

We are watching the equivalent of media climate change, to use everyone’s favorite disaster parlance of late, and this is the tip of the iceberg that has started to melt away in the twenty-first century. Unfortunately, due to consolidation of media ownership and other financial forces, companies are getting rewarded for dedicating fewer and fewer resources to journalism and writing.

1793_pressWhere are the media corporations investing their dollars? In September, Gannett spent $135 million to purchase a controlling stake in CareerBuilder, the online job board, which is co-owned by Tribune and McClatchy. And while media corporations are facing plummeting stock earnings and disappearing advertising revenue, the bosses aren’t exactly starving. For the third quarter of 2008, Gannett actually exceeded analysts’ revenue projections and earned $158 million in net income. The company’s CEO Craig Dubow, who pledged to take a 17 percent pay cut in “a show of solidarity” with his newspapers’ rank-and-file, made about $7.5 million in 2008, including salary, stock options and a bonus.

It obviously costs millions to run these corporations, and the largest media empires have the most to lose in this topsy-turvy moment. Regardless of where we live, shrinking resources at institutional newspapers, like the New York Times and Chicago Tribune, are a major loss to our national community as a whole. But independent and alternative papers must also tread the rising waters and sinking ad revenue, although they’re much more likely to drown.

Smaller daily and community weekly papers are cutting staff, closing bureaus abroad and in state capitals. Independent papers, like alternative newsweeklies, which distribute for free and rely entirely on ad dollars, are faced with corporate buyouts or shutting down. The pressures have led to somewhat troubling trends among altweeklies, which pride themselves on their independence.

Village Voice Media now owns 15 alternative newsweeklies, in New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Denver and several other major cities. Creative Loafing runs six altweeklies, including ones in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. Both companies have instituted staff cuts at several papers, and other independently owned altweeklies have expressed reservations over the direction of these decidedly corporate ventures.

When I first accepted a job as a staff writer at the Rocky Mountain Bullhorn, an alternative newsweekly in Fort Collins, Colorado, in late 2004, a mentoring friend let out a devilish hoot upon hearing my decision. “Have you ever worked at a weekly?” she asked. I had not, and she explained to me that writing at a weekly publication somehow combines the manic rush of filing stories at a daily newspaper with the more exhaustive demands that come with a monthly magazine, where articles are expected to develop from extensive reporting and offer much more than the five W’s.

A weekly doesn’t have someone on a deadline everyday, yet something is always due. The production doesn’t give many breaths or breaks, and the pace is constantly frenetic, which induces a sort of crash-and-burn atmosphere.

“And you and everyone you work with will always be going crazy,” my friend told me.

She was right.

Almost everybody at an independent weekly newspaper is overworked and underpaid, and at the darkest hours we feel alone in that capacity. That’s not true, at a newspaper or in the surrounding universe; there are many more and equally as taxing jobs in the world. But when you are spending 60-plus hours a week working and then sometimes sleeping under a desk, it’s way too easy to find moments to feel both sorry about yourself and for yourself.

The staff is typically a small band of creative-neurotic types. I’ve seen coworkers starve themselves, drop shots of whiskey for breakfast, suffer panic attacks requiring EMT attention, and, literally, chew off their fingers. In the middle of an intense story or a chaotic week, I would sometimes wake up with a compulsion to violently dry heave before getting into the day. Working at a small altweekly makes smoking cigarettes seem like a healthy lifestyle choice (I do not wish to count the number of former coworkers who started or resumed smoking while employed at a paper).

At a small weekly newspaper, everybody is always going crazy.

Sound like hell? It’s actually great. There is a euphoria that sometimes rises like a vapor from this mayhem, a byproduct of collaborating on something creative and essential.

That might sound a little arrogant, but this intense feeling, channeling the heaves and highs, is what good writing—good storytelling—is for me. And, to be direct, most writers are at least a little arrogant.

The intense feeling is what I think of when someone asks if I am a member of the press (I haven’t seen a newspaper printing press since I went on a second-grade field trip). To me, the press is the sleeplessness and self-immolation, the euphoria and drunkenness that come with telling stories with a balance of detail and urgency. The press is that unbearable feeling that what we are doing has meaning to our society, whether as information, influence, or entertainment.

It is a great and humbling responsibility reporting and writing for a community, and it is something I am grateful to be paid to do. I love the crush of an idea or a person that I have discovered or been introduced to, and the snap in my brain that this would be an amazing or beautiful or entertaining story. Then comes the compulsion that people should read (or hear or see) about this and feel the spark that I do.

This is the press that is in trouble, more so than print media as an industry. It’s the thing that feeds and connects writers, producers and broadcasters of news in all its forms. We report and write because we want to make a difference. We want to deliver meaning.

These days, as print media cannibalizes itself, we are losing that urgency to make sure what we report and write is meaningful. Some writers recognize it as morale loss or viral fear. Middle managers spin it as doing More With Less. Readers of daily newspapers get shallow stories with glancing insight from publications that are purposely streamlined. Reporters rarely get to develop relationships with sources and communities. When people complain to me about the Gannett-owned daily newspaper in our city, they often say that the paper fails to connect the dots.

This is supposed to be the great advantage to working at an independent publication, particularly an altweekly: the freedom to dig deeper and write stories that matter. It’s partly what led me to abandon a modest freelance writing lifestyle for a job that made me wake up nauseous. The trick, I learned, is staying in business.

The Worst Year Ever for newspapers certainly proved challenging to my journalistic career. In May 2008, I was a part of an independent altweekly, the Rocky Mountain Chronicle, which shut down a few months ahead of the curve in terms of the year’s media trauma. It was an experience I was repeating for the second time in just twenty-seven months.

After twelve roller-coaster months at the Bullhorn, the five-year-old weekly newspaper suddenly went out of business in early 2006, while we were finishing an issue that would never go to print.

I was heartbroken, along with everyone I worked with, but there was also a strange sense of relief. Amid the chaos that we constantly worked in, it was hard to ignore the financial pressures that the organization was facing. That we were shutting down wasn’t a total surprise, but the timing was a shock.

The same heartbreak strikes when bureaus, beats and jobs are cut at daily newspapers, when TV stations consolidate their newsrooms. On journalism list-serves that I read, prize-winning reporters have shared their decisions to accept voluntary layoffs, rather than continuing to work under the shadow of job losses, redundancy orders, merged beats and pay freezes.

Just seven months after the Bullhorn closed, a good friend announced that she wanted to launch the Chronicle as a new altweekly newspaper in Fort Collins. Born and raised in the city, she recognized the value of an independent newspaper pursuing narrative stories about the people and culture of our region. Our readership grew steadily, but even more impressive to me, as the news editor, were the number of sources and untold stories that emerged.

The Chronicle started in October 2006. We engaged in investigative and in-depth stories, critical music and arts writing, and general quirk. Among editors, we had a lot of passionate debates over the significance and mission of our publication and writing, and the meaning of words like “investigative,” “alternative” and “edgy.” Those discussions may have bordered on the pretentious and the precise, but we were genuine in our desire to write meaningful stories.

When our publisher consulted with other altweekly bosses, they told her she was crazy. Flush some money down a toilet instead, they said. Since altweeklies rely almost exclusively on ad revenue for income, the sub-industry has taken a particularly harsh hit due to free online advertising through venues like Craigslist and the overall sagging economy, which has left local businesses with fewer dollars to spend on advertising.

The experienced altweekly publishers were apparently right about the high odds of getting a startup paper up and running; something we really already knew from the last experience. After a not particularly lengthy existence of just 20 months, the Chronicle announced it would cease printing amid daunting prospects for financial viability.

If you’ve never worked at a small business that shuts down because it cannot sustain itself, I can tell you this: It catches you like a bad breakup to a good relationship and leaves a lot of unanswered questions. At first, a measure of sadness is cushioned in a daze. Grief quickly gives way to anger. At a homegrown newspaper, there is this feeling: Our work is not yet done. There are stories still to be told.

The week after we learned of the closure, I received a hand-written letter from a woman with claims of police brutality and political corruption, begging our paper to look into her leads. She may have been a crackpot—sorting through print-worthy sources and stories is one way to dive into the press—but she had chosen to write our paper, and not others in the city, for a reason. I left the letter pinned to a corkboard after I had cleaned out my office.

We are living through the somewhat predictable circumstances of corporate control and consolidated ownership of media. The current bleak state of journalism has been a slow train coming. The recession is a stretch of poorly maintained rails and the Internet is a behemoth beast standing on the tracks.

Grandma Sue isn’t totally off base in her assessment about the Internet replacing print media. More people now get their news online than by reading a paper. The New York Times estimates that it has ten Web readers for every one who turns through the print edition. The Web has competed, more than complemented, print publications.

From an operational point of view, the catch is that people expect to read for free on the Internet, and businesses expect to pay less to advertise online. From an informational angle, the trend is leading to shorter and more glancing articles and coverage, even if it opens opportunities for multimedia work. We have taken the act of reading and begun transforming it into another way of staring at an electronic screen.

There are some inspiring digital manifestations (among a range of examples, there is the Center for Investigative Reporting and MediaStorm). But corporate-chain media barons are also trying to conquer a new medium and return to the salad days of ludicrous profits and booming stocks. For example, Gannett has kicked up the visibility of its online reporting and resources, as part of its corporate restructuring. The company now calls reporters “mojos,” or mobile journalists. The transition smacks of re-branding, a marketing strategy to perhaps show that Gannett’s newspapers are hip with blogging and the Web, rather than a meaningful new model of journalism.

I do not blame Gannett or Craigslist for the failure of the independent papers where I worked. I do not blame the competition from other local newspapers or blogs for our end. But I lament that we have created an environment (and, yes, We The People are responsible for the current media landscape) that is so prohibitive to running a newspaper that delivers stories that matter, where the press flows for writers and readers—and publishers, too.

We are losing the venues we have developed to tell stories. And we are giving a jaded set of choices to writers and readers. So, now we must learn how to tell stories all over again. We must learn how to tell stories on a computer screen. We have to keep learning how to tell stories on TV, so most of those resources don’t go into entrapping sexual predators at anonymous houses. And we must learn how to keep telling stories on paper.

The pangs of the press kept a few Chronicle staff members searching for life after print. We had told readers we would explore options. We looked at online formats and spoke with people behind nonprofit journalism ventures, where funding comes from charitable foundations and community members—kind of like public radio and television.

The Chronicle did find signs of support and encouragement for continuing as an online publication, possibly with a monthly print issue. But we also recognized that we would be constantly scrambling for operating funds. The nonprofit model was a way to get around the void of advertising dollars as revenue, but grant funding is a tricky avenue to travel during a slow economy.

To be honest and with apologies to our community, I think we were burnt out. I was burnt out. The task felt monumental and, after three months of meetings, I felt pretty emotionless when our remaining crew decided we would give up our revival attempt. When it came time to pen an announcement about the decision to officially end our efforts, I made it as brief as possible. The 100-word-missive was more memo than eulogy.

People still approach me—including souls I have never met before—and ask what’s up with the Chronicle, when will it restart, or when a new publication might arrive in its place. A friend of mine can’t accept that we have exhausted all of our options. A woman at the bar refuses to accept my answers about the closure. A barista from one of the downtown coffee shops listens to my explanations and then says, with a pout, “Well, you left us with nothing to read.”

When my grandmother or anyone else tells me newspapers and the narrative forms of writing that we associate with print media are dead, I think of the book-versus-film debate. So many more people see the film but never read the book. The film makes more money than the book; it’s more successful in those terms. But people that read the book and see the movie, almost always say the book is better. Perhaps for the effort and time it requires; perhaps because of what reading asks of our imagination.

There is a future in the papers, but it’s not going to look like the past. Hopefully, it won’t resemble the present too much either. My guess is that most daily newspapers will become online enterprises. The loss of the morning paper on our front step might be the cost of allowing stock values to steer the media industry.

As for the outlook of independent and meaningful journalism, it will be in the ventures that tap into the Web and all that it has to offer while also pursuing more traditional forms of reporting and storytelling. If that sounds vague, it’s because it’s meant to: If I had a proper bead on the future, I suspect I would still have a job at an independent newspaper in Northern Colorado.

In July 2008, a subscriber to the Raleigh News & Observer took action in a most American way. He announced plans to sue the daily paper for cutting the size of its news section and firing 70 staff members. The reader claimed the newspaper had broken its contract with subscribed readers.

The lawsuit borders on frivolous, but it’s a reminder that newspapers and the media—regardless of or, at least, in addition to their responsibility to stockholders—have a pulsing obligation to the communities they serve. To tell stories that matter and stoke the press.

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