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Journalists: Do We Whine Too Much?

April 16th, 2008 · 3 Comments · Sports Journalism, The Sun

Short answer?

Yes.

Journalists have to be the biggest whiners in the American workforce. Certainly the most prominent. Because so many of us have access to mass media, even outside our former sinecures in print: Alternative weeklies, web sites, blogs … and since what a lot of us did for a living was write, we wax on, ad nauseum, about The Injustice of It All.

We do. You know we do. And I don’t like the idea that I may be contributing to the woe-is-me mewling.

Last time I checked, we still exist in a free-market economy. Which may not be an ideal state of affairs (ask a utopian Marxist) … but seems to have generated a pretty high standard of living for the average person in this country.

Last time I checked, print journalism was a private, not public, enterprise. And, thus, suspect to the vicissitudes of market forces. When things go bad, private enterprise is going to do whatever it has to do to remain in the favor of investors or stock holders or owners. And that isn’t always going to be pretty or fair. Nor even sensible.

Entire industries have disappeared in the last generations with hardly a audible bleat of  complaint. The steel industry. The auto industry. The aerospace industry. Actually, a large percentage of all those high-paying, no-college-required assembly line jobs have disappeared out of the U.S. work force, involving numbers that make newspaper layoffs the past year seem trivial. Yet that work-force holocaust got little more than mention in a few pop songs (“Allentown” by Billy Joel comes to mind.) before disappearing off the media radar.

Maybe if folks on the Pontiac assembly line had spent more time polishing their writing skills, we would have access to an enormous canon of UAW complaint. Mostly, though, they seemed to go to the nearest coffee shop and mutter amongst themselves.

Another rhetorical question: Is anything about print’s demise special or unique?

Many (most all?) of us seem to think so.

Some of the claims I’ve heard made, and perhaps made myself.

1. We were Guardians of the People. A sort of public trust.

Because we did, in fact, more than occasionally bring to light malfeasance in government or the actions of bad cops or generic bad behavior by those on the public payroll, we somehow deserved special treatment in the workplace.

Well, let’s be honest here: Those of us covering the traffic fatality or chasing sports or reviewing the local mummers, slapping headlines on hometown briefs, wrestling the NYSE onto a page … weren’t exactly up to our eyeballs in First Amendment high-mindedness. We might have made our communities more interesting; I’m not sure we made them better as much as we like to think we did. And we certainly didn’t demonstrate to the public we were irreplaceable — or circulation numbers wouldn’t be falling like rocks. We were in the entertainment business, not the religion business, and we often forgot that.

2. Our employers/owners are particularly greedy/short-sighted idiots.

Sure, lots of us worked for morons. I certainly did. But is that unique to our industry? Of course not. In our Darwinian economic system, the dopes eventually are outed as something far less than “the fittest” and are left to wither on an evolutionary dead end. It is a sad reality that many of these entrepreneurs take down a sizable work force with them.

As lame as Knight-Ridder management or Dean Singleton (et al) have been … have they performed any more execrably than the Titans of Steel did, or Detroit’s automotive honchos or the bumbling kleptocrats of the lending world? Probably not. Certainly not. Newspapers for decades raked in double-digit profits and somehow avoided censure as leeches on the body politic. Newspaper owners were borderline geniuses, until about two years ago. Then they got stupid. Sure.

But our idiots certainly were no worse than everybody’s else’s idiots. So let’s not paint them in that light.

3. We never saw it coming.
Actually, we all should have seen it coming.

Hey, we’re in the news business. We’re paid to pay attention.

People are reading less. We’ve known this for years. Consumers spend scads of time noodling around online or playing video games. They feel stressed and drowned in information, and we had seen print journalism’s market share and penetration slide for years as we became less relevant. We knew all this. And it wasn’t going to percolate through to the newsroom rank and file … why?

4. Journalism should be a meritocracy, and good people shouldn’t be put on the streets.

You can make a case for this. But, really, only the most recent cuts began to hit core employees. Before that, let’s be honest, it generally was the newsroom bottom-feeders who got whacked. The modestly talented … the faceless drudges or pointlessly combative mediocrities. Nearly every newsroom of any size had them in their midst, and when they were axed, the survivors would say, “Well, yeah, I can see that.” People at major metros knew — KNEW — they could lose 100 people out of the newsroom and the readers wouldn’t notice.

Even now, those demonstrably competent folks laid off or fired can identify the reasons they are out of the business. They made too much money. They were old dogs having issues with new tricks. They allowed themselves to sink into bad relationships with their supervisors. If we are honest, we can see the “why?” of what happened. Fair? Unfair? It doesn’t really matter.

Long answer?

Yes, we whine too much.

Our journalism jobs weren’t guarantees of lifetime employment. Our industry didn’t have some special right to exist forever or be immune to market forces. What we did wasn’t as noble as we would have outsiders believe.

And, c’mon, most of us had more fun than almost anyone we know. We got paid to write, to take photographs, to argue politics, watch TV, surf the web. We were paid to attend events John Q. Public couldn’t afford to see, we had access to insiders and stars, we received special treatment. And none of that was some sort of divine right of J-school grads.

So, let it here be resolved … I will attempt to eliminate whining from this blog. My own, anyway. No more self-pity. I shall feel free to skewer stupidity/cupidity in the industry, to express condolences to those badly treated. But no more wallowing.

We should be spending far more time and energy envisioning how the news source of the future will work. What it will look like. How we can be part of it. The need for clear writing and editing isn’t going away. Our expertise still has value. Most of us will have a fighting chance to fit into What’s Next.

Hey, we weren’t Reporters for Life. We didn’t work for the government, with a gold watch and a pension a certainty at the other end. We were on a high wire working without a net. We may have not liked to concede it, but we were. Now we are free to hook on with another circus. At the least, we need to stop complaining about the messes the elephants leave behind. It’s an occupational hazard.

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3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jay Collier // Apr 16, 2008 at 11:16 am

    Nice commentary on the profession. Especially on the fun part. My perks included great seats at several NASCAR events, trips to California attractions for “Day Tripper” stories, and, my favorite, a chance to drive a race car at California Speedway and then write about the experience.

  • 2 anonymous // Apr 19, 2008 at 1:47 pm

    Wrong, mostly. To equate journalism with aerospace or manufacturing or whatever misses the fundamental truth that democracy is nourished by free and strong criticism, commentary and news.

    Surprised that a longtime journalist would have such a stilted appreciation for the vital role a free and robust press has played in our “pretty good standard of living.”

    And yes, community news, cops briefs and reports from meetings that John Q public can’t attend are as much a part of that as The Pentagon Papers or Watergate.

    Basically, Paul, you’re argument isn’t one an idealistic, broadly educated journalist or even any run-of-the-mill historian would be caught dead making.

    You should devote your next piece to the decline of journalism and the grim future it portends for the future of freedom in this country.

  • 3 Char Ham // Apr 19, 2008 at 2:16 pm

    Sure, journalist may @ times whine too much but @ the same time some of the them say things John Q. Public wanted to say & couldn’t.

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