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Print Boomers: Reaching the Top, Seeing the Bottom

January 24th, 2009 · 4 Comments · LANG, Sports Journalism

I may have written about this before. I don’t recall, and I’m not going to search my own site, because I feel like writing about it again. Or anew. Or with more emphasis.

The latest round of print journalism layoffs prompted more thinking, and reminiscing, and I Came to A Conclusion that may not be original even on this site.

But, first, a recollection of a scene from one of the 10 greatest movies ever made.

I am thinking of “The Man Who Would Be King,” released in 1975. A John Huston film based on a Rudyard Kipling book and starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine, two guys I would pay to watch read from a phone book. And put them in an action film, of epic scope, with a cast of thousands, well, you’re on the way to greatness.

The two of them are veteran soldiers, low-born non-com lifers, of the sort that made the British Empire. A Scot (Connery) and an East-Ender (Caine)  They are in India. It is, what, 1870, 1880, thereabouts? And the British are at the height of Empire and cocksure of themselves and the superiority of their ways.

And to cut to the chase, Connery and Caine (Daniel Dravot and Peachy Carnehan) decide to ditch the army, cross the massive Hindu Kush and set themselves up as kings in “Kafiristan,” which I only recently realized was a real place (in modern Afghanistan), and not something Kipling made up.

On their way over the mountains, it appears they are cut off at high altitude, and their mules die and they sit down, knowing they have no hope. They talk somberly about how they prefer not to freeze to death, and when they feel it coming on they broadly hint of shooting themselves.

And then one of the characters, Caine I think, turns pensive. And then he becomes animated and reminds Connery of “how many men can say they’ve been all the places we’ve been and seen all the things we’ve seen?!?” And the Connery character gets caught up in the enthusiasm, and they recall a battle in which a certain Highlander sergeant-major, during a retreat in the Khyber Pass, realizes his “sporran” — a Scottish purse that hangs over a kilt, roughly at the level of the genitals — has been shot off.  And how the sergeant-major turned around to fetch his sporran “to see if anything else has been shot off with it” … and the Highlanders think the sergeant major is mounting a counterattack, and they follow him — and the British win a victory and the sergeant-major gets the Victoria Cross,  or some other important medal.

And they begin to laugh, and laugh, and you know that’s just one of a thousand stories they can share. And the Connery character says he wouldn’t trade his memories for the long lives of dreary men, or something like that.

I thought of this, the other day, when it dawned on me that those of us in journalism being most battered by the Print Implosion of 2008-09 … are Baby Boomers, about the same age as the characters played by Connery and Caine — at least 45, maybe 50, even older.

Boomers are being cleaned out of newsrooms. They make too much money and they have issues with inferior journalism of the sort being practiced nearly everywhere now, and they also are perceived as untrainable old-timers — as well as mouthy malcontents.

This is the valley the business is in. Shattered newsrooms and bad, failing and desperate newspapers.

But those of us outside the profession — and even those still in it, hanging on — well, how many journalists before us can say they’ve been the places we’ve been and seen the things we’ve seen? How many after us will be able to?

I am convinced that journalists who entered the profession in the 1970s enjoyed the greatest 20-30 years in American print journalism history.

It was in the 1970s that even modest hometown newspapers and the most avaricious chains were making so much money … that they managed to indulge their ambitions, in the margins.

And things just got bigger and better, almost uniformly, right through the 1980s and 1990s, and even into the first few years of this century.

Newspapers covered more topics. Newshole for national and foreign news went up. They traveled farther and more often. The number of foreign correspondents spiked. Capital bureaus across the country got big.  All that all was grand for reporters.

Meanwhile, managers enjoyed the rush of deploying ever-growing ranks of reporters. People who did layout got to use color and color graphics, and put together pages of material original and specific to their paper, written by their on-the-scene co-workers.

And this is key, too: Pay went up. Steadily, even dramatically. A business that for hundreds of years had barely paid a living wage suddenly became a ticket into the middle class.

And most of that happened on the Boomers’ watch.

By way of comparison, I look at what I know of the career of Claude Anderson, a lifer whose career overlapped with mine by a half-dozen years, in San Bernardino.

Claude worked there 36 years. And he spent about 95 percent of his time, I am sure, covering events that occurred inside the boundaries of the newspaper’s circulation area. Which meant high schools and local (small) colleges. That is what he did, year after year. For a sports section that didn’t have its own front. For an employer who made him chart every long-distance telephone call and who paid him next to nothing.

But that was the life of the great majority of newspapermen, in the 1940s and 1950s. For every Ernie Pyle in the trenches at Iwo Jima, there were a hundred Claude Andersons hacking away for hometown papers with little or no hope of covering anything “big” — or even making a respectable salary.

Two facts about Claude Anderson. In 1960,  when he would have been in his late 30s and in his second decade as a journalist, the Winter Olympics were held at Squaw Valley, near Lake Tahoe. Maybe a six-hour drive up the 395 from San Bernardino. He wanted to go. I believe he said he would cover the event on his own dime and his own time — but the editor/publisher said, no, because there wouldn’t be anyone around to put out the sports pages. That was how small-minded were the people who ran newspapers, well into the 1960s. Fact No. 2: When I became sports editor, in 1980,  I found out that Claude Anderson, senior staffer, was paid not quite $400 per week. I believe he may have finally reached $400 a week in 1982, when he retired.

So, in summary, a guy who gave his life to journalism, beginning in 1946, never covered anything bigger than a couple of horse races and perhaps a game or two of the mid-1960s World Series involving the Los Angeles Dodgers. And who, at the end of his career, was finally making $20,000 a year.

That all changed, for Boomers.

Why? Because we expected it? Because we demanded it? Because newspapers were flush, and important after Watergate, and newspapers felt as if they couldn’t cede Big City stories to TV? A generally booming economy and more sophisticated and worldly readers? An appetite for more news that the internet wasn’t yet able to provide? All of that. And more.

When I got to San Bernardino, in 1976, the paper had just started covering the Los Angeles Rams and UCLA basketball (and maybe USC football) home and road. That was to become institutionalized, and it got only bigger and better for 20 years-plus.

At the same time, the big papers, like the Los Angeles Times, not only were traveling, they routinely flew first class. Always. And stayed in expensive hotels.  They just did. That’s how things were. Expense accounts were winked at.

By the 1980s, all sorts of newspapers were covering all sorts of big events. Some ball teams (like the Dodgers) had eight, nine, 10 reporters covering them, full-time. Medium-sized, even little papers began turning up at Super Bowls and Olympics. There were more reporters than credentials available, and you probably could write a book (f0r a small audience, of course) about the infighting and politics that went about in getting that sixth credential for the Seoul Olympics of 1988 or the 1992 Super Bowl.

And my whole generation was caught up in it. The rising tide lifted all boats. My paper sent a reporter to Sacramento. We covered trials in Los Angeles and did series based on reporting from Mexico. In 1982, seven people went off to Washington for the startup of USA Today.

And in sports, it was nuts, by the standards of previous eras. By the late 1980s, we went to every Rams game, every Raiders game, every Dodgers and Angels game, every USC and UCLA football game. We never missed a Lakers playoffs game. We even traveled in the playoffs with the Los Angeles Kings sometimes, and we didn’t even know or care about hockey. It was like that throughout the L.A. market — and in lots and lots of other U.S. markets.

I went to the Sarajevo Olympics in 1984, first of the 13 out of 14 Olympics I would cover. And that was just typical. That sort of thing was going on everywhere. People up and down our staff made cross-country trips for regular-season games. And if the guy covering the preps didn’t, well if he was any good, he could aspire to one of the big beats and stood a fair chance of getting it, in a few years.

And salaries went up. Dramatically. When I was made sports editor, in 1980, I got a raise from $325 a week to $400 — meaning that in less than four years in the business I had gone past Claude Anderson, who had been pouring his energies into the product for 30 years before I arrived.

Salaries kept climbing. It was a steady and sometimes dramatic rise. By the mid-1990s journeyman reporters were making $45,000 at suburbans, and probably more like $80,000 at the major metros. Which is probably equivalent to $55,000 and $100,0o0, in 2009 dollars. And there were jobs everywhere. If you had issues with the paper you were with, you just went to the one the next town over.

Things just kept getting — in almost every market in the country. Bigger and better.

We got to do and see things our predecessors never got a sniff of. Dozens of World Series and Rose Bowls and Final Fours.  NFL exhibition games in Europe, Wimbledon tennis tournaments (one of our staffers covered, like, 10 straight All-England tournaments), U.S. Opens, and every Super Bowl from about 1980 through 2002 or so. The world suddenly was connected by regular flights and portable computers that enabled writers to file on deadline from remote places without dictation or a telex.

It was the print heyday.

And, well,  of course, we didn’t fully appreciate it at the time. We wanted even more and more. That’s human. That’s journalists, too. And the weird thing is, we generally got it. Staffs at even suburbans typically were 100 or more. What did the L.A. Times have at its peak? Something like 1,300 full-timers in the newsroom.

We were there for the zenith. The top. When even average employees could expect to be paid well and could aspire to travel at company expense, covering high-status events.

So, yes, the collapse of the industry has been shocking to us. How could we rise so steadily and so high — and fall so fast? We’re still trying to sort that out.

But at the end of the day — and a lot of us from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s have reached the end of the print day — we have to admit we did a hell of a lot. Not because we were that much better than our predecessors, because we were only marginally, if at all. But because we fell into it, an accident of timing and birth and circumstances.

Memories don’t pay the bills, and they may not fulfill us next week, but, damn, we had it good. Better than anyone in the industry before and  better than, I’m afraid, those still in the industry can hope to look forward to.

It got cut short, and we didn’t see it coming, in many cases. But we had a hell of a run, and let’s concede that, and maybe even pull out the photos from those exotic places and times, and vow to stop whining about an era that is over. Let’s remember it for how grand it was, and give thanks that, through no real doing of our own, we were there for it.

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4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Chuck Hickey // Jan 24, 2009 at 3:05 pm

    I came in at the start of the good ol’ days, 1987. And at the time, never fully realized the sacrifices, if you will, of the Claude Andersons. All I knew as a young agate clerk was, yeah, we cover every Dodgers, Angels, Rams, Raiders game. We’ve got a Cal League team? You bet we’re going to travel road and away. Olympics? Are you crazy, of COURSE we’re going. Same with Wimbledon.

    Looking back, for a suburban paper, it was insane. But a big part of that was, as you said, seven staffers from 399 N. D St. going to USAT. The connections with Gannett News Service.

    And that mentality went into the local scene. What were there at the 1989 and 1990 Ike-Fohi games? Like 4-6 reporters? We played up things.

    Yes, those were the days. But a big part of this is on the heads of ownership. The arrogance that newspapers withstood TV and the first Internet boom. And believing all would be OK, in time.

    The end, in SoCal, was when Gannett pulled out after 30-some years and MediaNews came in. Then Times Mirror sold out to Tribune.

    It’s nice to look back at those days, at all we did. I don’t think I’ll be doing the same thing, in time, looking back at this period.

  • 2 Mary // Jan 25, 2009 at 10:44 am

    1984. Yes, we lived through the good, fat times. And now we’re paying. The problem is, the tail end of the Boomers (me) find themselves in a position having to pay for all that excess by watching newsrooms empty but expectations remaining the same. Newspapers (and not just editorial depts) were not immune to Irresponsible spending and borrowing.
    Many from that era have taken buyouts and/or layoffs and left the business. Many are not in a position to take advantage of a buyout, but continue to see corporate greed and excess spending at the top. We in the middle have learned our lesson. Perhaps someday newspaper executives will, too.

  • 3 Dennis Pope // Jan 26, 2009 at 9:56 am

    “…we have to admit we did a hell of a lot. Not because we were that much better than our predecessors, because we were only marginally, if at all. But because we fell into it, an accident of timing and birth and circumstances.”

    There’s something remarkably profound in that; the knowledge that all opportunities are created by forces much larger and agents much darker than any of us can truly know.

  • 4 Jacob Pomrenke // Jan 26, 2009 at 7:40 pm

    Hate to say it, Paul, but the vision and aspirations of the Boomers in editorial departments who were able to make these grand trips and cover these grand events … was also reflected in the excess and selfishness of corporate publishers/owners — most of whom were Boomers, as well — who built up too much debt and mismanaged their newspapers to get to where we are today. (Obviously, I’m not discounting the Internet and economy as sources of the print decline, but those were things that newspapers could not control. When your chain is billions of dollars in debt and you decide you can still buy out ANOTHER paper or chain … well, that’s just greed.)

    And now, we’re all paying for that excess. The Boomers are getting the worst of it, but at least you have the good times to look back on. What kind of world is my generation — journalists and otherwise — going to look back on? I do hope our memories are half as grand as yours, because I love hearing the stories.

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