Dying Lament

     BBC News showed an overhead view of the newsroom at the London Daily Telegraph last week, a vast, open floor of people working and milling about, with clumps of open desks spread around the floor. There was not an office partition in sight.
     The room looked like a well-appointed meeting hall with warm-colored walls, potted plants and huge projections onto a far wall, filled with images of breaking news stories. The biggest of which was a Telegraph story on embarrassing expense claims by senior government figures.
     The layout of that news room, if not the plush appointments, reminded me of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, where I published my first news stories in the early 1980’s. The Herald was housed in one of those old Los Angeles buildings along Broadway and next to the garment district that were built with whimsical themes, from Mayan temple to, in this case, Moorish castle.
     The building had Taj Mahal-like cupolas at the corners, covered with blue and gold tile. The walls of the news room had once been painted white.
     The desks were utilitarian, like school desks, beat-up, gun-metal gray butted up against each other in groups of four or six, with a few typewriters – typewriters! – still sitting on them. It seemed to me, trying to break into the trade, like such a privileged sanctum, such a cool place.
     But even then the vast room was mostly empty of reporters and a majority of the desks sat unused. You knew just looking at the place that it had once been a vibrant room – like what I saw of the Telegraph — but it was now in the process of dying.
     The Herald’s passing, which took place a couple years later, was the result of an older step forward in technology — the TV. Television knocked the afternoon newspapers out of business. While the morning papers, like the Los Angeles Times, survived.
     Two things happened after that, one obvious and the other less so.
     The Internet came along and continues to fundamentally alter the way news is made and distributed. But the less dramatic factor lies in the way newspapers reacted to the culling of competition.
     When the afternoon papers died, the survivors generally ended up with local monopolies or duopolies on print ads. They began to act like many U.S. corporations, squeezing as much out of the short-term bottom line as possible. They milked their market positions, used the newspapers as cash cows.
     So when I would go to visit the L.A. Times, for example, it even looked like a corporate office. There was no big, open news floor. There were instead departments spread among separate floors where isolated reporters worked within separate, high-walled cubicles.
     As we have seen over the last ten years, a depressingly common corporate tactic is to boost the bottom line by cutting employees. Just so did the Times and other newspapers.
     While adopting short-term business tactics, newspapers also got lazy, relying on press releases and tips from interested parties for the news, rather than hustling. A couple weeks ago, a former reporter said something in passing about the entertainment site TMZ which continues to shake things up in Los Angeles Superior Court.
     He said TMZ is covering the court in way that has not been done in a long time. The comment drifted by me at the time but then I thought about it. Translation: TMZ is hustling.
     Along with their transformation from hustlers to passive fatsos that are being fed the news, most of the big papers began to suckle on the big tits, cozying up to corporate and governmental bosoms.
     I asked the Orange County Register and the Times, for example, to help us challenge the Orange County Clerk when he delayed access to newly filed public documents, pushed it back from same-day to two days past.
     The reporters were willing to take the court on. The editors were not.
     There is a current round of lament going around commentary pages for the passing of American newspapers, and I certainly share in that regret. But it is with a mixed set of emotions, because this is a business, after all. And when you make foolhardy and short-sighted mistakes in business, you pay a price.
     Where competition in the newspaper industry has continued to thrive, on London’s Fleet Street, the newspapers appear to be alive and well. They are certainly less pompous than most of our papers have become, and they clearly have no problem embarrassing the powers that be. And at least one of their newsrooms looks like a really cool place to work.

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