Newspapers, R.I.P.

     The Internet didn’t kill newspapers. Newspapers committed suicide.
     Newspapers put a noose around their own neck and sawed most of the way through one leg of a three legged stool – the legs are advertising, circulation, and news.
     Then newspapers stood on their rickety little stool, threw the rope over a rafter and tied it good and tight. All the Internet had to do was come along and give the stool a kick.
     The sad thing about the death of newspapers is that they used to be such fun places to work. Not good places to work. There is a difference.
     Newspapers tended to promote good reporters to become editors, though the jobs require different skills. A good reporter tends to be an aggressive, stubborn, suspicious workaholic with a chip on his shoulder. Those are good traits for a reporter.
     But who wants to work for an aggressive, stubborn, suspicious boss with a chip on his shoulder?
     I liked it. My first day at a staff job, after I turned in my first story my boss editor asked me, “Hey numbnuts, do you think we could say they ‘blocked’ the street instead of ‘blockaded’ it?”
     “Sure, Charlie,” I said.
     It was my kind of place.
     When I started working at newspapers, a quarter century ago, the days of hot type were just about over. The type really was hot – molten lead poured into molds for printing on a linotype machine.
     That had been replaced by computers – crude computers that couldn’t do layout yet, so there were still good old boys in the print shop doing paste-up. Then came Quark Express, which can lay out a page and insert the photos. Then the boys in the back shop were gone.
     Then the afternoon papers died.
     Then during the recession under the first George Bush, the money for freelancers dried up. It never came back – not like the old days.
     Then came round after round of corporate buyouts and the first great squeeze-out of reporters.
     It wasn’t enough for newspapers to have a 15 percent profit margin. Corporate wanted the profit margin to be bigger every year. And since the greatest expenses for newspapers are salaries and newsprint, the quickest way to give corporate what it wanted was to fire reporters and publish smaller papers.
     So newspapers got worse and worse, and the bosses in Davenport, Iowa, or wherever the hell they were, screamed for more of the same.
     I’m glad I got out before this round of bloodletting.
     Newspapers used to be sanctuaries for misfits: disheveled guys who drank too much but who knew how to write, fast, and whose idea of a good time was not to be invited to dinner with a senator, but to catch a senator in bed with a goat.
     When I was city editor of The Brownsville Herald, I wrote a piece denouncing a rigged election in the Mexican town across the border, Matamoros. The next day, Matamoros’ Newsman of the Year reported that I was a CIA agent who spent most of my nights being buggered by the Mexicans in the Herald’s back shop. I thought it was a great column. I still have it around somewhere.
     My best newsroom stories are worse than that. They’re not fit for print. But they were fun.
     By the time I left newspapers, 5 years ago, most of the misfits were gone. There was no more booze in newsrooms – except occasionally in my bloodstream. Newsrooms were becoming like insurance offices. You couldn’t even swear anymore.
     Ah, well. It was fun for the 150 or so years it lasted.
     I liked the old-time politicians better, too. They didn’t pretend to get along with you. One of my favorite stories was told me by a reporter I’ll call Dan McSwain, because that is his name.
     In his first day on the job at the Brooklyn Eagle, their old grizzled reporter told Dan to come along to Mayor Ed Koch’s press conference. There was some sort of parking scandal in Brooklyn that no one was bothering about except the Eagle, and the old-timer rehearsed Dan on a long, involved question to ask the mayor about it.
     So Mayor Koch came out and made a few statements and then asked if anyone had questions.
     Dan jumped up and said, “Dan McSwain, from the Brooklyn Eagle,” and he reeled off his long, involved question.
     When it was over, Mayor Koch stared at him and said, “Who are you?”
     “Dan McSwain, from the Brooklyn Eagle.”
     “Well, Dan McSwain, from the Brooklyn Eagle,” Mayor Koch said, “why don’t you sit down and shut up.”

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