At the moment when the Internet was about to arrive, most big-city newspapers — having survived the arrival of television and confident in their advertising base — were neither hungry, nor worried, nor ambitious. They were merely assets to their newspaper chains. Profits were taken, and coverage did not expand in scope and complexity.
In my newsroom, I lived through the trend of zoning (give the people what’s happening in their neighborhood), the trend of brevity (never mind the details, people don’t read past the jump) and ultimately, the trend of organized, clinical prize-groveling (we don’t know what people want, but if we can win something, that’s validation enough), not to mention several graphic redesigns of the newspaper.
I did not encounter a sustained period in which anyone endeavored to spend what it would actually cost to make the Baltimore Sun the most essential and deep-thinking and well-written account of life in central Maryland. The people you needed to gather for that kind of storytelling were ushered out the door, buyout after buyout.
Look. Everybody under 30 isn’t some callow youth, and I’m defensive enough to feel a prickle at those comments; I was that inexperienced 20-something in the newsroom who didn’t know everybody’s history instantly, and I took plenty of crap for it from the older folks. Turning us on each other, making the 50-somethings resent somebody who wanted to learn and do well just because she was younger and made less money, was just one more way for management to keep our eyes off the ball. If we’re all pissed at each other, maybe we won’t notice that while we all get screwed out of raises, the boss took home a six-figure bonus.
But that’s a personal, and probably unwarranted, nitpick. What this eventually comes down to is what you’re willing to fight for, and over and over, corporate owners of newspapers have shown that they’re not willing to fight for the paper. Mouth platitudes, sure, and talk about traditions, but they only ever chase the money, and even that, they puss out on. To use a hockey analogy, it’s trying the Jeff Sauer penalty kill: Circle around the net, tight as you can, and pray your opponent doesn’t get a shot off. You might not lose by as much as you’d lose by if you challenged the forwards coming at you, but one thing’s for certain: You won’t fucking win.