DRIVING INTO THE SUNSET OF PUBLIC SERVICE

When I first entered the newspaper business, profit margins of 20 percent to 30 percent were not uncommon. Some papers were even reported to take 40 percent of their earnings down to the bottom line.

Not that much of that income went to the reporters or editors, who as a group ranked at the bottom of professional categories. Below school teachers and ministers, in fact. In addition, we worked nights and weekends and holidays – no wonder the divorce rate was high. The field could be depressing, as other surveys acknowledged. Or maybe it just attracted depressed individuals.

When right-wingers rub their “liberal media” smear across us, they mock the sacrifices we’ve made in trying to serve the public. For accuracy, the mass media  are ultimately capitalist machines – or, as they used to say of newspapers when I began, they were machines for printing money. That’s anything but leftist. Can’t be more conservative than that money-grubbing side, can you?

Some of the more astute critics at the time argued that the industry wasn’t reinvesting enough in growth and development, that it was in fact “eating its seed corn” when it came to salaries and wages, especially. How could we attract talented minorities at this pay, for one thing, when there were far more lucrative alternatives such as law? How could we build new audiences and new products without them – much less support these as they grew?

In the past decade or so, the business model has essentially collapsed in the advent of the Internet. Why should anyone pay for something they can get for free? The need for detailed coverage of public affairs remains, more than ever, but there are fewer and fewer professionals on the job, and most of those who remain are approaching minimum wage. You can’t live on that, especially not if you have a family.

I keep thinking of a skilled colleague, one of the best, an editor who quit to become a bus driver. The shift had better hours and better pay, even for a college graduate.

REVIEWING THE BUMPY TRUMPY HORROR SHOW

During the presidential primary run, his Republican rivals had reason to complain that Donald J. Trump was garnering all of the coverage. It was, as it turns out, all about him, mostly from his point of view, that is, largely unquestioned. From a headline perspective, their problem was simply that they weren’t saying or doing anything new, meaning reporters and editors had nothing fresh to report on those candidates and their campaigns. A policy statement, let’s be candid, is news just once, when it’s released. Trump, in contrast, was providing outrageous grist for the mill – he was a truly unconventional, unpredictable, and unkempt subject. To their everlasting remorse, his opponents failed to take him on full-force, much less seriously, which would have at least landed them comparable headline presence. If they had only done their homework, they would have had many of the factual details that are finally coming to light against Trump and his ways. Gee, the recent New York Times report about Chris Christie’s forgiving Trump $25 million in overdue state taxes could have taken down two candidates at once, had Jeb Bush or Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio or any of the other dwarves been on their toes.

News media coverage is not the only route to primary victories, by the way. Most of the Republicans were relying on very expensive direct-mail advertising flyers, at least from what we endured in New Hampshire. You may have read some of my household’s reactions.

In contrast, on the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders was gaining ground by flying under the radar, sticking to a successful script that included little new material while hammering his points home in speech after speech. He was certainly helped by strong organization and a vibrant (dare I say organic?) grassroots social media presence.

When Nacky Scripps Loeb was publisher of the New Hampshire Union Leader, she liked to quote her late husband’s adage than negative publicity was better than no coverage at all.  I know the basis of the argument, especially for an upstart, but I’ve also seen its downside: sometimes the attacks really inflict damage.

You didn’t hear Trump complaining about the billions of “free media” exposure he got on his ascent, but maybe none of his inner circle could see it would eventually come with a price.

My, has it!

We find ourselves waking in the morning with an obsession to discover the latest. It’s not just the New York Times or Washington Post, either. Team Trump has been stimulating a stunning parade of  splashy tabloid headlines, from the New York Daily News to the Huffington Post and Politico. Done well, there’s an art to these, I’ll confess with admiration. Not that my journalistic training or practice ran in that direction.

Almost every day now has delivered a new, well, Trumpage that stirs up the question, Is he really trying to lose? Is he even running on Hillary’s behalf? In the latest round, the pundits are sensing his new strategy is to circle the wagons and focus on his core supporters while hoping the Libertarian and Green parties erode enough votes from Clinton to give him an edge. As they acknowledge, it’s a very risky approach, especially for someone who may be recognizing he’s really losing.

Step back from the daily revelations and you can see Trump’s bigger story is fitting into a classic type of fiction or biography or history – a rise-and-fall epic of tragic proportions. (Remember, true tragedy is what happens when a character challenges the gods and bears the consequences.)

In American literature, Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby or Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick come immediately to my mind, along with Peter Matthiessen’s less conventional Killing Mister Watson, which opens with the well-earned finale for a character who has a lot in common with Trump.

The Trumpster provides plenty to focus on as a character-driven story, especially of the psychological nature. He’s a spoiled bully full of inner conflict, anger, bombast, self-delusion, insecurity, social-climbing, hostility, and more, all abetted by the proverbial silver spoon.

There are other classic structures the story could also develop, including the idea novel, which starts with a question; the event tale, where the world is out of order and demands correcting; or the milieu narrative, which would require the protagonist to emerge a new person after traversing the strange landscape of American politics, big business, and celebrity entertainment posturing.

Each day, we’re reading and hearing more bits of the unfolding story.

Now into the post-convention stretch of the White House quest, Trump is still the primary subject of the media coverage. This time, though, as the plot line is well into the “fall” half of the equation, it’s been to Hillary Clinton’s advantage to be flying under the radar. Are we watching a death by a thousand self-inflicted wounds? Are all of his previous falsehoods, fraudulence, and flatulence finally resurrecting and running up behind him, like monsters from a horror show?

We’re still quite a few pages away from the final pages, and it’s possible Trump will somehow pivot into a new, unanticipated, denouement. Deus ex machina would be a huge letdown, to say the least, as would anything having him live happily ever after.

Not after all this.

WELL, IT REALLY WAS NEWS TO ME

This morning’s newspaper had a headline that sent an “Oh, gee, I haven’t seen that before” running through my head. As I mentioned the other day (Why Woodpecker Can’t Keep Up, June 14), so much of the news can be same-old, same-old variations on a theme. But this one really was new:

Motorcyclist Hits Bear.

As I also mentioned (Harley Heaven on Lake Winnipesaukee, June 16), we just had the nine-day Laconia Motorcycle Week, which attracts swarms of bikers to the Granite State, and racing along mountainous roads is one of their joys. Every year the event is accompanied by accidents and usually a few fatalities, but I don’t ever remember seeing one involving a bear. This one happened in the afternoon. Broad daylight on a perfect day.

Unlike moose, which are slow and dumb, convinced they can continue ignoring oncoming traffic, bears can be fast-moving, when necessary, and alert. Moose-car accidents are, in fact, commonplace throughout northern New England, while bear-car encounters are also a standard news item, though less frequent. I suppose I’ve seen a few moose-motorcyclist crash stories over the years, or at least should have.

This time I found myself recalling a report I’d edited and written the headline for back on my first news desk position right after college. We were Upstate New York, which has its own mountainous terrain. That time, a motorcyclist ran into a porcupine on a dark highway, and the results were fatal. As a city-boy, porcupines were still a curiosity, rather than a critter I often acknowledge in my journeys.

In this morning’s dispatch, the driver was airlifted to a hospital and reported to be in critical condition.

~*~

Another item making the rounds also seems to slip over from one of the routine categories — in this case, political survey results — into the I’ve-never-seen-that-before status. In the race for the White House, a Democrat, and a woman at that, is polling evenly with Donald Trump in the overwhelming Republican state of Utah.

~*~

This reminds me of another reaction I often have as a novelist: “This wouldn’t work in fiction.” Accompanied by “You couldn’t invent this if you tried.” Life really does take some bizarre turns if you look.

Really.

CASHING IN

Kevin Cash once wrote a 472-page book about the onetime publisher of the Union Leader in Manchester, New Hampshire, but for all his subject’s controversial right-wing vitriolic color, nobody I know has ever managed to finish reading the opus.

Who the Hell IS William Loeb? could have been a slam-dunk hit, but instead veered into tedium. In an era before Rush Limbaugh and his ilk, Loeb built his newspaper on the realization that opinion is cheaper than fact and that name-calling can attract an emotional following. For that matter, even in retrospect, his front-page editorials still stink.

I never could have worked at the paper during his reign, but the first week I was on board, I recall walking past the managing editor’s office and hearing three men accuse the paper of being “liberal media.” Gives you an idea how far-right much of the Granite State still is.

For the record, none of what I did was any different than it would have been for any of the very liberal publishers I’ve also served. (OK, there was only one. The rest were center to right.) If I couldn’t maintain the standards of professional journalism, I’d leave. As I did in Yakima, when the regime changed.

Hometown_News~*~

For more on daily journalism, here’s my novel. Just click.

THE DESIRE FOR DOCUMENTATION … OR AT LEAST CONFIRMATION

My career of editing newspapers often introduced a tension between trying to be the first to present important developments to our readers (that is, news) and their desire to have us run the olds – photos and lists of names from activities days or even weeks previous. My feeling was that their club and church items were usually of interest only to those who already knew about them – hardly the stuff of urgent news – and rarely added to our paid circulation. I’d met enough people who wanted others to read their publicity far more than they themselves were willing to extend the same courtesy to others. Put another way, if the “names-is-news” imperative had much merit, the telephone book would be much more thoroughly read than it is – and much fatter than it keeps getting in an Internet age.

More recently, though, in my retirement I’ve become involved in public events that could make the news spotlight – and haven’t, even when the TV cameras were turned on us. I’d love to show folks around me what we were up to. It’s confirmation we were there, actually. And that, I suspect, is what those readers wanted all along.

Curiously, that’s where social media are filling the gap in documenting everyday life. In the examples I’m thinking of here, the photos of us look great, for starters. The only problem, personally, is that I’m always somewhere in the corner, often cut in half. I guess it just goes with being in the bass section.

Well, maybe I could start taking selfies and posting them here. On second thought, though … I’ll spare you.

~*~

As a footnote, I’m also remembering one locality where everybody was willing to sign up for an event, especially as the committee chairman. Or more accurately, chairwoman. And as soon as the promotion announcement appeared in print, they all somehow vanished, leaving the two newcomers to the group with all the responsibility for actually pulling it off.

We never ran a follow-up to that effect, either.