Missing the news cycle with a big story

Let me admit that hearing about Joe McQuaid’s recent book on Bill Loeb stirred a range of reactions in me.

The first was a yawning, “Who cares? Who cares now?”

The second was a recognition that most stories have short shelf lives, and Loeb was ancient history now, even in New Hampshire.

For background, you must understand that I spent the second half of my journalism career at the statewide newspaper Loeb had owned and notoriously thrust into the national spotlight from Manchester, New Hampshire. When I arrived, he had been dead six years and the paper was in transition from one known more for its vitriolic front-page editorials than for its reporting. The editorials had retreated mostly to the opinion page, and I was among the hires intent on improving the professional quality of the coverage. Or, as I overheard three figures accuse the managing editor my first week on the job, of already being “liberal media.” (That’s how far right much of the state was – and in some parts remains.)

McQuaid, under the wing of Loeb’s widow, Nackey, was a hometown boy on his ascent as executive editor and after her death, publisher. His father, Bernie, had been Bill Loeb’s righthand man in the newsroom – and Loeb kept a loaded revolver in his desk drawer, as I heard a few years before my move to the paper. In many ways, their arrangement was like family and a family business. I had worked for enough newspaper chains to appreciate the differences, as well as to appreciate Loeb’s determination to keep the paper independent of chain ownership.

There was always gossip, of course, which now gave me a sense that that if Joe could look hard and candidly at his subject, he might have enough inside dope to open fresh material for historians while also doing a bit of self-therapy in his retirement years. To me, his project looked something like my own attempt to better understand my grandfather and his legacy, pro and con – the man who labeled himself Dayton’s Leading Republican Plumber. What I had was mostly genealogy and local history, one where my remaining living sources could openly differ with each other and with what I had collected from those now passed.

Joe, on the other hand, was dealing with a once well-known rabid anti-communist archconservative who was credited with derailing more than one presidential candidate and leaving a long shadow over local and state politics. New Hampshire politicians still dare not speak of income or sales taxes as a funding option. People either adored him or hated him – reader and advertiser aversion to his approach had killed several other papers he owned – but he was largely a curiosity and enigma, one sometimes seen as a big joke with occasionally fatal consequences. Take Loeb seriously? For starters, Joe had to go beyond Kevin Cash’s 1975 Who the Hell IS William Loeb, a fat blast that nobody I’ve met ever finished reading, even during Loeb’s last years on the throne.

The result was William Loeb and His Times: Provocative Publisher, Private Paradox by Joseph W. McQuaid, published by New Hampshire-focused Plaidswede Publishing in Concord at the beginning of the year.

Joe’s tome faces several huge challenges.

Loeb died 41 years ago and few readers remember him or the era. Why should folks care about someone others have tagged a pipsqueak? Quite simply, he’s no longer news. Move on to today.

Newspapers are no longer the powerful institutions they were, diminished both by the right-wing attacks of Loeb’s ilk and by internet sapping of readership and advertising. Who’s interested in their internal operations? Or even of Loeb’s uneven track record in advancing his causes and candidates?

Politics itself has become toxic, a consequence of unchecked right-wing shenanigans. Informed folks are still shell-shocked by the daily scandals from the Trump White House.

Joe’s attempt to make sense of Loeb’s sordid personal life and financial dealings could be of importance, not so much as something that happened “back then” but rather in the ways it seems to foreshadow the emergence of Trump and his ilk and of Fox television’s slanted presentation of public affairs.

Not that Joe can quite make the connection from the late 1940s and ‘50s that gave Loeb his rise to today’s quagmire. He can’t honestly paint Loeb as a hero, though the publisher’s diatribes fit that role for many, so that omission costs Joe potential readers on the right. But his revelations about Loeb’s personal life make an already repulsive subject even less attractive to potential readers in the middle and left. Even morbid fascination has its limits. Besides, these days it fits a pattern. Clarence Thomas? Ted Cruz? Newt Gingerich? Mitch McConnell? As for New Hampshire? It’s still seen as too tiny to matter across much of the nation.

And as a footnote, Clem Costello, publisher of the newspaper just downstream in Lowell, Massachusetts, could provide a similar subject for the era, if only to round out the history.

Beyond those declining mass media numbers

Newspapers were in trouble even before the Internet. In general, fewer people were reading, period, and that included books and magazines as well. It was easy to blame television, but interests were shifting, too – and editors were at a loss when it came to hitting viable new directions that would capture attention.

Another factor was that the workplace and lifestyles were also changing. Fewer people were employed in factories, for one thing, and fewer were taking mass transit to get to and from work. Waiting for the bus, train, or ferry and then riding were prime time for many readers. Driving, then, meant less time for reading. More likely was the radio or even audiobooks.

When I entered daily journalism, afternoon papers generally had the larger circulation, fitting blue-collar work schedules that often let out at 3 or 4 pm. As the factories closed down, so did the afternoon papers in towns that had two or more newspapers. Most of the others shifted to morning publication, where they could be on the newstands all day and still look fresh. Thus, American dailies declined from 1,750 in 1970 to 1,279 in 2018.

The Internet’s whammy has been mostly to the papers’ business model, an arcane system I describe in my novel Hometown News.

What we haven’t heard much about is the bigger hit to commercial network television, where audiences have defected to cable content and streaming.

In fact, the best new programming is on those newer options.

The thought hit me while watching Only Murders in the Building was that such quality would have never appeared on a commercial network series. You no doubt can add your own favorites to the list. How many of those are on commercial networks? Any?

The meltdown of the monolithic mass media, both print and broadcast, is a mixed bag, of course. Here we are blogging, for one thing, but rarely does that get the same readership as a newspaper column in even a small-town paper. But we’re getting our say, anyway.

As an example of the kind of excellent journalism we’re missing these days, let me offer this modest example

My wife forwarded me a link to a Washington Post article about the ways international supply-chain problems impacted a small, family-owned, dairy north of our place in easternmost Maine and its signature product, a chocolate milk with a passionate following.

For me, it’s a great piece of journalism, or as I told her, my ideal of reporting.

In fact, it fit into the aspirations I present in my novel Hometown News.

Personally, I favor longer pieces that take a long-range view, as this one does, especially when they encapsulate a much bigger, more difficult, issue in ways that hit home.

In contrast, the trend has long been for shorter, faster, less complex dispatches that move on to the next sensational blast. You know, the 24-hour news cycle. Or less. Most of it is forgettable, puff in the air, hit-me-with-what’s-next superficiality.

Instead, what we have here is a consequence of assigning a reporter full-time to the Northeast, as the Washington Post does, in one of those expenses that might seem superfluous to the bean counters who fill too many executive positions in too many industries. In fact, we can blame them for much of the supply-side issues that plague us. Prestige, after all, is rarely seen as a quantifiable asset.

Moreover, I doubt the Post would have found this story without that marginal investment. (The nearest daily newspaper, fine as it is, finds itself way too overwhelmed by everyday issues to dig into something requiring an investment of time like this. In fact, one of the things I that drew me to working at the New Hampshire Sunday News was the opportunity to assist similar projects, where we might have a week to dig into the dimensions and then display the findings properly.)

I also love the fact that the Post hired an excellent photographer to pursue the story, too, and paid for his time to look beneath the obvious surfaces. Again, it takes time to get a feel for what’s beneath the surface and come up with something fresh and expressive. His shots tell a full, parallel, story of people dedicated to their seemingly commonplace employment. What emerges is almost like a film score underpinning a movie.

Better yet, in this case, the difficulty encountered was about chocolate – who couldn’t love that! As well as the schoolchildren who loved the dairy’s chocolate milk as part of their lunches. You can’t build a better connection than you do with kids, except maybe through the words of their parents, as this report does.

My kudus to reporter Joanna Slater and photographer Tristan Spinski – and their unnamed editors for publishing this.

If only we could see much more along this line of journalism!

Just before taking the unanticipated buyout

Hard to think that it was right around this time ten years ago when my newspaper career took the big turn.

The atmosphere at the office was tense, with contract negotiations approaching a deadlock. Actually, there was little back-and-forth but rather a take-it-leave-it set of ultimatums from the front office.

As much as I loved journalism, I had long dreamed of being liberated from the daily workplace grind to pursue my bigger passions fulltime – writing serious works that would stand as a legacy, plus more time for Quaker endeavors and activities of personal renewal. I envisioned a bigger studio at home and had several book manuscripts that looked promising, if only I could get them in motion faster. When you had an interested book publisher, as I tentatively did, you had to act fast, something that’s difficult when you’re actively engaged elsewhere. My big break, all the same, hadn’t happened, even if I was being published widely in the small-press literary scene. You had to build a name, after all, as well as connections.

The job itself had long ago turned into a production-line mentality, rather than a more deliberate craft. Gone were the big projects that allowed enough space for deep research, reflection, and revision. Even at the prestigious big dailies, the clout that came with having a byline had largely evaporated. I began joking, with a degree of factual backup, that I really earned my wages in a one-hour span every Saturday night, when our biggest paper of the week in terms of circulation, heft, content, and income, was about to hit the press. Missing that deadline by even a few minutes was costly and had consequences. In that hour, and the two that followed as we made corrections and updated editions, everything funneled down through me, carrying with it blame for any big errors.

Well, I was a pro. Suck it up.

The possibility of buyouts had been floated by the union but required a certain number of members to step forward as interested candidates – tell us more – before that possibility was soundly yanked away from the table by management. I felt left like a pawn in that high-stakes game. For me, the pension and Medicare were both still a year off, and a steady income between here and there was looking more and more imperiled. I’d stuck my neck out, after all, and could now be seen as disloyal – if the paper was still running at all.

A few weeks later, brusquely, I was called into HR and essentially told I had an hour or so to commit to a decision. What, it’s back on the table? Maybe I had a little longer to confer with my spouse, I don’t recall, but in the whirlwind, the closure still came down like a hammer.

And that was it – a bonus that included extended health coverage, plus opportunities for part-time employment, if I wished. No guarantees there, but good luck. Even so, I was giddy. This is it?

A few nights later, there was a cake in the newsroom in recognition of us who had walked the plank. Some of our younger colleagues, I suspect, wished they had the option, though part of our decision came in hoping what we did kept them employed duly, some even supporting families. These calculations get tangled.

~*~

My first month of liberation came as a welcome period of decompression. I loved sitting in our front parlor and reading in winter sunlight, for one thing. A favored new routine with my wife was strolling downtown every Wednesday around dusk, when a small pub featured a fine jazz guitarist. How civilized! I could even go to bed before midnight.

The paper soon found itself short-staffed, however, and I began receiving calls wondering about my availability. Enjoying the flexibility of picking-and-choosing, I soon found myself working three or four shifts a week, the max allowed under the agreement. The feeling was entirely different, free of the weight of internal politics and big responsibilities. My floating shifts liberated me to attend concerts and films and a host of other events not previously open on my schedule. I didn’t have to weave around others’ vacation time off, either, when looking ahead to conferences or travel.

But ten years ago already? It really does feel more like five.

Does Covid-19 spell the death of local newspapers, too?

Jack Shafer of Politico magazine recently aired his argument against including newspapers in stimulus aid for companies hurt by what he calls the coronavirus apocalypse. As his title says, “Don’t waste stimulus money on newspapers. You wouldn’t put a dead man on a ventilator, would you?”

It’s a harsh assessment, coming not from a right-wing fanatic but someone who values the experience of reading the news on paper. He knows all too well the precarious state of the news industry even before the Covid-19 devastation, and I hate to admit I have to agree with him.

If you want to see my take on some of the deep systemic financial problems, just turn to my novel Hometown News, available as an ebook.

For a little perspective, you have to realize you can’t even purchase blank newsprint for the cost of your local paper, and that’s without anything on it or delivery to your doorstep or favorite store or the box on the corner.

Shafer is not talking about the handful of national papers that are thriving, thanks to a surge of online subscribers during the Trump nightmare. He’s talking about the local papers across the country, many of them now owned by hedge funds and similar short-view gaming investors. The kind of enterprise that has gone from family ownership with roots in the community to a global conglomerate that sees money in liquidation, as in who-are-you-all-anyway and why-do-you-matter when it comes to the locals.

Well, with oil companies lining up for relief aid, newspapers definitely should be higher on the list. But I digress.

In some ways, the papers are a canary in the mine shaft, or a dinosaur looking into the eyes of an approaching train, if you care to mix metaphors. Remember what happened to the railroads, after all, when the Interstates were built … with public money. Again, I digress.

The biggest question for me is what happens to local communities if and/or when the local papers expire.

First, of course, is that the public loses an essential watchdog on grassroots level politics. Believe me, local officials act differently when they know they’re under scrutiny. It will cost you dearly when they’re not.

Covering their meetings and the impact takes time, knowledge, ability, and courage. If you’re simply blogging in your spare time, you can be bullied or miss the follow-up phone calls. ‘Nuff said there. We’re facing a threat to ground-level democracy, OK? How many of us can really afford a lawyer?

Second, though, is the loss of local identity. I think most newspapers have fallen down here, failing to raise distinct columnists you just have to read first thing in the morning, but that’s not the only problem. How important is your neighborhood and the general area to you, anyway? Do you even know your neighbors?

A third problem involves the local economy. For one thing, there’s been a huge shift in local retailing, from mom-and-pop stores to the big-box intruders at the mall or Miracle Mile and then online, as in Amazon. The mom-and-pops are the lifeblood of newspaper revenue. Those glossy inserts pay next to diddly. And when’s the last time you saw anything from that monster Amazon or even Craig’s list, which is killing the classifieds?

The obvious shift would be from on-paper publication altogether to online presence only, but no newspapers have figured out how to manage this. It requires subscriber-paid content. Web users are way too used to getting everything for free.

By the way, I hope television and radio are not included in the assistance packages. Yes, they, too, are suffering loss of ad revenue and audience. Rotsaluck. Their news coverage, meanwhile,  often rips off a lot of newspaper stories and then act as if they actually had reporters there. Who will take up the slack? Again, rotsaluck.

Which leads me to one more thought. Sports radio. That once hot-in-the-ratings screaming format that pushed broadcasting from music to talk and then to professional, mostly, athletics – with regional loyalties and identity. What’s happening there, now that nobody’s playing?

Where are you getting your community news?

Coronavirus fuels a news storm unlike any other

The Covid-19 pandemic is an ongoing news story unlike any other we’ve seen.

Most news reports are about things that have happened – past tense – but this one is more a matter of watching things coming our way, threatening to happen in the near future.

Add in the two-week period between the time of infection and the appearance of symptoms, there’s even a sense of something ghostly in the air, a present tense that’s uncomfortably ethereal.

The closest similar coverage I can think of comes in sportswriting, as in anticipating an NFL game coming up, say, next Sunday. There, though, there are only two possible outcomes, it’s a limited time span, and a score will settle the matter.

The unhealthy emphasis on public opinion surveys regarding upcoming political elections might also fall into this future-tense focus, though we still see reports of candidate appearances and policy positions along with charges and countercharges.

With coronavirus, though, the scope spreads across many beats rather than something only on the sports desk or political reporter. It’s not just medical and health fields but also stock markets and economics,  education, transportation, technology, even lifestyles as well as sports and politics as we go into lockdown and shelter-in-place. Americans aren’t used to being confined anywhere, especially with their mate.

Well, we are also seeing potential major changes in the way we do many things in the years ahead. How much will online meetings catch on, for instance? Or what will happen to local retailing? It’s all fascinating.

~*~

There’s one other ongoing story that might emerge along these lines. Climate change.

Let’s see if experience with one leads to an increased interest in the other.

The shrinking newspaper page

Cost-cutters have long found ways to shrink the product to meet rising costs or boost the profit. As was said years ago, “It’s getting hard to find a nickel candy bar for a quarter anymore.” I hate to think what it costs now, much less in a vending machine.

Newspaper pages are no exception. The first jolt to tradition came back in the mid 1970s when there was a newsprint shortage. The Canadian suppliers, for whatever reason – a labor strike? – just didn’t have enough to meet demand. One solution was to narrow the width of the page.

In recent years, as the Internet has disrupted the business model of the news industry, the pace of cost-cutting has quickened.

The ones around here are now 11 inches wide, versus 15½ when I started in the business or one paper where I worked where the page was nearly 18 inches wide.

In other words, today’s broadsheet is as wide as a tabloid was back then, only longer. It’s lost two columns of news on each page – or a quarter of its surface. It’s so skinny I wince.

We never had enough room to print everything we wanted as it was.

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.