“We are all caught in the greatest upheaval our industry and
the institution of journalism has ever faced.” – Robert Rosenthal, managing
editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, upon tendering his resignation.
The above quote may sound histrionic, and in some ways it
is. Journalists are fanatical about exercising restraint in all things, unless
one of those “things” happens to be their own futures – or in this case, the
future of their profession.
Yet the cacophony emanating from America’s newsrooms is not that of
so many Chicken Littles fearing a blue sky, but rather seasoned, Pulitzer Prize
winning reporters and editors cursing storm clouds. Drenched, angry and tired,
the best and brightest pack their bags, fire off final e-mails of protest and
resignation, and walk out into a world as unfamiliar as it is uncertain.
They will find the streets crowded. Recent developments in
the decades-long death spiral of newspaper journalism include:
- Dozens of Los Angeles Times reporters filed their final stories this week, including Pulitzer winner Bob Sipchen and longtime satirist Roy Rivenburg, apparently proving that the Times’ new owners have neither sense nor a sense of humor.
- The S.F. Chronicle announced it will reduce its editorial staff by 25 percent.
- The San Jose Mercury News, which suffered layoffs last year, may be headed for another round.
The reasons, of course, are complicated and numerous, though
the most convenient come back to the dreaded Internet and America’s
short-attention span for any news not including the words “Hilton” or “DUI.”
But those strawmen don’t hold up very well in a world where demand for news is
greater than ever, and distribution is far faster, easier and less expensive
than pulping, printing and tossing outdated content onto driveways.
If today’s newspaper executives truly believed the Internet
was the future, then instead of laying off Pulitzer Prize winners they would be
moving their best reporters to focus on the Web. They would be investing more
in the newsroom and in hyper-local reporting, giving local readers content they
can’t find in a Google search.
No, media companies are not prescient, pragmatic or patient.
They are scared. The steady streams of layoffs prove it.
Is it Pollyanna to think that putting more money into
reporting, not less, can revive journalism in the Internet Age? Perhaps – but
it’s no worse than burning the trees to save the forest, which is what is
Giving up on newspapers is one thing – and for certain the
newspaper business must change. But the owners of the L.A. Times, S.F.
Chronicle and others are doing more than giving up on newspapers. By letting go
of experienced journalists, they are giving up on journalism itself.