"Never ascribe to malice what stupidity will adequately explain."
Thanks, Lyz! I had real hopes for the Gazette for awhile. But when they let you go it was clear that the old days were back again. But as you both point out in this piece, great reporting with pointy elbows is good for subscriptions. Too bad management are such wimps.
I started out as a pre-digital age community news reporter too, so this rings some old frustrating bells. I remember having a seemingly innocuous story killed because it might displease a councilmember who also happened to take out massive Sunday ads for his three auto lots. Like it was 20 years ago and I'm still annoyed about it.
Can attest that local papers sucked ass well before the '90s. Were there exceptions, sure, and they were well-known, and that's where you went if you wanted to be a Real Journalist and work your way up through the farm league teams to (hats off, eyes heavenward, pls) the New York Times. What changed in the '80s was CNN and the 24-hour news cycle, and USA Today and color, which was the first real competition the sleepy locals had, and then there was a forest fire in the '90s, with the same wave of M&As that hit all publishing; companies that had nothing to do with publishing became "media corporations", hollowed out the city rooms, tried to be clever about advertising in the same cities and towns where the advertising staff had been working for decades and could tell you something about why revenues were what they were (and eventually fired them and replaced them with rapidly rotating casts of imports), and failed to figure out why circ was important for a long time. When they did, they tried a few things: for a while, news went away in favor of stories about Grandma turning 90 and local restaurant reviews; then they gave up, decided circ was too hard, and started replacing everything with syndicated content and lies for national advertisers. And then the internet arrived for real and it was all over, because any kid with a cellphone and/or a LJ blog and/or a local online radio station was a reporter and not infrequently a better reporter than what the papers had, and by 2000 or so NYT sucked too with that defensive asshole who liked his dinner party invitations too much and decided flagwaving about the Iraq war was a grand and obvious idea.
What did not help was the careerification of journalism at universities, where children and their parents started paying ungodly sums for journalism BAs. There weren't enough actual journalism jobs to sustain these university cash cows, so they ah pivoted to PR, rebranded as "communications", and for a solid 20 years if you went to J-school you were learning to be a well-groomed shill. Happily, that's been turning around in the last few years, which means that some of the freest and most serious reporting in the country is coming from college papers. Unfortunately, of course, these are also the least experienced reporters, which means it's easy to run them around and they move on as soon as they actually get their feet under them.
But yeah, there's a reason why this is the first time in...um...ever I've subscribed to local Iowa papers. (Maybe I subscribed to the P-C in the '90s? Zach's own blog is far better than the P-C is now, but it's intermittent.) They suck. And they intentionally hire people who can't do the job. I've mostly stopped shouting at Carol Hunter because it's clear she can't do the job and doesn't know what it is, which is something I didn't suspect for too long -- I mean I know the Reg is Gannett, but still, the Reg -- and then I went and had a look at her history, and...dude, I've written for bigger papers in places where more goes on. Of course she's not going after the most obvious stories like "Why is an incompetent child with a rich NoVa GOP lawyer daddy in charge of our state's public health?" Or any of the wealth of other stories that need reporting on.
Anyway. It's bad, but I think one can get a little excited about the Golden Age that didn't actually touch a lot of papers, even if it did employ a lot of journalists because you had morning, afternoon, and evening papers and something had to go in them and it couldn't all be school board meetings (though we did cover a shit ton of school board meetings exhaustively, and they often did get quite peppery). There's a reason I. F. Stone went off and did his own thing, and it wasn't just because he was a pain in the ass.
Great interview that has me re-thinking assumptions that I had about local news/internet. And you're so right about the sports thing. A prominent local sports reporter in this area not only ignores COVID stuff, but also promotes wild COVID conspiracy theories while trying to get sports parents to revolt against the local superintendent for moving classes and activities online. He's the most pro-covid local media guy that I've seen. There's a sports-right wing radio connection that I hadn't appreciated before.
This is why I dropped my subscription to the DM Register. I learned to read with the DMR! I’m 72 now, and I get my national news from on line. I’m not going to wait for the newspaper, and have a recycle bin full of news I’ve already read. I wanted to know what
was going on in Iowa! (The newspaper Iowa depends on, my sweet Fanny!)
And I didn’t want to read the same stories as in the Waterloo Courier (to which I also subscribed). And I was so sick and tired of trying to deal with the so-called “subscription department” of the DMR.
Steve Smith in Winthrop and John Klotzbach in Independence are doing their best, but they’re overwhelmed. John has to deal with corporate overlords who insist he tape the council meetings with his shitty phone, while the actual meeting is on a youTube channel! At least Oelwein has a few comics and an agony aunt.
Keep yelling back! The Correspondent just went belly up, so I’ll have a little more money this year to spend on independent journalism, as soon as I free up the money going to postcards for Georgia.
What's really wild is that I feel like these are mostly DIFFERENT problems than the ones that killed my former employer(s)! (Except the terribleness of circulation; that's a perpetual problem. Did you know that if you pay people almost nothing to work at a terrible job at an inconvenient time they don't always do a good job?)
The business model of local news hung its hat on business ads and classifieds long ago. It should only have been selling news. News is a public service and if people like the news generation of their local paper, they'll pay for it whether it's delivered or digital. I'm glad to see the emergence of the nonprofit model. It can't happen fast enough for many communities.
I was reading your public posts, but after reading this I dug out my credit card and subscribed. Soooo... I guess point made?
This is a really great interview — you've articulated things I've been trying to tease out for a while, especially pointing out things like shitting UX and crappy subscription desks.
Just want to say that when the Gazette canned you, I canned the Gazette.
Very thought-provoking in that I realized a pretty basic point that newspapers are becoming stale not so much because they're on paper but because they haven't allowed themselves to be what their customers need. They must be "newspapers!" that fight to maintain the old format even with new dressing or marketing while not exploring ways to provide people the content/info they need. And regurgitating national content that's easily found elsewhere doesn't help one iota.
Re: circulation, one thing that's often missed is about how hard newspapers make it to unsubscribe. It's one aspect that keeps me from subscribing in the first place. If newspapers made it easy to go back and forth from subscription to unsubscribed and back again, like many streaming services do, they would see more revenue. Common reasons a subscriber would have for needing this are personal cash flow, changing interests, and availability to read what is sent them (like I can't handle watching content on more than 2-3 streaming services at a time). If I can go in and out of Prime Video, Hulu, CBS All Access et al with ease, why can't I do this with any given newspaper?
I really appreciated this, Lyz! As someone who lives in the Shenandoah Valley (Virginia), the major newspapers here were founded and run for decades by the Byrd family. Yep, those Byrds. They published and ran the Winchester Star and Daily News-Record (Harrisonburg). The editorials and most syndicated op-eds were notoriously conservative (and of course racist), they ran folks like Pat Buchanan without hesitation. And it was always obvious that the white men in charge of the paper were friendly with the influential white men of the area. So the calls to subscribe to/invest in local journalism to hold power to account are really something in a context like that. The papers have been sold to other owners now, but the Harrisonburg paper remains right-wing and is also the only paper of record for Harrisonburg. It has never been published or printed on Sundays and still doesn't print on major holidays. Meanwhile, Staunton has the News Leader which is owned by Gannett/USA Today (or whatever the fuck they're calling it these days) and Charlottesville has the Daily Progress (currently being gutted by Lee Enterprises). It's all a mess. You can whitelist and subscribe and you're getting hit with dozens of ads and autoplay video just to try to read a single story. Currently I think the Staunton paper is doing good work with extremely minimal resources and few reporters but I wouldn't say the gazillion ads or garbage comments add to the experience, that's for sure.
Oh, this is SO VALIDATING as someone who started my career working at a small suburban Chicago paper!
also can't go back to work without this, sue me, I love it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0l5h8k9N9pI&feature=emb_logo