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Vanishing ink

I can’t remember how young I was when I fell in love with my local newspaper. It started with a comic strip: Mandrake the Magician. I would wait on our front porch for the newspaper boy, spread the paper on the floor and read Mandrake on my hands and knees. As I grew older, my interest expanded to different sections of the paper. By the time I reached high school, I was reading it from front to back. I loved it.

I never left my hometown, and after studying journalism in college, I began working as a reporter at a tiny daily newspaper about 20 miles away. Four years later, I landed at my hometown paper, where I worked my way from general assignment reporter to managing editor. After 20 years, I left to teach in the journalism school at the nearby university.

I left because when I started, a local family owned the paper. They sold it, and the new corporate owners sold it after just a couple of years. I left because the latest owners referred to the newspaper as “product” while at the same time slashing the staff. The frustration of having to do more with less turned me into a heart attack waiting to happen. Fortunately, I was blessed with the opportunity to teach.

But I still consider myself to be a journalist, so I go through the paper each day with an editor’s eye. I read public affairs reporting—say, a story about a school board meeting—and find it is often little more than stenography. Stories aren’t reported in detail or followed up because reporters are required to file two bylined stories a day. That’s how assembly lines are run. It’s not how to manage a newsroom.

The demand for bylines results in shallow stories that are quick to report and easy to write. Reporters don’t have time to dig into a story that might take days or weeks to report and write. People will read those stories, though. They will talk about them. Readers care about content, and even in an era when newspapers are vanishing, an era when readers get their news in pixels and not in ink, content still is all that matters. Fewer reporters = less content = fewer readers/page views = fewer advertisers = declining revenue. The equation is unassailable. But too many newspaper owners think raising the price of the paper and cutting the staff is the way to increased profits. Charging more for less is no way to sell a “product.”

I know nearly all of the reporters at the newspaper. They do their best under tough circumstances and barely have time to do it. But because no one is from my hometown, the sense of local history has vanished. For example, every Saturday the paper runs an old-time local photograph submitted by readers. One week it showed a railroad crew standing in front of a steam locomotive. The information beneath the photo said the crew and locomotive were part of the “Penny” railroad. Local natives know “Penny” was shorthand for the Pennsylvania Railroad, but Penny was what was written on the back of the photograph, so that’s what the paper printed. Longtime readers know better. They shake their heads. They scoff. The paper’s value to them diminishes.

As a teacher/journalist, I like to think that if I still were on the copy desk, I would catch those mistakes—like the line in a page 1 story saying a new local law would go into effect in May of 2105. I sent a former colleague an email saying I didn’t realize our local legislators were such visionaries. His response was that I can laugh now, but I’ll feel different about it in 91 years.

Ever since the newspaper became a “product,” though, I haven’t been able to stop thinking that my local daily newspaper won’t survive nearly that long.


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Feb. 27th, 2014 02:41 am (UTC)
Rich, never lose sight of the fact that you do a fantastic job under difficult circumstances. Never forget that. They're lucky to have a journalist of your caliber on their staff.
Feb. 27th, 2014 01:19 am (UTC)
Great post, love the back history you give us - I can see you there, reading the comics.

It sounds like they've reduced staff to less than a skeletal crew; what a shame. I think our little local papers, The Amherst Bee and the others in the Bee family, do a really good job of reporting the local news and being present and connected in the communities they serve. Dave Sherman does, in my opinion, a great job in Amherst.

I know The Buffalo News has made a lot of cuts over the years, and critics bemoan the fact that we're a one-newspaper town which gives the News a lot of power, but there are still some good investigative pieces that come out of that newsroom. It's the little things - the typos, misprints, punctuation errors - that are maddening.
Feb. 27th, 2014 02:56 am (UTC)
I'm impressed with the Bee group. They are good suburban weeklies. If I were running the OTH, I'd turn it into a free weekly and deliver it to every home in Olean, Allegany, Portville and Hinsdale and all points in between. The loss of circulation revenue would be more than offset by the increase in advertising. After all, if you were an advertiser, wouldn't you want to be part of such a paper?

I think the OTH's legs could be taken right out from under it by a properly run web newspaper. Who knows? In a couple of years—say, May of 2016—maybe somebody will give it a try.
Feb. 27th, 2014 03:47 am (UTC)
Even though the Bees can be picked up for free at grocery stores, drug stores, etc. they also sell subscriptions, and we're paid subscribers. It gets delivered via the mail to our home every week. That also gives us access to the online version as well as some classified ad deals. It just seems like the right thing to do.

Wouldn't THAT be an exciting venture for somebody to try. Especially someone with experience and access to a journalistic talent pool. Stay tuned...
Feb. 27th, 2014 04:40 am (UTC)
So it's a mix of free/paid? I didn't know that.

I know Dave Sherman, too, and the next time I talk to him, I'll ask him about it. If he can tell advertisers that all of the free-access papers get picked up while X number of subscribers also pay to get it by mail, it might be an even more attractive ad buy.

Feb. 27th, 2014 05:16 am (UTC)
PJV, remind me to tell you a horror story I heard today re: our newspaper alma mater. I think you saw the beginning of the story, but I heard another piece today which is too believable and too frustrating.

I loved your story of how you came to newspapers -- I can't remember as clearly what first attracted my eye, but I suspect it might have been that my dad read the paper (the Erie or Buffalo paper) every night as long as I can remember. Much later, he told me his family always had newspapers, as long as he could remember, even during the Depression.

I wonder how many of today's kids will be able to have anything even close to those kinds of memories, even if the "paper" they read is online.
Feb. 27th, 2014 04:33 pm (UTC)
I'm curious to hear more about The Story.

Online delivery systems for news can provide much more information day to day than ink on paper, but I'm guessing today's budding news consumers can't relate to an online news site the way they relate to a newspaper. There's something about holding the actual paper in your hands that can't be duplicated if the only thing being handled is a computer keyboard.
Feb. 27th, 2014 01:48 pm (UTC)
You craft a lovely story - thanks for setting it up with the comics. I look at my kid - if he reads a comic it is on-line (oatmeal, xkcd), so he never had that same physical, tactile relationship with the entry point you describe.

Here is an example of our local hometown news source - http://myedmondsnews.com/ The editor is well liked in the community and she seems to gather a fair amount of the local information. It is but a gathering of information - press releases, chamber of commerce events, anyone with a camera and advertising from just about everyone in town.

It is aesthetically hard to read that home page - but as you say advertisers bring the survival dollars. We do have a print local in little boxes downtown - I just don't go into the downtown that often and after a day or so the boxes are empty. I gave up on it too when it stared to read like inside baseball. If you weren't at the event you'd never understand what happened from the reporting.

We have a community college newspaper that one of my students edits. The students do real reporting - it is very exciting.

Feb. 27th, 2014 04:22 pm (UTC)
You're right: the myedmondsnews site is difficult to work through, but the content looks good, at least on first glance.

Some of the best times in my career involved working as a student on the college paper where I went to school. I had the opportunity to visit the newsroom there about three years ago, and it was very nearly the same as it had been 35 years ago. The place had a lot of personal gravity for me: It just felt like I still belonged there.
Feb. 28th, 2014 06:15 pm (UTC)
I had a long conversation with my publisher about this very issue, earlier this week. I'm always telling my reporters to dig deeper, go further, think harder. Some do. Some don't. You're right; it's all about that balance between what people want to read and how to sell "the product." But as I told my boss, I didn't fall in love with a product. I fell in love with the chance to tell stories, good stories, memorable stories. And that's what I try to fill my paper with. I think, for what we've got, we do a damn good job, sometimes. But I hate that qualifier. That's what keeps me up at night, after the paper's in bed: How to work with and past that qualifier and put out stories I'm proud to put my name on.
Mar. 1st, 2014 04:31 am (UTC)
The ink's in your blood, Lizz. And it burns. It always burns. Good journalists never are satisfied. They think they could have done more, could have done better, etc.

But I have a feeling that if you and I were to examine, say, two dozen of your stories, I would think more of them are good than you would.

Mar. 2nd, 2014 01:54 am (UTC)
1962. I started delivering the OIH with my best friend, Tom, Tom was 10 and I was 8. The route had 101 papers and we broke it in half and met at the top of Spring Street where his house was. That's when I started reading the paper. Like you I spread the paper out on the floor and started from the back page, then it was the Op-Ed page. I started there because Gil Stinger my neighbor wrote a column called Generally Speaking which would often touch on issues in the city and sometimes our neighborhood. On to the funnies and the sports page I happily r. As I grew older reading the newspaper became a progressive and enlightening habit. To this day, I want a newspaper in my hands. At 8 I remember when the paper came at 2 in the afternoon. In the summers and Saturdays afternoons I still remember the smell of newsprint and the stained hands I would get from counting and folding each paper. I remember days when the circulation manager would call if he got a complaint from a customer. Tom and i hardly ever made a mistake after the first on we had. The pride we took for making sure that the customer had it in the right place before 5 pm was our goal. Back in the 60's the OTH was a fairly good sized edition and the mix of national, state, and local news made it that way.. To use the jargon of one of the owners.....IT WAS A GOOD PRODUCT! Today I have some contact with the small but hard working staff that struggles to do their best to bring us the news. Instead of mocking the staff at the OTH, we should validate them for their perseverance to bring Olean the news. Sadly, the struggles go all the way to the circulation where a man in a car drives through the neighborhood throwing the paper in the general vicinity of the house in any type of weather . Man, would my circulation manager have kicked my ass. Holiday
Mar. 2nd, 2014 09:45 pm (UTC)
I believe your circulation manager's name was Ed Lynch.

Gil put me in his "Generally speaking" column shortly after I got my own paper route. The Red Cross office used to be on West State between 11th and 12th. The guy who ran the office was named Sid Sands. Sid asked me what had happened to the old carrier, Jerry LaFredo. I answered, "He took an early retirement." Gil put that exchange in his column. I used to read his column, too, and you can imagine my surprise when I saw that item.
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