Viewed from one perspective, this hasn’t been a good week for newspapers. My own employer was put up for sale, a token gesture by the corporate overlords who really just want to put the thing out of its misery. My previous employer, the Chicago Tribune, declared bankruptcy — days after laying off a dozen longtime editorial staffers, now “creditors,” who can expect their hard-earned severance as soon as their esteemed governor, Rod Blagojevich, admits guilt in all corruption charges levied against him yesterday, which is to say, when hell freezes over. The New York Times is having “cash flow” problems. The Miami Herald is up for sale. Everywhere you turn, the people who provide news are hard up.
And yet, this will be a great week for newspapers, especially newspapers in Chicago. Even with the axe hanging over their heads, journalists at both the Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times (who have convicted felon Conrad Black to blame for their troubles) rose to the occasion when the aforementioned governor was charged with political crimes that set a new low in political malfeasance — quite the feat in Illinois. (Even the dead people who cast ballots for the late Richard J. Daley of Chicago are spinning in their graves.) Both papers offered up-to-the-minute news and reactions online, both printed afternoon extras and I am sure both kept employees working late into the night so this morning editions’ could be replete with detail and analysis. Both papers may be losing money, but their journalistic fervor is in tact.
Newsroom employees make sport of complaining about “the suits upstairs,” but if newspapers are failing it isn’t because the newsrooms aren’t doing their jobs. Among the many accusations levied against Blagojevich is one concerning the Tribune. Angered by relentless news coverage and an unforgiving editorial board who rightly demanded more from their elected leader, the good governor, according to charges against him, sought to hold back help on the Tribune’s parent company as it made moves to sell the Chicago Cubs baseball team and its historic ballpark, Wrigley Field. Is there a better testament to work of the Tribune reporters and editors than that? Can we imagine what emboldened politicians and corrupt officials in Illinois and elsewhere might do without committed watchdogs on their trail? Can we, as citizens, afford to live without newspapers? Obviously no, and yet, such a future may yet come to be.
Many readers say they get their news from Yahoo or Google, but the last time I checked neither of those Internet sites employs journalists. Their “news” is merely an aggregation of links to content generated by other news organizations, most of them print publications. The newspaper may be dead, according to some small-thinking business soothsayers, but our need for news is not. It may be easy for newsroom people like me to blame “the suits” for their inability to sell what we work so hard to make the best product it can be. But faced with a difficult new business environment, they failed to answer the challenge, choosing simply to make the newsrooms do “more with less.” Now, having little left to cut, except their losses, they are giving up.
We in the newsrooms are still fighting. Yesterday, the Tribune and Sun-Times proved, once again, why the fight matters. To them, I say, thanks.