Blame to spare, but what’s the problem?

Guest Opinion by Thomas Brent Andrews:

This originally ran in the In Spokane, Wash.’s Spokesman-Review July 6 edition. It ran in response to a an article about newspapers that we plan to run next week with the blessing of the Spokesman-Review.

In the late 1990s I went to my editor with a copy of the day’s newspaper and pointed to the blue “f” occupying prime real estate at the bottom of the front page.
“What did Facebook pay for this ad?” I asked, and he laughed.
I said, “Seriously, we would not give this space to the best advertiser we have – no car dealer, no Realtor, no other merchant who has paid our bills for a generation could get this spot for free. Facebook needs to pay for this ad.”
He laughed again, as if, and said, “We have to be a part of this to stay relevant.”
I was a reporter elbowing into the business of the paper because I wanted more money, a little bit of a raise over the $13 an hour I was making at the time. My paper route was a disaster (sorry folks!). I could not do journalism and another job too.
But there was not enough money to pay more for my work. Maybe it wasn’t good enough. But that’s not what my editor said. He said I was already making more money than most of the other reporters, and “I wish I could give everyone a raise” but he just could not do it.
Meanwhile we were shoveling money into the basement server room, giving away prime ad space to a huge corporation just to be associated with it (and boy would that get worse!), and sticking to our usual story lines – school boards, city councils, the same dozen people quoted in every issue.
Online, at what some of us did not yet see as the “competition,” people were experiencing the exhilarating thrill of unfiltered free speech, talking about sex and drugs and religion, and about how we were being cheated by those in power.
What a couple of decades it has been, as publishers poured resources into the internet and editors beefed up their social media presence pushing readers online, spending millions on computers, from one office; and giving away the conversation we once owned, from another.
Newspapers have not been able to give enough free publicity to the dot-coms that have been their undoing: The Craigslist stories would fill volumes, the Amazon stories even more, and it seems nobody can say anything on Twitter without getting quoted in the newspaper these days, all the better of an opportunity to run that cute little logo again!
Today I look at the scarce jobs in journalism (once a newspaperman, always a newspaperman) and occasionally fire off a resume. I ask for a decent wage, because I am not going to be the lowest-paid person at the city council meeting, and work as hard as I did as a journalist, ever again. I am willing to take a pay cut of about half what I make in financial services writing.
Often, and sadly, I see job offers for “social media first” reporters who take the stories gathered on the newspaper’s dime and give them directly to the internet giants, before viewers of their own websites – and, obviously, their paper products.
The thinking seems to be, social-media-first reporting gets the story out there, and one day, if we don’t kill the newspaper first, a few cents on every dollar will come back to it.
This, with all the information we now have about how toxic these social media environments are, threatening and abusive and generating intense unhappiness in young people, especially our teenage daughters. Turns out, we needed those editors after all.
When will newspapers stop spending resources on, and driving their readers to, these toxic internet environments?
A hundred inches of stories about the collapsing newspaper industry – a calamity for sure – lays plenty of blame around, and shifts the responsibility for fixing the mess onto readers and the government.
It even offers a “bullish” assessment of the future of the industry, in spite of the shocking charts accompanying the stories: a case of ‘whistling past the cemetery’ if I ever saw one.
But never once do I hear a ‘mea culpa.’
Kudos to The Spokesman-Review for taking a deep dive into the steep decline of newspapers (“The state of newspapers,” June 12). It’s just what I’d expect from a paper I hope survives another 100 years.
However, there is a huge blind spot: The newspaper industry did this to itself. That is, a mountain of cash was frittered away on shiny things rather than reporters, and readers were pushed off to spend their money and have their conversations at the dot-coms.
Before we can solve the problem, we must identify it.
The industry can still save itself.
That would be far better than the solutions outlined in the stories. Government intervention invites regulation that will tie the hands of future journalists.
Thomas Brent Andrews was editor of his college newspaper, Sidelines, then a beat reporter for The Lebanon Democrat, The Review-Appeal, and The Brentwood Journal – all in Tennessee – and the Coeur d’Alene Press between 1994 and 2001.