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The Old Gray Mares…they ain’t what they used to be

Posted by doatmon on March 3, 2009

I think I speak for everyone in America when I say that there are two institutions, two images that define this country.  The New York Times and the creepy old dude in the Simpsons who shuffles along singing “The old gray mare, she ain’t what she used to be…”

Okay, maybe not so much the second one…but I know I can’t get it out of my head.  And it went nicely with the “Old Gray Lady” nickname of the Times so work with me people.

Thomas Jefferson’s concept of the fourth estate…the Hearst family…Horace Greeley…Joseph Pulitzer…Yellow Journalism…Muckrakers…Woodward and Bernstein…

It is almost impossible to extricate the history of this country from the history of its journalists and its journalistic institutions.  I am admittedly “old school” when it comes to many things, but I don’t think I stand alone in my reverence for the integrity and the nostalgia of the newspaper.

That said, I am not blind to the faults of the broadsheet gray newsprint.  Agenda-setting, politically motivated coverage, the blurring of the lines between the business and the editorial sides of the newspaper, “ambulance-chasing” reporting and an arrogance and erroneous sense of immortality have tarnished the image of the nation’s dailies.

But there is an important distinction between the administrators of the papers and the journalists who fill the pages with events and news critical to our daily lives.  The journalists are not the ones who have had their heads in the sand as to the evolution of news.  The journalists are not the ones who have stubbornly refused to share assets and arrogantly ignored the explosion of internet media and the influence available to columnists on PED’s (bloggers).

The journalists are the ones who ignore the financial realities of life in the 21st century and work for salaries commensurate with streetsweepers.  The journalists are the ones who are forced off of their “beats” to mundane desk jobs for the “good of the paper” … or the good of the bosom buddies of the powers that be.  The journalists are the ones forced to bend and manipulate their own sense of ethics to provide the stories requested demanded by their editors.

And as a result, when the house of cards comes tumbling down and the lack of revenue becomes insurmountable, it is the journalists who pay the ultimate price with their jobs.  This happened in my hometown this week with our local paper laying off 25% of its editorial staff.  And by editorial staff, I don’t mean managing editors.  Or even section editors.  I mean reporters.  The people who actually provide the information we need.  In many cases, it was the people who provide the only information I still read the local paper for.  The local news.

The high school sports staff.  The local business and business development staff.  The local arts staff.  Sure.  Let’s send them packing.  And explain the lay-offs as a move toward more local coverage.  Wait, what?  Let me think this through.  Nope.  Still doesn’t make sense.

I am not going to wax philosophical on the direction newspapers SHOULD be going.  I’ll save that for another rant.  But I can easily tell you what they SHOULDN’T be doing and that’s exactly what they did this week.  It is a disgrace.   It is a disservice to a newspaper’s readership.  And it is a bastardization of the history and tradition that SHOULD have been the wards and the responsibility of the newspaper leadership.

Contrary to the words of wisdom of one of the people who DIDN’T lost their job this week, this is not a “phase.”  Newspapers are not dying.  They’re dead.  And while I mourn the loss of an industry and an institution, it is those the industry let down for whom I truly grieve.

They deserved so much better.  And so do we.

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