KITCHENER — They say timing is everything.
It was certainly fortuitous timing June 24 when THEMUSEUM hosted a Weenie — or is it Wienie? — Roast for me in acknowledgment of my early retirement from the Waterloo Region Record.
I was entering my 30th year at The Record, comprising three-quarters of my four decades at six newspapers across Ontario. On the cusp of my 64th birthday, I was ready to accept an offer I couldn’t refuse.
As fate would have it, the Roast was held on the same floor as one of the downtown Kitchener museum’s summer exhibitions — Dinosaurs: Edge of Extinction.
More than a few of my colleagues in attendance — reporters, editors and photographers, both employed and retired — equated the exhibition with the state of journalism in North America.
Daily newspaper journalism, as it has been known and practiced since the European settlement of North America, is on the verge of extinction. For various reasons, the situation is not as dire in Europe.
I will not presume to speak for my colleagues, past or present. But I certainly felt like a dinosaur during my final years of covering arts and entertainment for a daily newspaper. And I’m deeply grateful for the opportunity to abandon journalism before journalism completely abandoned me (to paraphrase a former colleague).
I would now like to offer a few rambling thoughts and observations about what led to the Jurassic World of Daily Newspapers.
Although based in large part on my personal experience, I will outline trends and draw conclusions that apply equally to newspapers across this mighty continent. I was a union chairman for 25 years, which enabled me to become acquainted with the many newspapers represented by the Southern Ontario Newspaper Guild, as the local evolved from The Newspaper Guild, through CEP to, most recently, Unifor.
Let’s start with how newspapers downsize in a struggle to reduce operating costs as revenues plummet. Although conventional layoffs still take place, staff reductions within the industry routinely occur through buyouts.
Discretionary buyouts allow newspapers to downsize because employees are granted enhanced packages based on not being replaced.
This is positive in that it allows employees to choose to leave — at management’s discretion — with more money than they would receive through layoff severance. Conversely, the practice allows younger employees to keep their jobs instead of being forced out in order of reverse seniority.
But there is a downside to buyouts. Senior journalists, with experience, mature skills and deep connections to the community, leave in their prime. This creates a talent vacuum that cannot always be filled by journalists still learning their craft.
Since buyouts appear less painful than layoffs, it obscures the fact that newsrooms especially are becoming dangerously small. Fewer journalists are gathering and processing news. The more-with-less approach to journalism inevitably means the newspaper covers proportionately less of its community, serving its advertisers and readers less effectively.
Paradoxically, downsizing of newspapers is occurring as the communities they serve are expanding. This is certainly true of the arts in Waterloo Region.
The fight to become more efficient usually leads to the Road Most Traveled — contracting out to people who work for less wages and usually no paid benefits. This includes printing and copyediting centralized outside of the community in which the host newspaper is based, classified call centres located in the U.S. and retail ads being processed offshore in places like India.
Newspaper executives insist quality is not compromised, but we all know — journalists, advertising salespeople, circulation and production employees alike — that the self-righteous propaganda is false.
Daily newspapers are constantly blaming others for the slippery, slimy slope they are sliding down toward inconsequentiality and irrelevancy. It’s our busy lives, competing interests, competing media, younger demographic and, especially, that pernicious, bloody Internet, that are the nasty culprits. Fact is, newspapers have no one but themselves to blame.
Newspapers were caught with their pants down when the World Wide Web pirated classified ad revenues and much of everything else. Instead of hiring young, computer graphics visionaries and whiz-kid web designers, newspapers promoted from within, transforming photographers, photo technicians and copyeditors into self-appointed online web experts. Look at newspaper websites; they are nothing but digitalized newspaper pages. Who wants to read online what people are turning away from in print? The big news in the industry is going down the Tablet Highway — just as the technology is rapidly being replaced by newer, hand-held devices. Talk about sucking the hind gigabyte!
A recent trend in journalism, developed in the U.S. but widely accepted at all but a fistful of newspapers in Canada, is the ‘good enough’ philosophy. The idea driving this pernicious labour- and cost-saving notion is that, following the lead of such social media fashions as FaceBook and Twitter, newspapers are no longer committed to professional quality.
So we have reporters taking photographs and shooting videos on their cellphones, in addition to writing stories. Even worse, we have more news gathering done by poorly paid freelancers and, most despicable of all, work-for-free, non-professionals under the guise of ‘neighbourhood news gathering’.
Similarly, we have advertising salespeople selling multiple products on a variety of platforms (newspaper, magazine, specialty and target-readership publications, not to mention online) — sometimes serving as ferocious competitors in the same market.
There was a time when print publications constituted a newspaper’s core products. Now we have newspapers operating trade shows and becoming active participants in a variety of community campaigns and initiatives. The Fourth Estate has degenerated into Real Estate, metaphorically speaking.
If this sounds like a rant, it is fuelled by a deep sadness that we are witnessing the extinction of daily newspaper journalism. I regret that young, talented journalists will not be given the same opportunity I was given to hone my skills in an honourable profession, with a decent wage, paid benefits and a real pension rather than a questionable RRSP plan.
I believed it was a privilege to write about arts and entertainment. It was an honour to serve artists who enriched and enlarged the communities in which I lived and raised a family.
As journalists retire through buyouts on condition that they are not replaced, newspapers lose their distinct voices, becoming more homogeneous, pasteurized, monotonous and monolithic.
I’m not advocating a return to the good, old days, when any reporter worthy of the name kept a bottle of vodka stashed in his (or her) desk drawer. Rather I’m expressing my apprehensions about the future of daily newspaper journalism.
If this makes me a hypocrite, so be it. I got out in the nick of time.