“I feel like heads would roll in copyediting.”
That’s my partner-in-Scouting, Brooke Black Just-Olesen, as she eyeballs a metal plate laid out with intricately arranged tiny little letters, numbers, and blanks, used to create one single page of the Los Angeles Times. Well – formerly used to create one single page of the Los Angeles Times; as we all know, everything’s digital now.
You feel like a real jerkwad sitting in front of someone, demanding, “Hey – so why is your job relevant?” but that’s what I spent last week doing in the name of Scouting, asking Eric Danton (RollingStone.com, Wall Street Journal, Salon), Hillel Aron (L.A. Weekly, LA School Report), Whitney Pastorek (Entertainment Weekly, New York Times, Village Voice), and Todd Martens (Los Angeles Times) what it’s like to work as a journalist at a time when the print format is quickly losing ground.
Luckily, nobody punched me.
Also, nobody really disagreed that the role and importance of print media – especially daily and weekly newspapers – is rapidly changing. As with the music industry, the newsies are scrambling to navigate a rapidly evolving digital landscape where people want immediate satisfaction, and they want it yesterday.
If anyone knows this story well, it’s the folks on the frontlines like Todd Martens, the only one in this bunch who still punches the timeclock in a traditional newsroom. He started at the Los Angeles Times as an intern in 2002, moving into music and video game reporting in the years following, and the guy seems to really love his job – he has a desk overflowing with all manner of music, books, games, and ephemera, and there’s an entire man-cave (“Todd’s Clubhouse,” by the sign on the door) dedicated to the art of video game reviewing.
We meet him at a side entrance to the paper, and once we walk into the main lobby, there’s a bit of excited cooing at the linotype machine and a shared appreciation for the front page embellishment that adorned newspapers past. “We used to print the circulation at the top,” Martens offers while I marvel at a framed front page screaming ON THE MOON! “But not anymore,” he shrugs. “You know…”
Although the Times has one of the largest circulations of daily papers in the United States, its subscription base is decidedly smaller than it used to be – and with fewer eyeballs on the paper, there is less advertising money coming in. Earlier this year, Hillel Aron wrote an insightful piece for the L.A. Weekly about this very subject. While we sat down for a quick bite at a local taco joint, he talked a bit about the economics of newspapers, noting that “ad revenue is going down five to ten percent every year,” with the usually ad-slathered weeklies suffering the most.
Skipping hand in hand with lowered circulation and decreased ad revenue are increased layoffs. It seems no corner of the landscape is unscathed – from daily newspapers to glossy magazines, desks are emptying at an alarming rate. During our tour of the Times, for instance, Todd walks us through two whole floors that are nearly completely deserted. One, formerly host to a restaurant and fancy event space, is now used mostly for film and television shoots (Moneyball, Dreamgirls, Fringe) and the other is now half-occupied with renters.
The subject of layoffs also comes up while talking to Whitney Pastorek, who started as a journalist back in 2002, via an impressively finangled NPR interview with the White Stripes. With help from contacts gleaned during time spent within the McSweeney’s inner circle, she parlayed that one-off radio gig in a freelance career, and is probably best known for her work with Entertainment Weekly. Now, however, she writes almost exclusively for FastCompany – joined by many of her former EW buddies.
“Time Inc. went through so many layoffs while I was there – like, half the staff getting slashed – and everybody had to end up somewhere. Our old Editor-In-Chief is now the Executive Editor at FastCompany, so as people have gotten picked off at EW, some of them have ended up there. I’m only occasionally a freelancer now — I switched to the artist side about three years ago, and I do some infrequent publicity, too. But I’m always super thankful for the EW refugee network, in both roles.”
If you were to look at all of this fiscal crisis and nonstop unemployment, you might be forgiven for thinking the whole print party train is headed down the crapper. But here’s the thing – the news is still here. It’s not going anywhere – it’s just changing.
Eric Danton knows this very, very well. After a decade spent helming the music beat for the Hartford Courant, he took a buyout from the paper (there’s that downsizing again!) and settled into a freelance career as a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal, RollingStone.com, and others. “I was rock critic for 10 years, but was at the Courant for 14. And when I started there, there were no blogs, no social media and the paper barely had a web presence. Back then, there was still an actual news cycle, as opposed to the NOWNOWNOW mentality that has sort of taken over everything… It’s report first, get it right later, which is maddening.”
I tell him about an article I saw posted on Aron’s Twitter feed about a mysterious pooping jogger, and wonder whether the definition of “news” has become skewed in the modern age.
“The problem with having an endless news cycle is that the media have to find content to fill it. Thus, pooping joggers or Kardashians or whatever. Ultimately, it leads to a sort of dull roar that can make it hard to discern what’s important. But the truth is, that sort of ‘reporting’ gets a lot more traffic than think-y pieces on poverty or race or any of the other REAL issues.”
Aron has mixed feelings on this. “I dislike the news snobbery – oh, an election is news, but a politician having an affair – that’s not news?” I call him out on the pooping jogger tweet. “Why is she doing it? Why on the same lawn every time? Is there a backstory there? Something is news if it’s interesting, and I think it’s interesting!” But he does agree with Danton’s assertion that more serious stories are being overlooked, especially considering his main beat is the intersection of education and politics in Los Angeles. “I find it incredibly exciting – but no one reads it!”
But Aron is anything but a doomsday prophet. He points to a quote by Mick Jagger, from an interview with the BBC:
People only made money out of records for a very, very small time. When The Rolling Stones started out, we didn’t make any money out of records because record companies wouldn’t pay you! They didn’t pay anyone! Then, there was a small period from 1970 to 1997, where people did get paid, and they got paid very handsomely and everyone made money. But now that period has gone.
It speaks to the flawed idea of art-as-vehicle-for-profit – in reality, it’s a state of constant flux; heydays come and go, profits wax and wane, evolution is inevitable.
Says Aron, “Once newspapers can say, ‘We’re not gonna print anymore,’ they’ll save costs,” because most of their overhead is in the actual printing process. “You can imagine a future when it’s all online and the majority of a newspaper’s costs are going right to the reporters.” He pauses between taco bites. “We’ll be reading all of our news on-screen, and children will ask what the fuss was all about!”
What is all the fuss about, really? Well, in concrete terms, it’s about job loss – there’s no way around that grim fact – and about the dissolution of a once-iconic mode of reporting and consuming information.
But in theoretical terms, news is ephemeral. As Aron pointed out, it’s what interests people, whether that comes in the form of defecating joggers, indie rock album reviews, Fortune 500 profiles, Kardashian gossip, or hard-hitting thinkpieces on education reform. Although it may not look the same as it did in 1947, the year our trusty Girl Scout handbook was written – or even ten years ago, for that matter – journalism, as an artform, a method of sharing information, a tool for expressing opinion, a vehicle for protest, a means of entertainment, is woven into the American fabric as tightly as it’s ever been.
So get a newspaper while you can. Shell out for a great magazine. But also read blogs. Follow Twitter accounts. Subscribe to online news outlets. And most of all – stay hungry, because it’s the unending curiosity of the human mind that fuels the very existence of journalism itself.
This absurdly long piece is a combo of several ideas I had, and it knocks out badge requirements #3: “Know the basic principles of writing a news story. Write one based on local events or troop activities,” and #6: “Write a feature story or article on some subject appropriate to your paper.” BADGE COMPLETE!!!
Many thanks to Eric, Hillel, Whitney, and Todd for their time and insights – and in Todd’s case, for schlepping us around the Times building, which made for a seriously fascinating afternoon (also knocking out badge requirement #1: “Visit a newspaper office and observe the various departments. Learn how news is gathered, including international news, and how newspapers are made.”)
All uncredited photographs are by Shawnté Salabert