A new mantra for the next time Chicken Little crosses your path
I wrote this as an introduction to a presentation I was supposed to give last month to a gathering of assignment editors in Indianapolis. Unfortunately (or maybe not) I had to slash most of it because of time constraints. But I remembered it a couple days ago when the latest round of morbid newspaper circulation figures came out. So here it is, in full, including a new mantra for our times.
Funny, you don’t look like corpses.
If I believed everything I’d been reading about the hopelessness of our business, I would have stayed in Los Angeles. What’s the point of trying to get better at something that so many smart people say is irrelevant?
The right wing says we’re too biased. The left wing says we’re too passive. The boggers say we’re irrelevant. The stock analysts say we’re too “mature.”
From the New York Times, October 10: “The industry faces a wave of job cuts. . .New York Times, Hartford Courant, Boston Globe, San Jose Mercury News, Philadelphia Daily News Baltimore Sun, Newsday. . . Ad revenue is flat, costs are up and circulation is eroding. Beyond the industry’s economic woes, the future is clouded by the rapid expansion of the Internet, leaving newspapers in an identity crisis as they try to come to grips with fundamental changes in the industry and society that are significantly curbing their growth.”
Los Angeles Times, same day: “The buyouts and layoffs have dispirited many newspeople because they come at a time of steady declines in circulation and advertising.
“The falling morale sometimes is cast in vivid terms, as when Philadelphia Inquirer metropolitan columnist Tom Ferrick Jr. protested the 75 job cuts ordered by Knight-Ridder Inc., his paper’s corporate parent.
“‘They say Knight-Ridder doesn’t have a plan. Actually they do,'” Ferrick said in an interview. ‘They are going to jettison the old, shoot the young and … torture the survivors, which, come to think of it, seems to be an industrywide plan.'”
Most of the people who own newspapers have tried to focus-group or re-design themselves out of this mess. The idea that most people in most newsrooms are working at half of their intellectual potential. . . the idea that our papers are about half as interesting every day as they could be. . . the idea that that’s part of the solution is regarded as. . .so. . .quaint.
I don’t know about you but I’m tired of listening to our obituaries. I ACCEPT death: Everybody dies sometime. If newspapers are going to die, as most “smart” people seem to think, let’s go down swinging. Let’s go down like the Texans at the Alamo. Let’s publish the best, most interesting, most audacious stories we can, on our own terms. Let’s not be businessmen. Let’s be artists. Let’s put our art–the stories we love to write, edit and publish–on the market and see who buys it.
Let’s be all the things we love to read. Let’s astonish our audience. Let’s stop asking our readers what they want. Let’s remember, as Frank Capra, the great director, once said, that “the audience doesn’t know what it wants–until it sees it.”
Unless we want to change the questions we ask. Like: Would you subscribe to a paper that published one story every day that made you think about something you never thought about before? (Later thought: Like the New York Times’ lead Science page story Nov. 8 about the vast difference in the amount of time different animals sleep, and what it might mean to humans.) Or gave you something to talk about with your wife or husband over dinner? Or was so riveting it made you 10 minutes late for work?
Nothing I am going to say to you today or tomorrow has anything to do with the “survival” of newspapers. It has to do with: Can you, as an editor, be better tomorrow than you are today? Can you figure out a way to use the best part of yourself a little more often with each interaction with each of your reporters, so that the best part of you touches the best part of him or her a little more often? There’s no instructional manual or tip sheet or research-driven findings about how to do that because only you know that individual reporter, and only you know YOU–your personality, your hopes and fears, your inhibitions, your gifts.
I was trying to explain to somebody recently how frustrating it had been to think about writing a book on line editing: It’s so personality-driven. Most of the time when I was a line editor I approached my job as if I were a social worker and my job was to make my “clients” feel like they couldn’t wait to get up in the morning and come to work every day. But that was just a personal idiosyncrasy, a trick, since most of the years I was an editor I really wanted to go back to reporting. You ask a dozen good editors about how they do their jobs, you get a dozen different metaphors.
Today and tomorrow, don’t worry about the fate of the industry. You can’t change that. Think about, instead, a Bill Murray summer-camp movie called “Meatballs,” in which he was counseling a group of boys who were going to compete against another, far more privileged camp. The night before, Murray’s character gives the kids a pep talk:
“Even if we play so far above our heads that our noses bleed for a week to 10 days; even if God in Heaven above points his hand at our side of the field; even if every man, woman and child joined hands together and prayed for us to win, it just wouldn’t MATTER because all the really good-looking girls would still go out with the guys from Mohawk because they’ve got all the money! It just doesn’t MATTER if we win or if we lose. It just doesn’t MATTER.”
In the same vein, it doesn’t matter if our newspapers make 15% profit or 30% profit. It doesn’t matter what Wall Street says. It doesn’t matter if circulation goes up or down. All that matters is, like the Texans at the Alamo, you fight as hard as you can as long as you can. All that matters is: What did you to do today to get better? What did you learn? What did you teach? What did you promise yourself you’d do better next time? There is vastly more honor in answering those questions than in trying to convert an institution steeped in unpredictable magic into a “successful” consumer product.