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American Journalism Review
"Newspapers Are Living Entities"  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    FROM THE EDITOR    
From AJR,   May 1996

"Newspapers Are Living Entities"   

What do you do when yours dies? And can Poynter help keep the survivors healthy?

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


Newspaper people have never thought about their jobs as, well, jobs. Being a newspaper reporter was something special, a chance to do good work and have a good time while doing it. Of course people often gravitated elsewhere, perhaps to make more money in public relations. But for the hardcore, leaving the newsroom was unthinkable.

Working for a newspaper isn't just what you do. It's who you are.

But what happens when your newspaper disappears?

It's not a pleasant thought. But when you're in the midst of a bitter newspaper war, it's not a crazy thought.

Rocky Mountain News reporter Fawn Germer, whose paper is locked in combat with the Denver Post (see "Showdown in the Rockies," October 1995), thought she'd better check it out.

She decided to track down people who were working for the Dallas Times Herald when it went out of business in December 1991. What had that heartbreaking event done to their lives? What were they doing now? The result is her compelling piece "Starting Over" (page 16).

"When you're in a newspaper war it's clear that there will be one winner and one loser, that it will either be me or my friend across the street who gets it," she says.

Germer, 35, has been doing newspaper work since she was 15. "It's the only thing I ever wanted to do," she says. "There was never anything else." But in an era of belt-tightening and layoffs, she worries that she might not be able to do it forever. "The old sense of security I had when I started out in this business, I don't think that's there for anybody," she says.

Germer's reporting uncovered plenty of pain and loss, but also some pleasant surprises. She had figured that many Times Herald staffers would never find another newspaper job. Instead, she found some who were doing better in the field than they had before.

She also emerged with the distinct impression that individual effort played a big role in determining fate: Those who developed a strategy, who treated their post-Times Herald search as a full time job or as an investigative project, landed more quickly than others who were less focused.

Germer's piece underscores one of the factors that makes the field seem so special: how much a newspaper can mean to its workers. They may whine and complain – hell, they will whine and complain – but there can be an intensity and a devotion that's hard to match.

As Times Herald survivor Lisa Hoffman, now with Scripps Howard, told Germer, "Newspapers are living entities. Everyone who has ever worked at one leaves something behind and takes something of the paper with them. Newspapers really are alive. And when one goes down it is like a murder or a horrible, horrible death."

After finishing her reporting, Germer finds herself haunted by "the clash between those who think we have a mission and those who ascended higher and realize this is a business. That's heartbreaking, to find out it's a dollars-and-cents thing. The people I interviewed are still in pain, coping with that reality. Everyone's struggling with it."

Count Jim Naughton squarely on the side of those who think newspapers have a mission. And as the new president of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, he hopes to help push the pendulum back in that direction.

A onetime New York Times Washington correspondent, Naughton spent nearly two decades in major editing positions at the Philadelphia Inquirer before taking a buyout late last year. A top lieutenant of Executive Editor Gene Roberts, Naughton played a major role in one of the great success stories in recent American journalism.

What does Naughton, 57, hope to accomplish in his new role? "It seems that the newspaper industry has lost confidence in storytelling," he says. "It's my hope that Poynter can help reignite enthusiasm in the boardroom for what's being done in the newsroom."

Naughton sees online journalism as an exciting enterprise. But he fears that the allure of the new and the trendy has led media companies to lose sight of the worth of what they already have.

"The value of the newsgathering process is forgotten," he says. "It's really a bargain. Companies are gobbling each other up, merging into huge organizations, all in search of what newspapers have long had: a mechanism to gather and disseminate news."

Naughton says Poynter will bring people together in St. Petersburg for discussions of major issues facing contemporary journalism. High on the list will be the much bemoaned influence of Wall Street on publicly held newspaper companies. Naughton fears e'ecutives have thought too little about the adverse long term consequences of cost-cutting measures designed to boost the stock price right now.

"If there's not some effort to resolve the balance," he warns, "it's going to get worse." Naughton would like to see Poynter speak "to and for the profession" on such crucial issues.

ýhat would be a welcome development. Poynter, widely respected for its training efforts and practical research, would add to its luster significantly if it emerged as a major force in support of quality journalism and a counterweight to shortsighted, seed corn-eating decision making.

As for his tenure at the Inky, Naughton says it was a "tremendous kick." And he thinks there's a lesson in the triumph of quality journalism in Philadelphia's newspaper war. "It seems to demonstrate," he says, "that what journalists have always valued can be an effective way to market newspapers." l

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