Silence of the Lambs

Newsrooms, especially the ones I know best  — newspaper newsrooms — are a lot quieter these days.

Outside them, we have a sea of talking heads, like me, wagging fingers and pontificating about the news biz. But we hear little from the workaday folk who inhabit newsrooms, which are at very center of this wordstorm. Like the eye of a hurricane, they are eerily quiet.

There could be lots of reasons for that, such as, they’re too busy DOING the work to talk about it all that much. Or maybe it’s simply that most newsrooms have fewer bodies in them and all those ghost desks cast a pall, a grim reminder that you might be next on the layoff list. Or if you’re lucky (?) maybe another buyout.

A newsroom I used to work in, in fact several that I have worked in or knew, used to be full of piss ‘n’ vinegar folks who were hard to manage, smart, feisty and happy to deal in ground truths, whether it was about the local public officials or the editor they weren’t especially fond of.

Now? While there’s still, remarkably, a dedication to readers, to telling truth to power outside the newsroom, you don’t see much of the piss or the vinegar INSIDE those newsrooms.

Can you blame them?

No one in charge seems to be listening.

Once the lead editor in a newsroom was hired — by the publisher — to be the champion of that newsroom to other managers — including that very same publisher — and to the world at large. It was a commonplace of newspapers that the relationship between publisher and editor was respectful, but often contentious.

Over the past 10 years a subtle but profound shift in that role has taken place. Now editors are routinely expected to be the enforcers and representatives of the newspaper’s management or even the newspaper’s corporate owners, to the newsroom as well as to the world at large.

Of course there are exceptions, but these exceptions prove the rule. And most of those exceptions survive by flying under the radar.

To be blunt, senior newsroom managers are rewarded for talking budget, not story.

Yes, I know the blunt facts of circulation decline, and more importantly for the bottom line, the decline in advertising. I know when business is bad, you’ve got to tighten your belt.

But while these problems are real enough, they are recent. Go back even a decade and you’ll see profit figures for many newspapers in the double digits. Topping 20 and even 30 percent.

We already knew about the web back then. We already suspected it had the power to bring legacy news organizations to their knees.

But there was no money invested to fund the battle ahead.

From the very first time I had to handle a newsroom budget, I saw a line item for training. For the first few years it was repeatedly cut in one round or other of budget preparations. Then it was zeroed out.

The budget line lingered — like those ghostly desks — a reminder of opportunities lost.

Where once there were conference calls among editors to share bright ideas, now the conference call is likely to be a stultifying lecture from one of the corporate overlords  explaining in horrific detail how to process payments to a new vendor.

Corporate overlords are not turning to newsrooms to explore better ways of telling the news. They are turning to newsrooms only to find more bodies to cut, more desks to empty.

The Tweets that came this past week from a handful of Tribune employees all re-tweeted the story that Tribune, just emerged from bankruptcy, is handing over the sale of its properties to bankers.

Each one of those Tweets was unaccompanied by any comment. As if no comment were necessary, as if it had all been said.

That silence from such passionate folk seemed the saddest of all.

As though they are lost, and they know no one is looking out for them. They are  floating, as an editor I know said, “like bits of seaweed on a sea of mergers and acquisitions.”

2 thoughts on “Silence of the Lambs

  1. Another great piece! And wisely cautionary, for as Meg notes investigation & critical thought standing still, hard news turns to pap: more spoon fed gossip, entertainment, propoganda, & heresay. And no doubt there are those who want it that way – for just as a quieter newroom is easier to bend, a dumber republic is easier to terrorize.

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