Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Is It the End (of the) Times?

I do not remember how I began stringing for The Roanoke Times back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I don't know if I responded to an ad, sent in a story suggestion, or oozed my way into what was then the Neighbors section (a weekly insert) by sleight-of-hand or deft design.

Somehow, though, my byline found its way into the area's largest newspaper, not only in the Neighbors and special projects sections, but also in the main paper. That happened mostly at graduation time when extra bodies were needed to turn in hurried stories about caps and gown.

This was the time of no cellphones. I called in stories from phone booths, crouched down with my notebook on my knees, reading the copy into the mouthpiece so the words could go into the morning edition. There was a technique to that, lost now, I suppose, where you spelled out names and said "end graph" to denote a new paragraph, and even said "period" at the end of a sentence. I did so much of it that I took the folks who had to take my calls a few boxes of chocolates, because I knew they had a tough time of it, trying to make sure what I sent made sense before it hit the press.

Newspapers were peaking then, but we didn't know it yet. The Internet was not a common item; there were, I think, bulletin boards where nerdy guys hung out to talk about computer building and atomic death rays, but pre-1990 things were different and the world would not recognizable to today's youth. The Internet then wasn't something everyone plugged into. We were still autonomous individuals working within a society, not individuals plugged into our own little devices and lost in alternative fact worlds.

Folks read the news back then, in those dark ages before the Internet. They read things on paper, not on some electronic reader. They talked about the same stories and made note of the same news, and they did not pick and chose their facts because back then people knew what was a fact and what was opinion. I don't think that is the case anymore.

The newspaper business changed over my lifetime. I began reading the newspaper in 1967, when I was four years old. Yes, truly. I would sit at my grandmother's kitchen table and read the newspaper, front to back. I barely comprehended it, but I read it. I remember distinctly how my grandmother would fix dinner and I would spell out a word to her, asking her how to pronounce it and what it meant. Even though she had only a fourth grade education, she knew what I needed to be told. She read the paper front to back, too.

I knew when I was 10 years old that I want to write for newspapers.

When I was young, there were two edition of the paper, a morning edition and the evening edition. After my husband and I married in 1983, we took the evening edition. According to Wikipedia, The Roanoke Times & World News paper ceased its evening edition in 1991 (I thought it was earlier than that, but we'll go with Wikipedia).  I remember having difficulty adjusting to reading at breakfast instead of dinner, as did my husband.

Around 1995, The Roanoke Times & World News became The Roanoke Times. In 2013, it became the property of Berkshire Hathaway (owned by Warren Buffet et al). I am not sure it mattered then who owned the thing. The paper had changed so much by 2013 that it was (and is) only a shadow of the journalistic endeavors I recall from my younger years.

I think I knew the death bell was tolling when they eliminated Prince Valiant from the funny papers, (not sure exactly when that happened and it's an odd thing to mark decline by), but I also found it painful to watch the quality of reporting diminish as the historical knowledge of the community left with older journalists who either moved on to other things or were let go in favor of youngsters who would work more cheaply. I'm sure other people have their own markers in time as to when they think the paper really began to falter.

It didn't help that I was married to a firefighter who came home and told me of things going on in the city that never made it into the newspaper. What, I wondered, was the paper for if it wasn't going to report on the reality of the world that makes up the City of Roanoke and its surrounding areas?

Yesterday the newspaper announced that it was moving its presses to Lynchburg (where the News & Advance is now a sister paper thanks to the Buffett purchases) and relieving 53 people of their jobs. The press release promises no change in delivery (we will see) and better reliability of printing.

I don't think the paper is dead. I expect it will last another decade, at least. Maybe it will last much, much longer. I am no fortune teller. But I must say, I have never seen a profession shoot itself in the foot like the newspaper business has.

It is as if the paper at its finest was a Ben & Jerry's, offering up 51 flavors of ice cream. Then it slowly cut back to 45 flavors, and it lost a few customers and advertisers, so it laid off a reporter or two. Then it cut back to 30 flavors, and lost more advertisers and customers. Instead of adding back the flavors, the bean counters cut the flavors back to 15, then to 10, and now they only serve Neapolitan ice cream and expect to remain in business.

When a product falters, good business demands you make the product better, not worse, but the newspaper business has not done that. They have made the product worse. They can blame the Internet all they want - and I am sure it has some culpability - but the decline started when money, not news, became all that mattered.

I shall hope this is not a bad sign for The Roanoke Times. I want to keep reading it until my eyes close and the casket covers me. But I fear for not only this paper, but others, including the little local paper for which I wrote for 30+ years.

Some things have value that is not monetary. The news is one of them. One cannot put a value on insight and truth, but we have tried.

And look where it has taken us - into the bogs of a no-mans land, where only devils dare to play.


  1. I can only hope that newspapers are around for years to come. Although, my dad, (an avid newspaper reader), switched to a digital subscription a couple of years ago. My small town newspaper seems to be in decline and I wonder how much longer it can keep going. There won't be a digital replacement for it.

  2. A thoughtful, wise and ultimately saddening piece. I think this paragraph sums up a key insight:

    "When a product falters, good business demands you make the product better, not worse, but the newspaper business has not done that. They have made the product worse. They can blame the Internet all they want - and I am sure it has some culpability - but the decline started when money, not news, became all that mattered."

    Unfortunately it applies to far more than the newspaper "industry". It applies to everything, since everything is now run according the writ of the Business Schools, who see everything as an "industry" and who demand that the market be left to manage all things. The rot lies deep and is working its way deeper, amongst cries that "There Is No Alternative". Or none that we are allowed to think about, anyway.


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