Newspaper Disaster? It's All My Fault. I'm The One

I should have helped much more than I did to figure out how best to use that web thing to exponentially boost our role as journalists and better serve and involve our audiences.
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The wind shear, hypoxia, and rapid decompression of the newspaper business. The mad scramble for frantic answers, like a meth freaks' weekend convention in Vegas. The lost jobs, dirgeful despair, and sometimes mean sniping over tradition and the present day value of big rooms full of journalists.

The whole thing. My bad.

After all, Will Hearst, friend and then-boss, explained the internet to me back around 1992 when I became editor of the old SF Examiner. I then swiftly snagged Sun Microsystems braniac John Gage to demonstrate this emerging phenomenon to a roomful of Hearst newspaper colleagues. I think he showed us how you could tap on line into Russian satellite images that were eyeballing Washington, weather in Florida and other nifty digital information. The potential for journalism was big, but it probably struck some of us as more of a cool circus act than the actual future.

Tech-illiterate as I was, I also got a colleague around that time to piggyback me onto The Well, the pioneering social networking site out of Sausalito, to participate in an online debate about a story we'd done.

But I didn't understand then. Even with those clues and sitting square in Silicon Valley's bedroom, I really didn't know what was charging down that cliched superhighway right at us like a huge, flaming truck bomb filled with a million electronic ball bearings. And I should have known. I should have helped much more than I did to figure out how best to use that web thing to exponentially boost our role as journalists and better serve and involve our audiences.

(Bill Gates also let the web phenomenon blow by him at first, but he had enough money and power to reel it back into Microsoft.)

Plenty of people, including some associates past and present, and blog commenters, blame me anyway for the general decline of serious civilization. I won't quibble with wrongheaded detail. The Day of Atonement was months ago, but here it is:

I'm sorry. It was a failure of imagination.

Maybe I wasn't entirely alone in this. Talented friends who started out at SF newspapers remain embattled senior editors around the country -- Newark, Portland, Los Angeles, Manhattan. Other SF print alumni are on the scold side -- Mark Potts, Jeff Jarvis, Alan Mutter. But all of us are still leaning heavily on the I-have-a-"someone-will-figure-it-out" dream.

Not to say there aren't plenty of excuses, some legit. The speed of technology has stunned a lot of people, along with quick-changing consumer habits. The economy sucks more than ever before in our lifetimes. Self-abuse and self-righteousness are both dark corners where we can hide.

Even while slamming ourselves for being too complacent, we're also just shell-shocked by what's been happening. Some things are hard to reconcile, like driving down the road on a beautiful day and suddenly coming on a car violently flipped onto its side. Or a dead body. Familiarity goes away and life seems to change in an instant. There it is, but it just takes your mind a minute to get in sync with the altered reality of what's in front of you.

"I thought I had this job till I retired," one Chronicle writer said to me last week, slumped in a chair. So sorry. Nothing is certain and, after years covering countries at war, I should have at least been certain about that.

Now that I've tried to make peace with my shortcomings, what next?

This is the wrong place to get into the thicket of ideas to "save" newspapers -- never mind the argument about whether they ought to be saved as presently constituted. iTunes-like micropayments, non-profit endowments, endless "re-invention," free or fee, jacking up ISP providers, or Google (the only company in the world now trying hard to look smaller than it really is) for content money, ritual suicide. Let's try them all out, except maybe the last one.

One emailer to the Chronicle's Chuck Nevius the other day, who cc'ed me, said he was "not interested in receiving the paper itself" but he would be "willing to pay to help you and your colleagues" continue performing journalism. "How can I contribute to the revenue flow of the Chronicle without receiving the actual paper?" Now there's a guy and a model a P&L publisher could love.

In the meantime, we should look at the problem in simpler terms:

I get two newspapers delivered at home: The Chronicle and the New York Times. The Times hits the step somewhere between 4 and 5 a.m. The Chronicle gets there before 6. Both papers are in existential trouble despite good work and 300 years of accumulated history between them.

So even in the face of the threats to our survival, there are still at least two different people and two entirely different delivery systems in place to get two newspapers to the same address in the same couple of hours. Really? In what rational world does that make sense? Why is that a good idea for businesses on the brink?

And there are probably a few other newspapers my neighbors get, not to mention magazines (also an ailing industry). Stretch that out to cover printing, selling ads, technology and even the journalistic core of what we do. Would you rather sink or have 11 people cover the same football game?

There's a point in there, which applies to our larger dilemma, and it's about cooperation and what we call in California, "harmonic convergence."

The lessons are everywhere.

Yesterday morning, I'm watching "Little Einstein" on Disney with my 2-year-old kid. It's "The Song of the Unicorn," a variation on an old fable where these kids have to save a frozen unicorn from an evil queen so the mythical beast can successfully conduct the 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky. (Don't ask me. The series teaches kids music appreciation and mine sits still for the whole thing.)

But as the show goes on, I'm thinking: metaphor. The kids, led by the precocious Leo, are journalism. The unicorn is our business and the solutions we seek, and there's a curse on it. The evil queen is..take your pick: the web, the economy, Google, generational shifts. Or just change that we're not handling well.

Without the unicorn, the symphony is a cacophonous mess. "We have to sing together and save the unicorn," Leo tells the others.

The mean queen splits the road to the unicorn so the kids aren't sure which one to take. Sound familiar yet? A monkey (all of us, but don't get riled up) helps the group by trying each road till they find the right one. They even throw a lion in there, ready to attack the unicorn. OK, maybe that's our business models. Whatever.

In the end, everyone cooperates, the unicorn is unfrozen and the rhapsody is successfully conducted. Peace. Beauty. Out.

The End of Days of newspapers has become its own noisy myth-based religion -- or maybe more like a cult -- with high priests, lemming-like crowd stampedes, mass panic and lots of last minute atoning in the form of extra hard work and social/tech experiments. Mr. Jarvis and other robed shamanists are looking through our excretions to see what ails us, to predict the future and provide new potions and balms.

I still don't have the answer, and neither does anyone else, yet.

But talented and shrinking newspaper newsrooms are cooperating with former competitors in New York/New Jersey, in South Florida and in Washington/Baltimore. The NYTimes noted the other day that they "have a content-sharing arrangement" with NBC News "exclusively for political coverage." Bet on that exclusivity to expand.

As Leo on Little Einstein might say, no one is navigating through this dark storm alone.

Even journalism's rooftop snipers, those innovative and entrepreneurial-minded local news web site start-ups, are looking for help from the ranks of professionals.

My old officemate, Eve Batey, ex of SFist, is launching the San Francisco Appeal news web site this week with former Chronicle investigative reporter and editor, Chuck Finnie. The SF-based Public Press, describing itself as non-profit, non-commercial, donation-supported news operation, recently advertised on Craigslist for journalists and ended up hiring former Oakland Tribune editor, Michelle Fitzhugh-Craig, a definite pro. And those sites, like the teetering megaliths of the WashPost and NYTimes, are reaching out to other news content creators in an effort to find the right road and perfect pitch harmony for the future.

Instead of grumbling, we need to look around -- keep that famous journalistic open mind. Help can and should come from anywhere. It's too late to be too proud, or snobbish.

People who want to save the Chronicle should see what contributors to the "Save The Chronicle" Facebook page have to say, or check out the suggestions at the San Francisco Post-Chronicle web site for ideas that might help us avoid being post.

Cooperation is the underlying key, I'm pretty certain about that. And this is true to a degree that the once iconoclastic, individualist, and pugnaciously competitive world of newspaper publishing (think Joseph Pulitzer and W.R. Hearst) has not been so well prepped to handle.

Neither is the Justice Department Anti-Trust division, which itself has still been operating on a 1930s model. There are no threatening monopolies in a graveyard, except a conspiracy of silence, something appreciated only by people who abuse power.

But like the old hippie co-ops, everyone who needs cooperative help has to give something up -- some individuality, some privacy, some ownership -- in the spirit of a larger purpose.

This process will be even messier and more jarring than it already has been. But it's necessary and should not end up in a cannibalistic frenzy where tears and angry spittle lubricate the jaws and an informed and curious public is the biggest loser.

Formerly fierce combatants need to be comrades or it's the gulag for all of us.

Well, as Leo told the kids in Little Einstein, "thanks for looking and listening."

Save the unicorn!

For more, read Bronstein at Large.

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