Back in my days as an ink-stained wretch, I and then-Albany Democrat-Herald assistant sports editor Aaron Yost had a chance to attend a journalism conference in Jantzen Beach, a straight shot up the 5. Part of its focus was acclimating reporters and editors to their new work buddy, the World Wide Web. It was 1997, and even then it felt like we were arriving late.
To make a long story short, it was an invigorating session. We devoured the presentations, hauling home folders and handouts and ideas for reader-friendly special sections and ways to capitalize on the vast possibilities of online journalism. The D-H did have a Website at the time — and a Webmaster, studious philatelist Jim MacGruder, an awfully nice man — but it was still a bare-boned electronic edition of its print counterpart. That day Aaron and I heard about videos, offsite linking, and the boundless multimedia real estate available to enterprising writers with stories to tell.
We returned to the office, once more in love with our chosen profession. We were reminded of what attracted us to it in the first place. Eager to share our epiphany, we arrived at the following morning’s staff meeting, ready to blast our peers off their swivels. Kick ’em some righteous science. Now, here my memory gets hazy, but I’m pretty sure we were less than 15 syllables into our ebullient report when the main editor deflated it all with a dismissive wave. Whether he thought our ideas impractical or the ravings of slack-jawed Moonies, I can’t recall. What I do remember was my subsequent embarrassment and anger. He just doesn’t get it, my simmering self stewed. This is the future. (To his credit, MacGruder seemed interested.)
I was, and still am, a big proponent of the Internet. I’ve had an online presence since 1996, when a local techie/melodo-nut launched the short-lived Corvallis/Albany Music News. I taught myself basic HTML and built a mock Web site on GeoCities, back when personal pages were considered exercises in vanity. (To dodge that, I created my homepage, Jimmy Deakins’ Childhood Hero, as a combination fan/personal site parody created by “Jimmy Deakins” as a shrine to, uh, me.) Later I was a contributor, under the nom de plum Francis L. Scurvy, for The Guy Code, an ambitious men’s-mag cyberspace startup that billed itself as “the anti-Maxim.” I was also on hand for the inaugural (and only, I think) broadcast of NerdTV, a Corvallis-based live video series, in which we quickly discovered that the few viewers we had were less interested in our repartee than in one of the participants’ ample racks. So I’ve always considered the Internet a limitless bounty, an information-age Wild West.
In 2000, I bailed on dailies. I wish I could attribute it to prescience, but actually I was bored out of my mind and desperate for new kicks. So I packed up for L.A. and spent the next seven years at Rhino Entertainment, a record label specializing in prestige reissues, boxed sets, and wicked geekery. (As a coworker told me during my first week, “Rhino’s basically a Shangri-La for every office nerd on the planet.”) In retrospect, I substituted one dying industry for another. Boy, I sure can pick ’em.
As we now know, the Internet was indeed the future. You didn’t need the wisdom of the oracle to see that one coming. Print journalism appears to be a near-moribund form in the age of specialized content, blogs, Wikipedia, tweets, Google, and social networking. The futurists hail this development as the death knell of the Mainstream Media, or MSM, as it’s now known in our acronym-happy parlance. Yet, as much as I love the ’Net, sorry — I can’t join the party.
See, despite our often-fractious relationship, I still love journalism. Some of my best friends are of the breed. Good ones, fantastic writers, fantastic people with families and lives. And you can’t imagine what so many are enduring right now as layoff rumors and buyout threats loom thirstily over their futures. They’re paying the price for their parent companies’ long-run short-sightedness. Wanna know what really ruined journalism? It’s not a liberal bias; anyone arguing that is selfishly sauced on a special kind of stupid. (“You fools! If only you were more like me, this wouldn’t be happening. I am America’s yardstick.”) And journalists can only shoulder some of the responsibility. When faced with the irrefutable evidence of this last decade, what scrivener not flirting with retirement would still be so willingly complicit in his own obsolescence?
The real problem is their corporate keepers, who treated the hometown organ as a product, like toothpaste. At some point it was forgotten that a newspaper’s obligation was to its community, not to far-off boardrooms and shareholders. Staffs and publishers changed as often as Radisson flips bed sheets. Some newsrooms were in constant upheaval with endless arrivals and departures; in many cases, vacant positions weren’t refilled, forcing reporters to take on multiple beats and increased assignments on an already unforgiving schedule. Morale is low, exasperation high. Some might argue that hey, you understood the breaks when you locked lips with the press, so tough nuts, brother. But I think at some point there’s a difference between public service and enslavement. You’ve got to have a life beyond the office.
But I digress. It’s hard to cheer an institution’s demise when its participants have names and faces to you. It’s kinda like being told, “We think we might have cured the world’s most lethal disease. We’re not sure yet; for all we know it’s about as effective as bottled water on an open sore. But here’s the problem: 75 of your closest friends may or may not have it. So just to be on the safe side, we’re gonna kill 53 of them and quarantine the rest for possible euthanasia at a later date.” Meanwhile, the futurists strut and preen with visions so utopian they give me pause. I shake my head at their near-constant deluge of histrionic Jurassic-related epithets (usually aimed at anyone over 30 — kinda funny when you consider how computer-literate my generation actually is) and often wonder if some of them aren’t so obsessed with the idea of taking down the MSM they don’t care if anything replaces it, so long as they can Zorba atop its grave.
Enough with the tired froth. The days of dismissive shrugs are long over. Most journalists are aware that print’s in danger, and have been for a while. Many have BBB’d — bailed before buyout — to take PR and teaching gigs or launch their own ventures. It’s not worth the heartache to wait around for the inevitable closed-door sessions and severance packages. Others have taken the initiative to learn new skills and do their best to adapt to an ever-evolving landscape. They hope to have a place in the exciting new frontier, as do I. Is community reportage/citizen journalism the future? I don’t know. But I’m game to find out. Ready, fire, aim.