One of the more depressing sites I visit each day is the Braublog. Minnesota journalist David Brauer operates the blog on minnpost.com. Brauer is an outstanding journalist and almost too good at his job. He documents the media scene in Minnesota, shining the light on newspapers every time they cut staff, or eliminate a day of publication, or freeze the pay of its employees. He writes about every troubling issue confronting newspapers. Each post reads almost like a dispatch from the Titanic.
Brauer rarely delivers good news on his blog. Yet I visit the site every day. I haven't worked in newspapers for nearly six years, but I'm as obsessed with them today as I was on my last day in The Forum's offices in Fargo.
Nearly every day I miss working in newspapers. But nearly every day I'm grateful that I'm not caught up in the current turmoil that engulfs papers of all sizes, in all cities. I've got friends at small weeklies in tiny towns and large dailies in major cities. All of them face an uncertain future.
A sportswriter friend in the troubled Gannett chain produces thousands of words each week, superb stories and insightful blogs. Gannett, and several other chains, implemented unpaid furloughs, in addition to layoffs. Every time I read another story about massive cuts in Gannett, I worry about his job and wonder if those who read his work each day understand just what they'd lose if he lost his job.
A friend, who's also my former boss and a mentor, works in Madison, Wisconsin in the features department. He's an award-winning designer, one-of-a-kind headline writer and a newspaperman through and through. The paper's corporate editors have eliminated jobs, with announcements of new cuts seemingly arriving every couple of months. We talked in the past about him giving me a heads-up if a writing job ever opened in Madison. Now I just hope his job remains safe.
One of my best friends writes for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. A decade ago it might have been a dream job, a writing position at a big-city daily. Forget cuts. Now people often talk about whether the paper will survive at all, or if it will perhaps merge with the equally troubled Star-Tribune in Minneapolis. At one time I imagined what it'd be like to have a job for one of the two big-city newspapers in Minnesota. Now I can't fathom how tough life is in those offices.
Friends and former co-workers who have spread out to Texas, Green Bay and Michigan have also been laid off within the past year.
For years The Forum in Fargo was regarded as a solid paper with a great future, perhaps even immune from the troubles confronting the industry. But in the last year they've had to eliminate numerous positions as well, further proving that no newspaper anywhere is completely safe.
Even the New York Times has suffered. A woman I worked with in Worthington reached the top of her profession when she landed a job at the most famous paper in the country. Now I wonder if she'll survive the latest round of buyouts and layoffs.
Everyone knows what the problems are, but no one has the solutions. Or knows if there even are any solutions. Circulation plummets even though more people than ever are actually reading the content of papers. But online sites can't deliver the advertising like the print edition so management cuts staff. The product suffers and circulation drops, as those who pay for the print product see fewer local stories and less in-depth reporting. And as circulation drops more, management again cuts staff. The phrase vicious cycle seems to have been invented for the situation facing newspapers. Throw in a troubled economy that affects advertisers and the problems only get worse.
Some papers now charge people to read it online. But many inside and outside the industry believe it's too late. People today expect information, stories, and basically all media to be free. They'll throw down $4 each day for a cup of coffee. But pay a buck for a newspaper? They'll balk at the idea that stories reported and written by professionals should come with a charge. It's hard to picture those people paying any amount to read a newspaper online, as they surf the web while sipping their overpriced drink.
These difficulties certainly aren't unique to newspapers. Magazines have eliminated thousands of jobs, moves that make me especially nervous these days. The book industry has suffered. So has radio.
But because of my 10-year history with newspapers, that's the industry I think about and worry about the most. I can still picture myself someday returning to newspapers. I loved working at them, loved writing for them. But I might simply be picturing a future in a world that might not even exist at some point. It's a tough concept to deal with, even for those of us not caught up in the day-to-day challenges.
I read several newspapers every day, print editions like The Daily News and New York Times, and online versions from LA, Minneapolis, Fargo, Worthington, Mankato, St. Paul, Chicago, St. Cloud and everywhere in between. And every day I read sites like the Braublog that document the problems at papers in those cities and elsewhere.
If there is a future for newspapers and in them, I'll be grateful to those who have been there during these difficult years. No one ever went into newspapers to get rich. But they did go into them to make a difference, and to make a living. They can still do the former, but if they can't do the latter, nothing else really matters.