Yes, I’m on my way home to New Jersey from my second trip to D.C. in two weeks, but that’s not what I’m talking about.
I spent the first two decades of my career, more or less, on dead-tree journalism. I bled ink and at times subscribed to two or more newspapers, reading them and calling in tips on weekends and looking for stories everywhere I went. I called in a story on the way to a party one night and stopped to find out why a ton of police cars were surrounding a house after I dropped my friend at the airport.
I nearly stopped beforehand, but he really didn’t want to miss his flight, and we were close. I may or may not have surpassed the speed limit on my way back to the crime scene. I was so absorbed in reporting that when a reporter from my paper arrived about half an hour later, I realized I’d never found a pay phone to call in and tell my editor where I was and what I was doing.
Yes, this was the early days of cell phones, when not all reporters had them and we didn’t have to file constant web updates.
I read the paid obituaries to see if someone worth writing about had died and skimmed the letters to the editor and the Pennysaver to see if there were any tidbits worth a story.
When I tried out for a job in Arizona, the story I wrote was based on a letter to the editor about people who had been rummaging through recycling bins and claimed to be city employees looking to see if people were recycling properly. I ended up spending a morning riding around with one of these employees, talking to her about her job and interviewing people she policed for poor recycling habits.
Life as a journalist can be weird.
Anyway, I cared deeply about journalism and about the communities we covered. Most journalists did (and still do). I’m not talking about the talking heads who aren’t actually doing journalism inasmuch as arguing their point for hours at a time on TV. I’m talking about the people who go out and get to know people in their neighborhoods and strive to do the best job of telling them what’s happening in their worlds and how it affects them.
I was laid off in 2008 and chose at the time not to pursue jobs in the news industry. The industry had suffered death by a thousand cuts by that point, but never seemed to learn the lessons. Radio chipped away at newspapers in the early part of the 20th Century. When TV came along, it further eroded their dominance, turning five- and six-newspaper towns into two-newspaper towns, with rare exceptions.
The rise of the suburbs and increased commute times – and increase of two-income and of single-parent families – hammered away at the dominance of the afternoon newspaper, and those began to die off, with the final nails being hammered in the 1980s and 1990s, when the economy went into recession and there simply weren’t advertising dollars left to support those afternoon papers.
Two-newspaper towns became one-newspaper towns, with rare exceptions.
Independent newspapers were bought by media conglomerates. At one point, Disney owned several newspapers. Betcha didn’t know that.
Then, in the late 2000s and early teens, the remaining newspaper companies began to consolidate further.
In 2006, Knight-Ridder, the company where I’d started my career at The Miami Herald, was sold to McClatchy, a smaller – but well-respected – newspaper company. I felt kind of sad; it was the end of an era.
No surprise that two years later, Gannett (my employer at the time) needed to cut costs and trim staffs. I made sure my staff was as safe as I could make them, but was laid off myself. I was ready for it – the industry was in free-fall. Or, at least, it felt that way.
I worked at a couple of agencies, did a lot of freelance work in writing, social media, and digital consulting. I worked at a couple of startups and even a digital publisher.
Then the call came: Would I be interested in taking on a temporary role at McClatchy to help them help their newspapers restructure their newsrooms into audience-focused shops? Mind you, that doesn’t mean clickbait. It means a lot of things, but it mostly means going back to truly serving their audiences and not covering things simply because we’ve always covered them.
It’s a huge job, and an exciting job. I’m back in the industry I once loved, and in a way back at the company where my journey started.
I guess you can go home again.