Everyone who works for an afternoon daily knows it’s doomed. Hell, everyone who works for a newspaper knows it’s doomed, or at least bound for the sort of profound change that will make it so different you can’t even remember why you chose journalism for a career.
Honestly, when I left The News-Sentinel early this year, I figured the place had, at the very outside, five years left. My last six months as a copy editor there were instructive — and, demotion and all, I can’t say I’d trade them. After the Fellowship, I needed a place to hunker down and think for a while. And there was the paper’s death spiral to consider, too; remember the scene in “Citizen Kane” when Susan Alexander has her opera debut? She’s awful, and the camera does that long, long tilt up to the stagehands in the rafters, who look at one another, and one holds his nose? I think: Would I rather be onstage, singing with Susan Alexander, or that stagehand?
That was the gift of the copy desk. You got to be backstage at a bad opera.
Anyway, when the paper finally folded, I figured I’d come back to the Fort, and I and my ex-colleagues would go next door to Henry’s, and we’d close the place down, cry, tell stories and spend a good chunk of everybody’s severance. (I would buy many rounds, to support the troops.) In other words, we’d have a goddamn proper newspaper wake. Any newspaper deserves a wake, and we would have that Pulitzer Prize (’83, local general or spot news reporting) to toast one last time.
Today, however, it looks like the last men and women standing won’t get even that:
Several staff members at the News-Sentinel said a plan has been discussed to turn the 172-year-old afternoon newspaper into a predominately online publication. However, the paper’s publisher and editor deny such a plan exists.
In addition to writing short stories for the Internet, reporters would be equipped with video cameras so video images could accompany the online articles, they said.
Under the plan, they added, the News-Sentinel would continue to put out some non-daily print publications that could include longer, project stories and a Neighbors section, which includes honor rolls, club news and other community items. Austin said such a plan does not exist.
“I have meetings with my employees, but it has never been discussed,” Austin said. “There is no such plan. There has never been such a plan.”
Huh. So instead of shutting it down proper-like, they’re just going to squeeze it to death, until the last man standing is too tired and demoralized to go next door and lift a glass.
And what a crafty strategy! I deliver a hat tip to its Rovian genius. Everybody knows the future of the newspaper is online. Why not make a clumsy stab at doing it badly and then, when it fails, you can blame the staff! “YOU just weren’t down with the program, which is, after all, the FUTURE,” the brass can say. It’s the Harriet Miers nomination in newsprint.
But maybe they wouldn’t do it badly. Maybe they’d do what such a radical transition would need — a ground-up redesign of the site, intense staff training in new ways to tell stories and how to use the web’s possibilities, a virtual nuking of departmental walls and a reimagination of the product that really seeks to push the limits of what is possible. In other words, do more than give reporters video cameras and lay a whip to their backs.
Then I remember what it took to get the carpet cleaned in that place. How grudgingly every penny was spent, how ruthlessly the budget was hacked, and I figure: No.
Anyway, there is no plan. And there has never been such a plan.
My sincere sympathies to all. You don’t deserve it.