Every so often I wonder what the fallout will be from all these newspaper journalists being thrown from the train. A few will drown themselves in drink and self-pity, a few more will find their rightful calling in a tollbooth somewhere, a few more will land on their feet in other media outlets, but most will leave the business entirely, and I wonder how that will work out.
(Shout-out to one of my old editors, Carolyn Focht, for the tollbooth reference. She once used it to dismiss a particularly low-performing copy editor — “that guy should be working in a tollbooth” — and I don’t think I’ve yet heard a more succinct dismissal of a certain sort of office dullard. She was always funny. When she was a reporter, a disgruntled reader sued her and the paper for libel, seeking $6 million in damages. A reporter from the other daily asked her for a comment. She said, “I don’t have six million dollars.” The case was dismissed.)
One of the things about newspaper work is, it’s the best job possible for a generalist. If you’re interested in a little bit of everything, if you can hold up your end at a cocktail party discussing everything from ophthalmology to opera, a newsroom is paradise for you. So while you might expect reporters and editors to disproportionately end up in fields that require communication skills and running one’s mouth — i.e., law school — I’m not so sure. Plenty are too old to make that sort of 90 degree turn, for one. I think ex-journalists are going to be widely scattered throughout the economy, doing everything from police work to teaching to cooking. When I talk to my bought-out colleagues, most of them solidly middle-aged but still years from retirement, I’m always interested in what they really want to do. Many want to write novels, but more than a few want to water plants in a greenhouse. Or run a little beer joint with bowls of nuts on the bar. Or advocate for the oppressed and underserved via a non-profit.
What I think is going to be really interesting is how the skills from both jobs mesh, or don’t mesh. I wouldn’t hire a journalist if I were running a Ponzi scheme, for instance. They’re such nosy employees, and they have all the law-enforcement phone numbers on speed-dial. I also wouldn’t seek out an ex-reporter if I wanted a sir-yes-sir type; it kind of runs contrary to the DNA. But you might want an ex-reporter if you needed a bird dog; my luckiest bought-out pal segued gracefully from investigative reporting to just plain investigating, for a state government office, and now has subpoena power, and let me tell you, that is a man to be feared.
If nothing else, we might get some good bloggers out of the Great Delamination. Meet Heather Lalley, former features reporter in Spokane, now bought-out and headed for culinary school in Chicago, specializing in baking. Check out her blog, Flour Girl, about the journey, with a recipe in nearly every entry.
Here’s something else I’m thinking about of late: Populist rage. Everyone I know is walking around in a state of low simmer, hoping someone wearing a T-shirt emblazoned Lehman Brothers Team Building 2003: Bon jour, Monte Carlo! wanders through their field of vision, just to give them something to punch besides the wall and sofa cushions. But the thing about rage is, sometimes it gets a little unfocused. So I was intrigued by this WSJ story today, about the reaction to the spreading ubiquity of red-light cameras:
The village of Schaumburg, Ill., installed a camera at Woodfield Mall last November to film cars that were running red lights, then used the footage to issue citations. Results were astonishing. The town issued $1 million in fines in just three months.
But drivers caught by the unforgiving enforcement — which mainly snared those who didn’t come to a full stop before turning right on red — exploded in anger. Many vowed to stop shopping at the mall unless the camera was turned off. The village stopped monitoring right turns at the intersection in January.
The story goes on to point out this is one more municipal service that’s been privatized. The cameras are frequently run by private companies that take a cut of the haul, as much as $5,000 per month per camera. And so the argument about having nothing to fear from the law if you keep your nose clean tends to fall apart in the face of such obvious money-grubbing. Note this detail, too:
Municipalities are establishing ever-more-clever snares. Last month, in a push to collect overdue taxes, the City Council in New Britain, Conn., approved the purchase of a $17,000 infrared-camera called “Plate Hunter.” Mounted on a police car, the device automatically reads the license plates of every passing car and alerts the officer if the owner has failed to pay traffic tickets or is delinquent on car taxes. Police can then pull the cars over and impound them.
New Britain was inspired by nearby New Haven, where four of the cameras brought in $2.8 million in just three months last year. New Haven has also put license-plate readers on tow trucks. They now roam the streets searching for cars owned by people who haven’t paid their parking tickets or car-property taxes. Last year 91% of the city’s vehicle taxes were collected, up from “the upper 70s” before it acquired the technology, says city tax collector C.J. Cuticello.
This is dangerous stuff. One of the conservative movement’s many shivs to the body politic has been the demonization of government in all cases, undermining we-the-people in favor of them-the-low-bidding-corporation, which, we’re told, always does the job better than some lazy public employee, who probably has a really good health plan, too. Municipalities that privatize their dirty work, particularly for such offenses as rolling through a right turn on red, are breeding a culture of resentment and discontent among their own residents, and that’s a nasty chicken that will be coming home to roost one of these days.
However, until it does, we have spring, full sunshine and a lovely-but-chilly day to look forward to. That’s how it is in Michigan, anyway. So I’m going to make beds, drink one more cup of French Roast, write two stories, rewrite another and go to a meeting. Woo, Friday!