Wednesday, September 3, 2014

"...And Here I Sit...The Retired Writer in the Sun..."

Dozens of quickie newsroom layoffs eradicate the last vestige of credibility for Gannett...and sadder still,  for USA TODAY.

By Peter Rodman

In the weeks before 'USA TODAY' first appeared, their distinctive blue and white 'boxes' began popping up on street corners, all over Boulder.  At the time I was the Music Columnist and feature writer for the Colorado Springs Sun, and freelanced features to The Rocky Mountain News, Boulder Daily Camera, and added a weekly column for Boulder's Audience magazine, all on top of a top rated weekly radio rock/talk show.
I'd built the largest freelance circulation in the Rocky Mountain time zone on sheer guile, and a lot of hustle. 
So it was easy to scoff at this interloper, this out-of-town, know-nothing 'newspaper' (ha!) before I'd ever seen it.  
In fact, our town may even have given the paper its nickname ("McPaper") before it ever came out--I'm not sure--but it finally did arrive....and there he was, Al Neuharth! 
Lookin' studly (and semi-sleazy in a dated, Vegasy-kinda way...almost Bob Guccione style),  and we all just figured, "This newspaper is going nowhere." 

We figured wrong.   
Way wrong.

By just a month or so into its life as America's only full color news daily--in fact, America's only nationally branded newspaper--we all knew they'd changed everything, whether we were willing to admit it or not.
And Al Neuharth, God bless him, turned out to know precisely what he was doing, and bravely stood alone on principle more than once, during his long tenure there.

Just as I had recently started losing once-attainable rock star interviews to 'Entertainment Tonight' (then also a new phenomenon), this new 'one-stop interview' print outlet did not seem to bode well, for my thriving Mom-and-Pop (well...Pop) operation. 

It wasn't just what they were doing, was that they were doing it well.
The rest of us daily 'feature writers' would need to up our game, and pronto--by writing in 'punchier' rhythms, for starters.
And every local paper in America would eventually need a new printing press, to accommodate the now-requisite color weather maps 'USA TODAY' pioneered.

What everybody thought would be a national joke raised our journalistic standards ten-fold.  Even The New York Times had to be on guard: Neuharth's tentacles (and more importantly, his faux-'bureaus,' consisting of carefully selected stringers) extended to every corner of the globe...just like theirs did. 
In short, USA TODAY was a surprisingly competitive, comprehensive daily digest.  

Fast-forward to the 21st century, and its new 'parent' media corporation (Gannett) began simultaneously scooping up daily newspapers all over the nation, and just as quickly disemboweling them with cutbacks. 
Here in Nashville, they bought up The Tennessean, which had long ago established itself as a bastion of reasonably good reporting and clear-eyed editorials, under the guidance of the legendary John Seigenthaler-- a key southern player for the Kennedy administration, during the incendiary 'Freedom Rider' face-offs of the early '60s.  Even Al Gore got his start there, as a cub reporter. 
You know the rest.
A few years into Gannett's ownership, nearly every familiar writer in town was gone.  Publishers came and went like weekend news anchors.  Incessant cutbacks made the Tennessean's 4 block-square headquarters suddenly seem impossibly huge and clunky, much like those oversized Talking Heads suits from the '80s, only with cement shoulders. 

Meanwhile, Mr. Interweb was weaving faster and faster.
I won't belabor the point, but the basic outline is relevant--because by now it's become fairly clear that Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezo and Steve Wozniak may not always be considered heroes, after all the results are in. And I'm not talking about hundreds of years from now, either. Right now--today--it's safe to say those guys are at least partially to blame for the end of shopping malls, record stores and book stores.
And that's not the half of it. 
Think of the trillions in lost sales tax dollars, because for the first 20 years or so, internet sales managed to avoid paying any sales taxes at all!  
Content wise, it's really only been in the last couple years, that many of us have begun to figure out that this whole 'internet thingy' may turn out to be the end of facts themselves.  (At least, that's what "Morgan Freeman" says.)

The decline of newspapers and magazines was one of the more predictable outcomes of the internet, from its earliest days. For a lot of us who toiled over typewriters, the biggest loss was the romance of it all.
My friend Bob Greene, once a syndicated columnist in over 300 daily newspapers, wrote a fine book detailing a young reporter's excitement at everything from the ink, to the machines, to the deadlines, to the all night vigils, waiting to grab that first copy of your story, before dawn.
I recommend you find it...on Amazon, I guess.

Cost-cutting and the internet spawned more than just the downsizing of newspaper circulations; it actually decreased the physical size of the papers themselves--which literally redefined 'broadsheets' (like USA TODAY and The New York Times) to damn near paper-towel size. 

It was no surprise that as the internet increased corporate efficiency, labor forces would be slashed everywhere--not only in retail, but in post offices and newsrooms, as well. 
Mail volume plummeted--and the delivery of pieces of paper in envelopes to your door will go the way of the Do-do bird, soon enough.  The Post Office is on life support, at best. 
Newsroom staffing has been slashed to beyond the bone, enough to make you wonder why anybody even attends 'journalism school' anymore.
But the most profound effects of the internet and 'Smartphones' have been nothing short of evolutionary.
Worst of all (*scroll down four paragraphs to the next asterisk, if you're already glazing over), I no longer had any compulsion to 'go get a paper' before even touching my morning English muffin.  I soon found myself caught up this new "quick glance" form of writing (and reading) online, selected for me by websites and hosts, using algorithms that figured, "Hey, if he clicks on the Kardashian story, that must be what we should write more of!"  

Unfortunately, "click bait" rewards prurience--so while we're all guilty little animals,  that doesn't necessarily mean we don't want to read a lengthy feature about performance rights organizations, fighting in the Sudan, or what North Korea is really like.

But "numbers don't lie" in the computer world--so increasingly, we're now being served up stories and videos so wacky they once would have been relegated to an 11 year old's "Ripley's Believe It or Not!" comic book.  
The 'new normal' looks an awful lot like Tales of the Weird.

*Worst of all, it appears the entire human race has  rather suddenly devolved as a species, and we now sport attention spans shorter than George Costanza's penis after a nice, cold swim!  (Like you, if you skipped those 4 paragraphs!)

All of which would be bad enough...but now, factor in a corporate mentality reminiscent of the vacuum-nosed monster in Yellow Submarine, which sucked up every other monster around him, and finally...the entire movie screen itself! 
Gannett has similarly scooped up every decent daily newspaper they could find-- gutted their newsrooms, broken their unions, 'streamlined' their 'ad supplement' delivery systems (by skipping the US Mail altogether, and simply hiring down-and-out delivery folks to chuck millions of papers in driveways all over the country), and actually shrunk the physical newspapers to a laughable size, with 'columns' that often accommodate fewer than five words across!

Our nationwide littering problem alone, from Gannett throwing newspapers at millions of non-subscribers' yards every week (in order to artificially pump up their circulation numbers) is a monumental environmental issue-- nearly as large (in sheer tonnage) as the Gulf Oil spill--only this one's entirely unpaid for, and nobody's being held accountable. 
Meanwhile, Gannett jacked up the famed '50 cent' cover price of USA TODAY  to 75 cents, then (in 2008) a buck, and finally in 2013, they just said WTF, and doubled it to two bucks.  The point is, nobody buys papers anymore, unless they're stuck in an airport all day.
(In fact, most cities no longer have newspaper boxes or newsstands; you'd pretty much have to go to the airport anymore, to find a decent selection of magazines and newspapers.)

Just four weeks ago, after acquiring "" and countless other billion-dollar companies to flip, Gannett finally announced that its 'publishing wing' (including USA TODAY) will be 'spun off' (read: separated) from its main stock price, essentially creating two separate targets for investors, mainly to protect the broadcast and other sales interests.  
Gannett's newspaper holdings, including USA TODAY, became instant orphans.

Now comes the news that USA TODAY finally lowered the boom on its own newsrooms Wednesday, summarily firing dozens of renowned writers--many of whom had been with them for decades. It was (like the doubling of their cover price last year) a bold and sweeping move designed to stop the financial bleeding, and to temporarily bolster a dismal bottom line, worsened by the devastating spin-off scheme which essentially hangs their publishing wing out to dry. 
So the cuts didn't matter, the brush could be wide and clumsy, the publicity bad--none of it it meant a thing, in the world of Wall Street. 
It was "get 'er done" time, that's all.

Edna Gundersen has been the best daily newspaper rock writer in America for more than 20 years.
She's probably interviewed almost everyone I've ever interviewed, but even more pertinently...everyone I haven't!  
That's an elite club, believe me--and there's a good reason she's in it.
Early on, Edna 'cracked the code' on Al Neuharth's "style," serving up tightly-written jabs worthy of Muhammad Ali in a championship bout with everything on the line. 
And that's just it:  She could put everything in a line...literally.
And it's not just the gimmicky USA TODAY "style" she mastered.  Edna's stories yielded enough real news to make you feel like you'd just read the greatest fanzine you ever saw, as a kid.  To do that on a near-daily basis is absolutely unheard of. 
Edna's batting average would have to be higher than Babe Ruth's, and of her thousands of stories, there were certainly more 'home runs' than Hank Aaron ever imagined, let alone hit.
She will be missed.  
That happened today...along with 69 more stories just like it.  
And all with a phone call.  
No notice, just "Byeeeeee."
"And here I sit...the retired writer in the sun..."   [song link]

Apparently freelancers at Gannett, most of them anyway, remain untouched.   
The Tennessean's excellent music columnist Peter Cooper, himself a fine musician and once a full-time staffer there, still serves up quality columns of interest on a regular basis, in a now otherwise-entirely-useless newspaper.  (How long that'll last, I don't know--but this'd be an ideal time for him to up his price--because without 'im, there's literally nothin' left there.  They know it; he knows it. So why not?)  
But I say, I'm not even sure he's technically "on staff" anymore--and if he is, I'd love to see his benefit package...if any exists.  Update: Cooper left The Tennessean, a few weeks after this blog was first published. 

My friend Brian Mansfield writes for USA TODAY (mostly about country music, but an eclectic variety of other genres, too) and he has a special talent for bringing home concise album 'reviews you can use.'  To my knowledge, he's also on a freelance ("contract") basis.  I don't think USA TODAY can afford to lose him.  
He has become Nashville's emissary to the world, and has given the paper a reach it simply would not have without him,  via his succinct and often essential round-ups of all kinds of  music' comin' outta here.

I was a freelancer for my entire career, in newspapers and radio.  
The disadvantage was, there were no pensions, insurance, or regular raises.  
The advantage was, I was able to retain full ownership of my work, thereby 'selling' a given story/interview several different ways all at once, sometimes running it simultaneously in different markets, and often re-using it on radio and elsewhere for years to come. (And believe me, those expanded paydays made all the difference.)

Most of you are well aware that 'contract labor' is now the biggest growing segment of the workforce in America--and has been for many years now, ever since Wall Street figured out that if you either hired 'temps,' or made everybody work on a 'for hire' basis, you probably wouldn't need to fuss with pesky little things like "benefits," "pensions," "insurance," or "raises." Let alone, their main enemy: the dreaded UNIONS.
Believe it or not, most newspaper writers were once union members. 
And those unions were strong!

Unfortunately, the balance of power today has fallen entirely toward the corporation.  
They deal with quarterly results, and shareholder returns, and click-totals and subscription deficits, and all the rest.  God bless 'em.  
I wouldn't want anything to do with 'em, and I pity those who have to deal with them and cobble together a living wage in this atmosphere.  
I'm glad I got out alive, and lived to tell about it.  If you'd have asked me in the '70s whether those were "the good ol' days," I would probably have laughed in your face...but now I see, they must have been.

The balance of power hasn't just shifted. 
There is no balance, anymore.
"And here I sit...the retired writer in the sun..."   [song link]

I'm sure everybody already knows everything I've just written--and can probably add immeasurably to it, with much more current information than I can possibly provide, after several years of retirement.  
But when the best music writer at USA TODAY gets canned with no notice, in a terse phone call...and dozens of other key writers are "escorted from the building" like hostages their captors simply no longer needed...that says a lot about the corporate mentality behind it all.
Okay, so Gannett sucks. 

What about USA TODAY,  The Tennessean, or any of their other (gazillion) outlets is even worth a look, anymore?  Not a whole lot.
God bless Edna Gundersen.  I could have used any number of other examples here, but I happened to particularly like her rock writing.  She's emblematic of how USA TODAY won us all over in the first place, after our initial instincts might have been to pooh-pooh the whole shebang,  by delivering top-notch stuff on a consistent basis. Hers became a byline you looked for.  

How many of those are there, anymore?  
And my o my, how ruthless and cold our corporate world has become, exacerbated by a civilization in, by click, by thoughtless click.
As I wrote to her earlier today, "There is life beyond [fill in the blank]," because I no longer even know what to call a suddenly 'obsolete' job, so rendered by corporate greed and a short-sighted society.  Is being a full-time feature writer for a major daily suddenly as obsolete as being a blacksmith?
Good luck to everyone who got the ax, and even more good luck to those still hangin' on by a thread.  Y'all are gonna need it. 

UPDATE, 5/13/15:  In yet another round of newsroom 'buyouts,' USA TODAY has now lost its noted movie reviewer of the past 15 years, Claudia Puig.  
This can't be good.

Here's a link to a very cool Donovan song, which I'll dedicate to all of my fallen comrades.  May they find in retirement (forced, or otherwise) the happiness I myself have found:
"And here I sit...the retired writer in the sun..." 

This article Copyright 2014 by Peter Rodman. All Rights Reserved.

Click HERE for Donovan's rare solo demo of "Writer in the Sun"

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