I love newspapers and newspaper people. I’m pretty sure there’s no one I would rather work with, and I did so for 40 years. But I try to remember that it was not a sentimental business.
“You’re only as good as your last story,” the old saying goes. And last stories often aren’t remembered a week after they’re published.
“Who’s going to read the second paragraph?” is my favorite line from the famous newspaper play and movie “The Front Page” — the question asked by an impatient editor leaning over a feverish reporter’s shoulder.
And though I take government and politics seriously, and put a lot of stock in fair coverage, I appreciate this Jeff Danziger cartoon in the Christian Science Monitor in the late 1980s. I don’t approve of the message — and Matt Bai and others have since straightened us out about the Gary Hart story — but the newsroom scene rings painfully true.
Praise be the more noble editor, but who among has not felt the pinch of these shoes?
Well-intentioned as we were, wherever I worked, we also had to give people what they needed and wanted to read. No, all of you I-took-a-journalism-class-in-college experts, it was not our sole motive, but, yes, it was called selling newspapers.
Everyone I ever liked in the business put their body and soul into doing good journalism. But the world is full of earnest, hard-working people and we chroniclers of the lives and deeds of others probably are at our best when we don’t spend a lot of time patting ourselves on the back.
And, in the afterlife, wherever that might be, I hope I still work where they would laugh you out of the newsroom for using the word “longform.”
Some of my fellow newspaper retiree buddies are down in the dumps over a new Nieman Lab report showing that internet publishing and broadcasting employment has outstripped newspaper employment.
But alarm over this is like pretending you haven’t heard of the digital revolution. Read Dean Baquet’s recent memo on newsroom changes at the New York Times and be encouraged, folks.
Then find James Thurber’s 1952 story, “Newspaperman — Head and Shoulders,” which also deals with second paragraphs, and ask whether things have changed.
Of course, they have. And despite my dislike for the term “longform” — (I’m not even sure if it’s one word or two) — there are many writers of long stories I greatly admire. But this ruthless revolution is reminding us when it’s better to go long and when to go short. And newsprint isn’t the only playing field around.