Monday, September 26, 2005

Loving a career leads to extreme tolerance of its shortcomings

Brian Lambert, former St. Paul Pioneer Press media critic, pens an excellent piece in the latest issue of 'The Rake' which led me to chronicle my own trials and tribulations -- though not as eloquently as Lambert -- in the newspaper industry. I feel that his writing gets the free reign it so truly deserves in the Twin Cities' own monthly alt-news magazine. He is better off having been cut for sake of shareholder profit at the Pi-Press.

Anyhow, here's my own lurid experiences in what turned out to be just another newspaper in turmoil...

For those of you who aren't familiar with my background, I have been a graphic artist for over seven years. More specifically, I have performed this task quite handily and with awards and praise for that time with two separate newspaper organizations. The first of which was a relatively small daily newspaper in a town I mention here with some frequency.

In my years at that paper I came to realize, from both an outsider's vantage point and the occasional meandering encounter with the inner workings of the editorial staff, that the news reporters and editors are truly stretched beyond all capable limits. Even more so in the sports department which, in this case, was most capably headed by a likeable guy who was only a year older than myself. He stuck it out, while covering the high school sports scene for a dozen school districts, for about two years. I know that since his departure he has returned to the greener newspaper pastures of Iowa, still as a Sports Editor.

It isn't enitrely ridiculous to think that in a city of just over 25,000 that two staff news reporters can cover the day to day happenings -- especially when flanked by a freelance writer. What is insane is expecting those two reporters to do their jobs without covering anything that may offend one of the city's largest employers or even one of the newspaper's closely coveted advertisers.

I quickly realized, especially during my stint as department manager, that the newspaper was solely dictated by the advertising dollars. This continued even with immense holes in the ad sales staff while goal after sales goal remained un-met.

When a large change in the width of the newspaper was right around the corner, a redesign of the newspaper's feel seemed to be just the ticket. It was unfortunately placed in the hands of the bumbling managing editor who new less about design than he did about polished news reporting. This redesign squarely tanked and was scrapped as a new, younger managing editor graced us with his presence. While he wasn't exactly a socially graced fellow, he at least was willing to listen to both readers and employees about the visual aspect of the newspaper.

Unfortunately, when it came to writing all was still dictated by the publisher and president who was a puppet of his corporate overlords whose ultimate goal was to further eliminate staff from an already watered-down company in hopes of sucking a few more Minnesota dollars into their southern-fried, down-home pockets.

I witnessed the new and younger managing editor being put on an even shorter leash and being called on the carpet as a multitude of his new ideas and 'outlandish' ideas were questioned on a daily basis.

This was the future of my then-hometown newspaper.

Months later, after being passed over for the standard yearly cost-of-living wage increase I came to my boss and asked why this had seemingly been overlooked. I was told, in secrecy of course, that nobody would be receiving annual raises unless the issue was brought up to management on a case-by-case basis. It was again a case of the funds not being there. I first thought of myself and then the overworked editorial department who would be making do with the wages of at least one year ago if not further back.

I explained that without some form of raise in wages I would be leaving. I further explained that I actually enjoyed, though it failed to show sometimes on the outside, the work I did and the variety of areas I was seemingly in charge of. What they didn't know was without this increase, they would be getting my resignation notice in one day.

That next day at work I was pulled aside and handed a slip of paper. On it was written my new wage. They had amazingly, even with the funds being unavailable, come through with what amounted to a 6% wage increase. Meager as it was, it afforded me stick around a while longer and fight for change while conditions further deteriorated around me.

The focus seemed to shift from the dried up advertising market to adding subscribers. Staff was added and, again, the editorial/news areas suffered. After all, people don't buy a newspaper for the news. They just want the plethora of bargains delivered in a timely manner -- and the crossword, don't get me started about what happens if there is an error with the crossword.

Needless to say, in the four additional months which I remained at this newspaper, I witnessed even more shoddy treatment. A fresh-out-of-college photographer lacking in all skills was brought on staff and, again, the visual aspect of the reporting suffered.

The one mainstay at this particular outpost of journalism has been my favorite small-town columnist/reporter. He is a reporter as well as a unique character. He realizes and questions the questionable actions he sees within the storied walls of that organization. He is loved by all and hated by even more. His reporting style has a warmth to it that connects with the people. He speaks about his likes and dislikes and doesn't clutter news events with words for the sake of words. It is well told and, unlike many reporters, unabashedly raw. He doesn't exactly see the need to have his reporting line up with the 'big corporate picture' and occassionally makes an enemy or two.

It is refreshing to see that he has stuck things out with that company for so long. He does his job well because he loves what he does. He feels unthreatened when others try to do what he has done so well for over twenty years. He can see the big picture but I believe that he sees himself as the frame around it.

If only more in media remained unchanged when their corporate overlords asked them to change. If only more that having frequent disagreements with management often meant that you are actually doing your job well and leading consumers to question both sides of the story.

His work is another reason I do this. I make no attempt to disguise how I feel about an issue. I feel no need to make anyone happy and anything at all is fair game. That is how those in the media should treat those who they are covering. No holds barred and questioning everything. If things were that way more often, our country and world would be a better and more interesting place. People would feel less complacent and I feel that media along the likes of hometown newspaper and radio would witness a rebirth, people would again pay attention.

Media isn't dying, it just needs exactly that rebirth and it can change with only a few pioneering individuals who write and cover items in a compelling manner.

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