Nervous watchdogs

The bad news in San Jose this morning is that 490 staffers at the city’s paper, The Mercury News, are awaiting calls this morning from supervisors, telling them whether they will be coming back to work today or will be among the roughly 30 people who will be laid off. The good news is that a marathon bargaining session between the newspaper’s union and management resulted in a two-year contract that saved 40 jobs that would otherwise have been part of the layoff.

The Mercury News reported on the pact, as did the San Francisco Chronicle (where I work as a business reporter). The details talk about slim raises, extra costs for health care, nothing that would surprise a grocery clerk or an office worker or millions of other Americans who find that market forces are keeping a lid on wages but costs, especially for health plans, are increasing double digits.

So from that point of view there’s nothing new or even particularly interesting about the anxiety of newspaper workers in San Jose, unless perhaps you read a newspaper, or you depend for your news on other media that feed off newspapers — which is all of them. Because then, if you think that the newspaper, imperfect as it might be, is the public’s watchdog, then you really ought to wonder — what happens when the watchdog becomes afraid.  

I don’t mean fearful in the sense of censorship, although there do seem to be more journalists, spending more time in jail. No, I mean just about their future and the ability to stay employed doing what they love doing — asking questions, following leads, holding authorities to account. But that’s tough, wouldn’t you think, when you’re sitting at home in San Jose this morning waiting for the phone not to ring. Or when you’re in any of the 1,600 or so daily newsrooms in America, wondering when it will be your turn.

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San Jose is calm compared to the drama in Santa Barbara, where the staff of that city’s paper, the News-Press, are in the midst of an uprising against the paper’s owner, billionaire Wendy McCaw. Last night I finally read the American Journalism Review article titled, “Santa Barabara Smackdown” that spends 15 pages detailing the many ways in which McCaw tried to bully her reporting staff into writing favorably about this or that topic of personal interest to her. The hero in that saga is Jerry Roberts, who had been the editor of the Santa Barbara paper. AJR writer Susan Paterno describes one of the public demonstrations that followed Roberts’ ouster:

“. . .  hundreds of supporters gathered to watch staff members, dressed in black, their mouths sealed with duct tape, greet a roaring crowd that chanted “Shame! Shame! Shame!” and waved signs, “Free the News,” “No More News Suppress,” “Stop the Travesty!”

I have no trouble believing that Roberts could inspire such loyalty. I worked for him in San Francisco, where he was managing editor (top day-to-day newsroom manager) in the late 1990s. It saddens me to see him bruised — along with dozens of staffers less well-known who have quit their jobs, or are still hanging on and gritting their teeth. This can’t be good for news coverage in Santa Barbara.

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Granted, the situation in Santa Barabara is extreme. But the picture in the newspaper industry at large is worrisome. A snippet from the union newspaper, The Guild Reporter, put it this way in November:

“The nation’s publicly traded newspapers reported consistently depressed third-quarter earnings growth and the audit bureau of circulations explained why: plummeting six-month circulation figures.”

Of course readers are going to the web. There they can get more news from more places, and for free. At least free to them. Generally it was gathered by some newspaper reporter somewhere and reposted or passed around, or formed the basis for a blog commentary. At some point the financial uncertainty in the newspaper industry, which is the newsgathering industry, will crimp the flow of information. Somebody has to pay my salary, and the salaries of the roughly 400,000 daily newspaper workers like me.

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The Internet has disrupted newspapering but every disruption creates opportunities, and citizen journalism is clearly among the positive aspects of the current nervousness. People have created ad hoc websites after the Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina; bloggers are not only commenting on news articles but doing more original reporting. Everywhere there is a ferment to take media into one’s own hands.

This is great. I love it. Just as I swear by my right to defend myself, and my home and to organize with my neighbors in a “neighborhood watch” to discourage petty crime in my neighborhood. But I’m not ready to disband the police department. Nor, on the national level, would I want to demobilize the regular Army and rely solely on the National Guard. Likewise, while I cheer and want to be part of empowering citizen media, it’s not ready to replace the watchdog function that newspapers should be providing — and I think haven’t been doing all that well for many reasons, including these distractions about shrinking profits and paychecks.

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But within this chaotic transformation there are experiments. Paid Content gathered together several reports  about old media experimenting with new forms: arming citizen jounalists with cameras and sending local journalists to work with and train them. The writer had to snark:

“There’s nothing as amusing—or terrifying—as an industry that is clueless about what it should do next.”

But don’t miss the point — people are trying. They’re getting bruised in the process as the news gathering system grinds and thrashes and struggles to rebuild its economic foundation. But there’s hope. In my case, for instance, the phone has not  rung. So I’d better scoot to work.