Since I came to CommonWealth nearly 10 years ago after a couple decades in the newspaper industry, I tell people there is not all that much difference.
“I went from one non-profit to another,” I often say. “It’s just that this one does it on purpose.”
It is, like most things for us reporters and editors, black humor. It’s an observation that highlights the problems in the disappearing print business, which is entirely different from the changing news business.
After more than 30 years reporting and editing the news, I’m retiring, which in this day and age is news itself. I get to go out on my own terms, unlike scores of my colleagues who have been forced out, either through layoffs, buyouts, or frustration. Few get to walk away into the work afterlife without regret or looking back like I am, in large part because from the day I began, I have been able to report and write the news with a free hand – except for much-needed editing from the likes of Bruce Mohl and Michael Jonas here at CommonWealth and dozens of others at the Globe, Herald, Ledger, and Enterprise when I was at those papers – without concern for the bottom line. That’s been left to others at higher paygrades.
But the finances of the news industry have altered the model forever and the changes that have happened in my relatively short time, compared to careers of 40, 50, 60 or more years, have been mind-boggling. Decisions are being made on where best to place diminishing resources. One needs to look no further than the Boston Globe, which now has more people dedicated to covering the emerging marijuana industry than to covering the State House.
But the Globe is no outlier. Just a handful of people now work out of the press room at the State House, once a bustling office with crammed desks that seated reporters from nearly every daily in Massachusetts. And that means less coverage of state government and less ability to hold accountable those in power there.
The biggest change in my years in the business is the internet, which has been a blessing for reporters and editors to access once-difficult information from far-flung sources. But at the same time, the technology has precipitated the demise of newspapers. Who needs to buy a paper when you can read it on your laptop, phone, or tablet from multiple sources? And who needs to take out an ad there when there are so many online ways to reach people?
Reporters now multi-task, with their smartphones becoming the most important tool of the trade. Not only are they used to stay in touch with the desk in those increasingly fewer times they report out of the office and double as an audio recorder, reporters use them to serve as their own photographers with a 12-pixel camera in hand, minimizing the need for a vast photo staff.
The phone also enables reporters to post breaking news on social media so people don’t have to wait for the news outlet to put a story up on the homepage, let alone print it the next day. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other sites have not only minimized the impact of newspapers, they have turned everyone with a smartphone into a reporter, if not journalist. (Fun fact: The “cut” and “paste” commands on your screens are remnants of the print business. When stories came out of the pneumatic tubes that ran from the editorial department to the composing room, the compositors would literally cut and paste the long sheet onto the page to be photographed and printed. Fun fact II: The “-30-” in the headline above is old print code placed at the end of the story for compositors to know that was, indeed, the end. The lore goes it stems from Civil War dispatches that ended with “XXX,” which is also the Roman numeral for 30 and became common usage after that.)
As I take my leave, Boston is about to become a one-paper town. That makes us much like many other cities these days but it’s a change that needs to be acknowledged. The Boston Herald will move its offices to Braintree next month, leaving the Globe as the last paper standing. That is stunning and significant.
The largest publisher of newspapers in the region by circulation is now GateHouse Media, which owns more than 100 daily and weekly papers in the state, including the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, the Patriot Ledger in Quincy, the Brockton Enterprise, the Cape Cod Times, and the MetroWest Daily News. The company nearly bought the bankrupt Herald before being outbid by Digital First, a loathed corporation in the industry operated by a hedge fund.
And that is the biggest change in the business that most readers don’t see. The joke about non-profits is really just a joke because most of these papers are owned by hedge funds and venture capitalists and they would never allow their holdings to be unprofitable. So to preserve the bottom line, they cut. And they cut. And they cut.
Once-packed newsrooms are shells of their former selves, with vast swaths of empty desks sitting between the remaining employees. It prompts papers such as the Globe, Herald, and now the Ledger, to move to smaller – and, in some cases, cheaper – spaces. The Ledger’s move to the Quincy-Braintree line will mean Braintree has more daily newspapers than Boston. For papers like the Herald and the GateHouse publications, copy editing, layout and design, and advertising sales are centralized at faraway locations in Texas and Colorado, even overseas, to maximize resources.
The changes that have occurred in the news business since I started have been more revolutionary than evolutionary. Nonprofit news when I began was mostly PBS. But with the retrenchment in coverage by the for-profit sector, outlets such as CommonWealth have become vital pieces of the reporting landscape.
And, thankfully, there are many, many talented young journalists covering news from Beacon Hill to the Berkshires, from Cape Ann to Cape Cod. If I tried to name them, I’d leave some very deserving ones out. But they are the reason for hope for the industry. And hopefully, they’ll get to retire from this business at a very old age. That would be a welcome change.