Given the current cacophony of cuckoo that has captured the Capitol, I thought now would be as good a time as any to point out a local development that, as it spreads across the country, might point to why such fiascos are likely to be more and more common in the future. Journalism is dying, along with the informed citizeny it was meant to foster.
As recently as the early nineties, metropolitan daily newspapers were riding high. Having vanquished their competition, nearly all of them were unchallenged monopolies, charging astronomical rates for advertising that, in a happy coincidence, supported quality journalism. Post- Watergate, a flood of idealistic young people flocked to what then seemed like a glamorous and relatively secure career, and in my case, a college major that conveniently skirted higher math.
Of course even then the reality didn’t entirely square with the hype; a typical career was most likely to begin writing fire stories for a small town rag for several years, in hopes of landing a gig where one might or might not be “discovered” by a big city daily and, well, write fire stories for a bit longer.
Realizing this, I personally decided to drop out of the mediocre and uninspiring U of O j- school and major in history instead, figuring I could always write if I wanted to, and perhaps do so more intelligently by doing something other than write fire stories.
It turned out to be a pretty prescient decision; my contemporaries who stuck with the field have all ended up roadkill on the information highway, after toiling for decades in a job they thought they’d have for life.
Of course, the “new” economy, that is the one wherein even the most seasoned and talented profesionals in any field have long since kissed job security goodbye, has been particularly cruel to journalists, who watched helplessly as distant corporate owners did the opposite of what might have secured their business’ future.
In city after city, declining ad revenues, first from the nationalization of retail long before Al Gore’s invention clobbered lucrative classified advertising, publishers responded by gutting newsrooms, dumping beloved columnists and critics, and were shocked that readers abandoned them in droves. Most remained profitable, but only by the lowly standards of a normal business, not by what Wall Street demanded.
Here in Portland, the Oregonian, having swallowed up its afternoon competitor, the Oregon Journal, the Oregonian was waxing powerful in the early 90’s. It’s corporate owner, New York based Advance Publications, which then owned the New Orleans Times- Picayune, Vogue, and many other venerable institutions, decided that its printing facilities, which were once housed in its headquarters building behind giant windows to astonish passers by as it turned out two editions each day, were inadequate, so it strong-armed the city into letting it build two monstrous concrete behemoths several blocks away in utter defiance of city codes that required such fripperies as windows on the ground floor. Either that, or they’d move to the suburbs. Needless to say, the bunkers got built; buying ink by the barrel has always given publishers clout, even in Portlandia.
Last summer, Advance Publications announced that beginning this week, the Oregonian would only be delivered four days a week, those days advertisers liked best, following the disastrous lead of the Times-Picayune, which not only lost its loyal readers, but attracted its first competitor in decades as the Baton Rouge paper introduced a New Orleans edition, well-stocked with T/P expatriates. Adding insult to injury, it announced that its new, lower-paid staff would, you guessed it, move to the suburbs, and the headquarters building would be sold off like the copper in a meth house.
Natch, the bunkers would remain, perhaps to print porno someday; those zoning waivers, unlike the Oregonian itself, are undoubtedly still quite valuable. When democracy’s epitaph is written, newspapers like the Oregonian will certainly deserve a mention, right below Ted Cruz.
Photo by Josh Bancroft under Creative Commons license