Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Signposts: Looking Back at the Newspaper Business

I had a short, undistinguished career as a reporter at The Miami Herald and still have a warm spot in my heart for newspapers. You remember newspapers, right? One of my fellow journalism students at Penn State was today's guest blogger, Bill Epstein. Bill has worked in journalism, public relations, government affairs, and higher education. Currently, he is Director of Communications for the 23,000-member United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776 in Pennsylvania. -- Paul Levine

By Bill Epstein...

Signposts. You can see them and know what they mean. Or you don’t know what they mean. Sometimes you don’t see them at all.

Just out of school in 1969, I started as a reporter at the Philadelphia Bulletin. The first signpost I saw but didn’t understand was when I sat down to a typewriter that was three times as old as I was.

I remember thinking, wow, we had electric typewriters at the Penn State Daily Collegian. What’s wrong with this place?

My enlightenment came within a couple of weeks. I noticed a memo on the newsroom bulletin board that compared the monthly circulation figures of the Bulletin to those of its local rival, the Inquirer. Both newspapers had lost many thousands in circulation. But since the Inquirer had lost more, the Bulletin’s managers had titled the memo “We Won!”
Some victory.

Next month, new memo from the managers. Again, both newspapers lost circulation, but the Bulletin lost less. “Good News,” read the conclusion. “We won.” And so on for a third month.
By now I’m thinking that I’ve nailed this signpost. This is no strategy for long-term business success.

Within a short time I found myself with an opportunity for a different way to earn a paycheck. Having little in the way of financial responsibilities and it being the right time in life to take a risk, I put my journalism career on hold in favor of joining a political campaign. I remember my green-eyeshaded city editor saying to me as he puffed on his cigarette, “You shouldn’t do this, kid. You have a future here at the paper.”

His words came back to me 10 years later when the Bulletin folded and put 2,000 people out of work. I was glad and lucky that I wasn’t one of them. His words came back to me again, just weeks ago, when my son, Matthew, got married. At the wedding I was talking to one of his 30-something friends and former colleagues who works for a western Pennsylvania newspaper. Yes, eight years ago my son did the same thing I did. He came out of school and went into the newspaper business. Go figure. Four years ago he again did the same thing, leaving the business in favor of law school.

So Matt’s friend tells me that conditions at his newspaper are no different than at just about every other newspaper, magazine or radio and television station in the country. Advertising down. Staff being laid off. People being asked to do more with less. Lots of new, uncomfortable realities, and no certainty of survival.

Here’s a guy in an industry that’s not likely to offer jobs at the Harrisburg Patriot News or Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for people at smaller newspapers anytime soon. Big difference from the day 40 years ago when I finished a paid summer internship at the Bulletin and that same city editor told me that I had job as soon as I graduated in 10 months.

I felt badly that I couldn’t offer my son’s friend some good advice. Fortunately, he’s smart enough to understand the signposts, and, sadly, they’re a lot easier to read now.
Any signposts you’ve missed, or, better yet, saw and understood?

--Bill Epstein


  1. James O. Born11/24/2009 5:38 AM

    Good post, Bill. I see my friends at the Palm Beach Post sweat every contraction. Publishing is not much better.

    Thank God for government jobs.


  2. Well, if it makes you feel any better, I have a subscription to USA Today and they started an e-version a couple months ago and whoever thought about how they were going to lay out an online newspaper was a genius, because it's great. I still prefer the print edition because if I start going to the e-edition I won't get any work done. But I do think it's possible their layout and format might be a model for e-newspapers.

  3. The question now is how can newspapers make money from their on-line editions. If they can't, we'll have nothing but bloggers. And no matter how much you might enjoy Huffington Poseurs or Naked Scribblers, we damn well need newspapers.

  4. Welcome, Bill! I'm terrible at signposts because I don't want anything to change.

    It's sad to see the LA Times' new skinnier self. On the good side, the time I used to spend reading the paper in the morning can now be spent in other pursuits. I don't like reading online.

    Recently I've read columns in the paper that are shockingly biased toward one side, as if they reporter didn't bother to interview anybody else, which makes them seem just like bloggers.

  5. Interesting subject. Rupert Murdoch's casting around for a way to make money out of online news, because he isn't making any out of newspapers any more. And meanwhile over here, the main London freesheet closed for business recently, and the London Evening Standard immediately took the "opportunity" to transform itself into a freesheet.
    Desperate times.