So I told them they were committing suicide.
Maybe not that word, I can’t remember now. Something like it. “You are killing this paper,” I think it was, even though I know nobody in that room controls where the guillotine falls. Whoosh. Slam. Blood along the stairs.
What does it mean? It means you’re free to scream.
There are things you wanted to scream from the rooftops, things you wanted to bash out in the comment sections, things you wanted to let flow out in response to every angry email claiming conspiracy. You didn’t cover this; you haven’t covered that; you aren’t, you won’t, you’re soft. The “mainstream media” is not on our side.
Well, we are and we aren’t. Lesson number one: never chalk up to conspiracy, what can be best explained by incompetence.
Lesson number two: never ascribe to incompetence, what can best be explained by lack of capacity.
This is not just about the Free Press, it’s about this entire gasping industry. It’s difficult to draw a picture of the amount of work that must go into a standard newsroom. Before the crash, some of them were bloated, yes. Older institutions were — sometimes, still are — riddled with middle management, drawing handsome salaries to oversee shrinking editorial fiefdoms. But for the most part, mainstream media outlets always ran a little lean.
Then the Internet came, and the cuts came, and they kept coming, and for the most part they started at the bottom. The Free Press was relatively lucky in this regard, compared to the mass editorial layoffs at other outlets; still, at more and more media outlets, there was nobody left to do the work. So the reporters that remained, they hacked out what they could in the sudden silence of the newsroom. They tried, we tried, God I know we all tried.
For the record: reporters and editors, we always damn well cared. But love is not enough.
“I need you to come in early and go to this,” my editor said, a million times he said. “I have no morning reporters.”
Or, “I know you don’t have any contacts on (Big Investigative Story), but I need you to try and find this out. Nobody else is available.”
Nobody else is available. And now they never will be.
This is the suicide pact that almost all mainstream media outlets have made with the yawning maw of digital media: we will feed you, stuff you full of food, but it will be full of sugar and deep fried in fat. We will push volume onto websites and Twitter just to try and keep up with the pack. We will compensate with quantity what we have lost, are losing, in quality.
“CBC is kicking our ass on Tweeting this trial,” someone wrote to me.
“Yeah,” I replied. “She doesn’t need to take down exact quotes, in notation. And I only have two hands.”
The thing is, it wouldn’t have mattered if I did. You don’t get paid for Tweets, and social media will not save this industry.
Nor will quantity save this industry, not when anyone can get police media releases on email or Twitter and know as much about an incident as they will from quick web articles it took one reporter an hour to write, including time spent at the press conference collecting hollow quotes.
Oh God, we’re doing it wrong.
Veteran mainstream media observers point to the Huffington Post and other aggregators and cry foul, they cry theft. They’re wrong. HuffPo isn’t successful because it steals content; it’s successful because it realized what mainstream media had long forgotten, and that is this:
Content is everything.
It is the only thing of value, the only thing you have to sell, the only thing that defines who you are and what you stand for.
Abramson told the conference audience that new technology would most likely bolster a “very robust future” for long-form nonfiction narrative. “Tablets and iPhones have given long-form narrative journalism a way to reach a new audience,” she said. “The long-form article isn’t only alive, it’s actually dancing to new music.”
And yet it is dancing alone, because the capacity for long-form journalism — that is, either the time or money to fund their investigation, or the people to pick up the slack to allow older writers to investigate — is among the first things cut in almost every newsroom.
We had a joke at the Free Press, spat out drily on the occasion a reporter begged for more time, more space, more space to tell the story right: “The 1980s called. They want their story lengths back.”
The first news article I ever wrote at the Winnipeg Free Press that I was really, truly proud of, earned a National Newspaper Award nomination for long-form journalism. I didn’t win, but as they say it was an honour to be nominated. More than that, it was the moment when I realized what I could do, given the time and the support. (The piece did win a Professional Writers Association of Canada Award, which was amazing.)
When I sat down to write that article, I said, “I’m going for an NNA.”
“No pressure,” my coworker joked, and it wasn’t.
As time went on, I hungered to go for an NNA again. I had the ideas, the stories I was burning to tell. But they all required time and travel and a little bit of money; some fell through on other logistics. More fell through by a gentle shake of the head. “We just can’t do that right now,” they told me, maybe in not so many words but I knew it right away: there was no time. No money. Nobody else was available to take my shifts.
My story, repeated a thousand times, a hundred thousand times, at newsrooms across the world.
The stories we wanted to tell but never did, never to be told again. The news cycle has long moved on, now. Too late.
Content is everything, and content gets cut. And revenue plummets, and the bean counters point a finger at the Internet and turn back to their balance sheets; time to cut more content. Time to ease the pain. Shed salary, slash freelance budgets. Make do with fewer voices, get by with less to say.
While they do this, trust is shattered, and more people fall away.
“You’re not covering this, because…”
“You didn’t investigate this scandal, because…”
“You didn’t dig deeper on this press conference, because…”
…because there was nobody available.
This isn’t to say it’s never about incompetence. Sometimes it is, and I can take responsibility for that myself. At the Free Press, I was sometimes caught in inertia; sometimes in over my head. So I pulled back. It takes a lot of confidence to break news; some of my colleagues there were amazing at that. But when you’re still trying to find your feet in a swamp you’ve never seen, you’re not so quick to dive into the muck.
In newsrooms of the past, I might never have had to be in over my head. I could have crafted myself a content niche and nailed it.
Our killer is a swamp snake biting its own tail.
People want to be informed, yes. But it’s more than that. They want to feel informed. They want to feel anything. People seek out non-fiction content because they want to feel angry or elated, inspired, outraged, introspective or just plain alive. At its best, major media offers people a mirror to better see themselves, and like or loathe what is reflected.
And at its absolute best, media is about the sacred act of curating our stories, and committing them to history.
At its worst, we are a clearinghouse of information, feeding the ever-hungry maw. Low low prices, everything must go. Meaningless, stripped of context, slipping into the ether and dismissed outright as spam. The more content that we cut, the closer to this model we become.
“Yesterday, the Winnipeg Free Press cut seven editorial positions…”
This is all very cynical, all very full of darkness and dismay.
I’m not, exactly. I know that somehow, stories will keep getting told. They were told before we could write them down; they were told when all we had to write on was stone. Blogs are picking up an enormous amount of slack, and doing incredible work.
And I want to emphasize too: there is still, obviously, great content in the Winnipeg Free Press. My colleagues do great stuff, I respect them tremendously, and I will be cheering them on. I never contributed so much that my loss will be so sorely felt. It’s not about that, exactly.
It’s that the more writers they cut, the fewer people will be there to pick up the slack. The more space will dwindle, the more content will be cut, and the more revenues will drop again. And it will die. I’m not sure in how long. I used to think 10 years, probably, until the end of print; now I wonder if it makes it that long. Maybe five. Maybe eight.
And it won’t just be the Free Press. Brace yourself, journalists. There’s much more coming, and it’s coming very soon.
It will be every paper, too many magazines and a whole lot of television news. It will be everywhere that the suits in the corner offices don’t draw a line in the sand and say: “this is it. This is what we will survive with, and this is what we will fight to protect.”
Until that happens, we’re on our own here, folks.
So I’m going to just start telling the stories I never did manage to tell.