Don’t Call Us Office Drones

Thanks to Colin McEnroe of The Hartford Courant for reminding people that newspaper jobs aren’t supposed to be like regular 9-to-5 rat mazes. He wrote last week about, you guessed it, the general sense of malaise that is driving journalists into alcoholism (well, further into alcoholism) over the past few months. Other reporters may hate some of these, but McEnroe hits on the essence of the business that I know I and other reporters signed up for when we felt the rush of our first stories. Some of my best nights have been in the newsroom until midnight or later. Also, I hate getting up early:

1. REGAIN YOUR SENSE OF URGENCY. One problem with newspapers — not just The Courant — is that they’re often a little a boring. They go for days and days without a “Holy S–t!” story on page one. There are ways to address this. One of them is to put the g-d paper together at night. If you’re a morning newspaper and there aren’t a hell of a lot of reporters and editors in the building at 11 p.m., something is wrong. The building should be damn near empty until 2 p.m. and full until 11. But somewhere a long the way, newspaper jobs gradually started to resemble other white collar jobs. They lost some of their romance and replaced it with comfort and security. We all wanted to go home to the suburbs, have a glass of wine, interact with our spouses and kids. Much better for our lives but probably not for newsgathering. (Meanwhile, cable news and the internet actually tightened up the news cycles — people now expect to be updated fast.) If the news staff is going to be an elite strike force, it had better include a lot of workaholics and night owls.

The next suggestion I think deserves more credit than people realize. Some papers have requirements for their reporters to live in their coverage area; we don’t have that, but there’s definitely an advantage to be a member of the community you cover — you find out tips and background info when you’re out at the bars on a weekend, you see the same traffic delays and drainage problems that your readers do and you have an important sense of connection to your community:

2. A FEW OF YOU MUST MOVE TO HARTFORD! When I started out at the Courant, you know how many Courant reporters lived in Hartford? Most of them! I could give you names and names! A whole bunch of us lived on Zion Street, of all places.Three or four different staffers bought houses on Madison Street and, under somewhat terrifying conditions, tried to rehab them. We drank in Hartford bars. We partied in Hartford apartments. We got arrested by Hartford police. Andy Kreig’s New Year’s Eve party in Frog Hollow was terrifying! Do you know how many Courant reporters and editors live in Hartford now? Very few.
…You see, suburbs are, also, really, really boring. That’s why people like to live there. That’s why it’s really big news when anything dire happens there.

And this one just seems to make sense, to me at least. Why, for instance, is the Washington Post OK with David Broder and Tony Kornheiser, two of their biggest names, taking buyouts? Apply this to another industry: “Hey, the Cavs are in trouble this year — let’s buyout LeBron’s contract to spend money making viral web videos for the Cavaliers Web site!”
But there’s probably a reason I’m not running a newspaper (other than having no desire to take up what is surely a completely thankless and tiresome job):

3. KEEPING THE ABOVE IN MIND, LOCK UP A FEW FRANCHISE PLAYERS. I will never understand the newspaper industry’s love of buyouts. You lose good people that way — people you might have been able to keep. The Courant still has a few dozen people who are so good that they can maintain the paper’s brand name. They’re smarter and more skilled than any comparable group you could assemble from local TV, radio, other papers and blogs. But that’s getting to be a closer and closer call every time the paper downsizes. There are now people that the Courant really cannot afford to give up. You gotta have that strike force of smart, aggressive, skilled, knowledgeable, workaholic blue chippers. You almost can’t afford to lose even one of them in this round of cuts.

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