Retirement, newspapers and conspiracies: How two stories and fake news were related

Three seemingly unrelated events this week . . .

1. Berkshire Hathaway, the company founded by investing genius Warren Buffett and owners of a few dozen newspapers nationwide, announce staff cuts, including deep ones at two of the larger newspapers in North Carolina – the Greensboro News & Record and Winston-Salem Journal. Further cost-cutting measures include page reductions, elimination of some regular features and reorganization of services. No other way to frame this except to say it sucks.

2. Tony Romo, longtime quarterback of the NFL Dallas Cowboys, announces his retirement from professional football to take a job as a game broadcaster / analyst for CBS. Sports pundits – people who exist in every bar and street corner in America – can’t fathom why he would walk away at age 37 with a few good years left in him and at least two decent teams willing to give him a starting job. No other way  to frame this except to say Romo’s decision makes complete sense to me.

And 3. A guy who often speaks before local government boards about a variety of conspiracy theories, appeared before Burlington City Council Tuesday night and launched a few doozies. For some reason my name came up in a rambling and nonsensical monologue in which he contends that I was fired or forced to resign from my job as executive editor of the Times-News late last year. No other way to frame this, except to say that’s weird – and inaccurate. Everything said to the Burlington Council was inaccurate — and sometimes goofy.

Two of these stories were widely reported locally and nationally. The third one wasn’t because it’s not really a story at all. But for me at least, all three of these items are connected.

The Romo effect

Let’s look at the Tony Romo retirement first. To say I get it would be a massive understatement. People dumbfounded that someone with 13 years of being slammed to the ground by men in excess of 300 pounds would be a little tired of it, must have suffered their own series of self-inflicted brain concussions over the years. Romo was a good but not great quarterback, someone with big numbers and a winning record but way short in enough playoff wins to be a Hall of Fame contender. He’s remarkable in that he was undrafted out of college and played his way to a starting job. But that’s about it.

romo

Look ma, I got a new job with CBS.

Over that time, he’s been well paid – damn well paid. But the hours are long and the risks high for an NFL quarterback. Conditioning, practice, film study, public appearances — it’s a job that eats time and energy the way linemen hit the steak bar at Golden Corral. And then there are the regular beatings. NFL quarterbacks get pounded weekly, even those with great offensive lines aren’t immune. It’s legally sanctioned assault is what it is. And Romo has been particularly injury prone the past few years – only playing five games in the past two.

If you add it all up, the job as a TV broadcaster at this stage of any NFL player’s career is much more appealing than football ever could be. At age 37 it’s a life raft he can jump on and still make a decent chunk of change with fewer hours, stability and without Vic Beasley Jr. or Markus Golden in his face all day on Sunday afternoons. Face it folks, modern-day players are highly compensated and won’t be as interested in hanging on beyond their time. We’ve seen a few leave without remorse as fears about concussions or other injuries have grown. Today’s players aren’t dumb. They’re watching yesterday’s stars limp, stagger and crawl into sunset or, tragically, premature death.

Romo retire? Just means he’s smarter than those who haven’t yet. I definitely get it. Good luck, Tony. Enjoy your new gig.

That giant sucking sound

Now let’s take a look at the Berkshire Hathaway cuts. It’s no secret that the newspaper business is in a decline that grows steeper every week. It’s true for nearly all the old media. TV stations ain’t doing a whole lot better, no matter what they try to say. As more various media consumption outlets open up, market shares for all others decline. People pick the news they want from the source that’s most convenient. Print still appeals to a core collection of readers – an older group that’s growing exponentially smaller. Most get news from their phones or online via social media. The pitfalls that come with this unfortunate lifestyle choice are another topic for a different day. But believe me, the consequences are serious.

So newspapers have been slashing costs when it comes to print for years as advertisers look for new venues and circulation drops on a weekly basis. Most pointed to digital as the new media frontier and pushed resources in that direction. Newspaper staffs got smaller, services fewer and more sporadic and print readership continued its decline. Meanwhile revenues from online reporting aren’t catching up. And the digital transformation that’s supposed to be happening really isn’t. Too many job cuts are coming in the digital areas of newsrooms.

So maybe it was no surprise that at the end of the first quarter for 2017 that BH made more widespread cuts. Of the 289 jobs lost nationwide, 36 were in Greensboro, many of those in the newsroom. Fourteen jobs were cut in Winston-Salem, some of those in the newsroom, too. I have friends at both publications, some former colleagues. As a former newsroomer myself it’s a harsh reality check and emotionally demoralizing to see your friends and former co-workers go out the door in this way. It’s obviously tougher on those leaving who now have the daunting task of finding a job in which journalism skills are a part in a market flooded with applicants. Those left behind don’t face a catered tailgate party either. When jobs are eliminated, the workload doesn’t go down for those left behind. The people still in the building are simply tasked to do more. They then vainly attempt to pick up different functions to try and meet the still vocal demands of a diminishing audience. “Try” is the operative word here. People in newspapers are only really happy when allowed to do the best work they possibly can. Under such conditions, it’s just not possible.

One serious outcome of corporate consolidation of newspaper talent is a shortage of reporters in the field covering stories or issues from a variety of viewpoints. Every editor has different story ideas or questions about stories. Reporters are the same way. But if one reporter is now covering the N.C. General Assembly for three different papers, it’s fewer voices asking different questions about a wider range of issues. There was a time when several dozen reporters from all the state’s mid-to-large sized newspapers covered Raleigh. Now it’s a handful. At the Final Four just held in Arizona, just three sports writers from North Carolina were offering byline stories. Andrew Carter filed for the News & Observer, Charlotte Observer and Durham Herald-Sun. Adam Smith, my former colleague the Burlington Times-News filed stories for his home publication and the Fayetteville Observer, Wilmington Star-News, Gaston Gazette, Spartanburg (S.C.) Herald, Hendersonville Times-News, Jacksonville Daily News, New Bern Sun-Journal, Kinston Free Press, Lexington Dispatch, Shelby Star and the Asheboro Courier-Tribune. The third was Associated Press writer Aaron Beard.

As a result, newspapers are losing the personality that helped define each one and the community each one served. It’s a homogenized market. It’s a boring market.

So, to sum up, readers get fewer services (cuts in the TV book, daily grid, comics and pages), less variety, fewer stories and as a result complaints go up as do cancellations. For newsroom staff, job satisfaction is in free fall what with the longer hours, no pay raises, less vacation time, more pressure and increased numbers of weekend and night shifts.

Care to apply?

newsroom 2016

The Times-News newsroom on an early morning in October, a month before I retired from the business. My fear is that it will look like this before too much longer.

Why I did it

Which brings us to the issue of whether I actually retired from newspapers or not in November of 2016. After all I’ve written so far are you frigging kidding me?

No, I wasn’t fired as executive editor after nearly 10 years back at the Times-News and 34 years of newspaper work behind me. To recap, I announced in August my plans to step down before the end of the year. I arranged with my boss at the Times-News for that date to be Nov. 18. I would have preferred to leave before the presidential election but that’s just how it turned out. I really, really wanted to avoid covering the train wreck vote of 2016. In fact, if I never discuss politics again it wouldn’t hurt my feelings. The people embroiled in politics today have all completely lost their minds.

And no, I wasn’t forced to resign either. I made the decision on my own – called my own shot – when it came to when I left the newspaper or newspaper business. As I mentioned earlier, nothing is assured in newspapers anymore. People with more experience and talent than I have been summarily laid off without warning as corporations search for costs to trim or ways to lower salaries. I didn’t want to be one of them.

So I decided to retire from journalism – and did so without remorse — and have the chance to look for another line of work while still young enough to be employable. Here are a few of the reasons.

I wanted my life back. For the past 20 years I was on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I usually arrived for work at 8:30 a.m. and most often left at around 7 p.m. – or later on Thursdays and Fridays as I prepared opinion pages for the weekend. Work didn’t stop when I got home either. It wasn’t unusual for me to receive a couple of phone calls about office-related issues at night. Almost always it was bad news – anything from an employee becoming ill to an agitated customer irked by a story they had seen online. With email and smart phones, I was never, ever off work.

Stress was killing me: After arriving at work in the morning the entire day was spent doing something newsroom related either for print or online without stopping. I usually ate lunch and occasionally dinner at my desk. I was writing copy, editing copy, posting stories online, finding stories to post online, dealing with complaint calls from readers, handling circulation issues, talking to local politicians, dealing with  employee issues, writing job evaluations, advising editors and reporters about coverage, approving timecards (and there’s always one or two to track down on Sunday), taking calendar items, handling obituary complaints, investigating errors in stories, taking calls for story ideas, editing letters to the editor or guest columns, finding editorial cartoons, assigning photos, attending department head meetings, talking to customers who visited without an appointment, greeting people who are running for state offices, and … the list goes on and on. It never stopped.

The workload situation was only growing worse as staff cuts mounted. When I arrived at the Times-News in 2007, we had 28 people in the newsroom. When I left it was 14. The move to a central page design site did not lessen the workload as advertised, it increased it – and quite a bit.

The content managing as it’s done now isn’t really the kind of journalism I wanted to do.

There was never discussion anymore of doing our jobs better, only degrees of trying to accomplish more with less.

Since 2007 I received one raise in pay, and it was so small it didn’t offset a 5 percent cut in pay instilled across the board for all employees the year before.

I dreaded each financial quarter because it could mean more cuts in staff or services to trim costs. And for people who think it’s easy for government to eliminate employees, I would advise them to sit in front of someone and tell them they’re laid off and get back to me. It’s the worst thing there is.

And when I announced my plans to retire I hadn’t had a week of vacation in two years. Corporate changeover, smaller staff and new directives to produce pages elsewhere contributed to a lack of time off.

In short, I was burned out. I wasn’t alone, within the past couple of years a few dozen editors who are friends of mine did exactly the same thing.

Today, I’m working in higher education at Elon University. I’m able to concentrate almost exclusively on writing. I’m producing reports about campus features and buildings while also writing profiles about some of the most intelligent young people anyone could possibly meet. They make me feel as if I truly wasted my college years – and I probably did, but damn it was fun.

And that’s why I left newspapers. It wasn’t fun anymore. And fun is what keeps you going when a 10-hour day starts to morph into a 12-hour day.

For the record, these days I get home shortly after 5 just about every day. It doesn’t get much better than that.

3 thoughts on “Retirement, newspapers and conspiracies: How two stories and fake news were related

  1. As one of my colleagues told me, journalism abandoned us long before we abandoned it. I walked away after 25 years, the last dozen as a managing editor/fire extinguisher. I feel guilty when I see more layoffs because some friends are still there. I miss the camaraderie of the newsroom and those moments when we knew our work bettered the community. But I’ll never go back. I agree with everything in this post, including Romo retiring before football leaves him paralyzed. And your cat’s name is priceless.

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    • Thanks, he really is such a Typo.
      It’s unfortunate. We all loved the business at one time — but it did leave us behind. Great observation. And I should add fire extinguisher to my resume.

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  2. Such is the truth. We’re seeing a continuous hollowing out to balance declining revenue, with more pressure on fewer people to keep the roof from collapsing. For now, the preferred solution is to recruit a billionaire or a foundation to bankroll the operation. It’s the era of the benefactor — but most traditional orgs don’t have one. McClatchy is in the hole to investors for almost $1 billion. Where does it find that? (“Hello, Mr. Bezos? Would you like to buy some more newspapers?”) So far Mr. Buffett, a potential benefactor, isn’t too interested in propping up his newspapers, though his people held off on the hub-and-spoke system longer than many others. (In Central California, McClatchy now trucks bundles of papers three hours from Sacramento to Fresno every night.) Hard to see how orgs without special support are going to hold on — unless the online subscription system suddenly becomes feasible.

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