As someone who still, inexplicably, loves newspapers, and who has enough remaining ink coursing through my veins even 10 years after leaving the trade (or is it all the fumes from the presses I inhaled?), seeing what has become of the Tribune properties in the last few years has been enough to make you want to cry. But after reading David Carr’s excellent article in the New York Times alleging management’s failings, harassment, indulgence, bullying, and culture of entitlement under Tribune owner Sam Zell and his cronies, I feel like the men-children responsible should be, in the words of the National Gonzo Press Club, lashed to an oceanside cliff so that ospreys could feast on their eyes. You think that ad executives of the ’60s Mad Men behaved badly? You think the ’86 “Scum Bunch” Mets behaved badly? These pigs can go spit for what they did to great newspapers in Chicago and Los Angeles, and for all the lives they ruined of toiling reporters and editors (with no other journalism job prospects).
Newspapers may have always encouraged a culture of controlled insanity (see, Thompson, Dr. Hunter S.). It’s been something that’s been missed (or muted, at least) for a generation or more in the era of the J-School-trained Master’s of Journalism Journalists (don’t demean them by calling them “reporters”) or the MBA-holding Managing Editors (or Directors of Content and Audience Developments, or whatever they’re called now).
As Pete Hamill, in News is a Verb, wrote:
“Reporters in those days were not as well educated as they are now. Some were degenerate gamblers. Some had left wives and children in distant towns, or told husbands they were going for a bottle of milk and ended up back on night rewrite on a different coast. Some of them were itinerant boomers who worked brilliantly for six months and then got drunk, threw a typewriter out a window, and moved on. Some were tough veterans of the depression and World War II and were sour on the whole damned human race. But all of them were serious about the craft. And oh, Lord — were they fun.”
Sure, there were drinkers like Hamill and Jimmy Breslin and Steve Dunleavy, gonzo writers like Dr. Thomson. But those old-time reporters produced (and, admittedly, the new school reporters sometimes do, too, as soulless as that production might often be).
But had the old-timers behaved as the Tribune management is alleged to have behaved, particularly in the new century, production would mean nothing.
There is Gonzo journalism, and then there is using journalism as an excuse, a crutch, and an entrée to contemptible behavior.
And then, on top of it, there is rewarding yourselves financially as Rome burns, as Carr reports.
Dr. Thompson once said: “Journalism is not a profession or a trade. It is a cheap catch-all for fuck-offs and misfits — a false doorway to the backside of life, a filthy piss-ridden little hole nailed off by the building inspector, but just deep enough for a wino to curl up from the sidewalk and masturbate like a chimp in a zoo-cage.”
Back to the zoo-cage, eh?
Jack Shafer is one of those reliably irritable writers who gets it right more times than not (his crusade against Bill Moyers was one of those times that are not, but other than that, I can’t think of any others right now). He’s the prototypical cranky journo, and the world is better for it.
Right now, I tend to think Shafer is absolutely right about the future of journalism, and the fact that the downturn of today could portend a rise tomorrow. To wit:
Let me say it another way: The barriers of entry into the journalism business have been battered down, making it easier than ever to enter the profession. That will read as small consolation to the journalists who have had their publications shot out from under them—the Rocky Mountain News, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Ann Arbor News (come July 23), and magazines too numerous to tally. But please notice that I’m not saying there has never been a more lucrative or prestigious time to become a journalist. The cash and status associated with the profession are fairly recent. Until the early 1970s or thereabouts, the average journalist made an average salary (if that), and his societal standing was modest.
If the downside of the battered-down barriers to entry is less pay and lower status, the potential upside is that a flood of new entrants into the field could portend a journalistic renaissance.
This hardly aids journos of my generation and the Millennials. Our bosses, most of them Baby Boomers, sold us a bill of goods that said we needed more and more college degrees to be “real” journalists, even though many of them didn’t have Master’s degrees when they entered the field. This isn’t exactly what Shafer is saying in his recent Slate column, but it got me thinking.
To me, this touches on something Laurie at Punk Rock HR wrote about recently regarding MBAs in the work world in general, and what Jimmy Breslin has long said about the reporting world in particular — why the hell do you need a Master’s to be a journalist, or for that matter, a degree from a Journalism school when you should be learning about history, literature and the like in school (with a healthy re-up of grammar lessons, but I’m hardly one to call the kettle black on that one), and learning the how-to’s of journalism as a cub reporter under the tutelage of a seasoned veteran? It’s real-life experience that matters, and that makes good writing.
When I first came around, there was some very good newspapermen in New York. But increasingly, they started leaning on this Columbia School of Journalism thing. That you wanted your mom to be proud. That it was a profession.
Journalism is a craft, like being a master plumber. We wore white collars, but we were blue collar.
Sad week for the newspaper business, and here I am bemoaning the loss of two conservative institutions in the New York media landscape.
Dunleavy, now retired, was far from sainthood. He was a man whose tactics, particularly once he reached television’s platform, helped contribute to the Public’s perception of the Devil Media (ironically, the same Public that too-often too-broadly paints the entire media as overly liberal).
And yet, we mourn his retirement still. The New York Times gave him a nice send-off written by Tim Arango and enthused about one of the last true Tabloid Reporters in the two-fisted blue-collar sense exiting the stage.
Even Jimmy Breslin, his one-time rival who first led and then competed with Dunleavy on the Son of Sam story in 1977, had this to say about Dunleavy in the Times’ article:
“In a time of listless reporting, he climbed stairs. And he wrote simple declarative sentences that people could read, as opposed to these 52-word gems that moan, ‘I went to college! I went to graduate school college! Where do I put the period?’ ”
Pete Hamill, another of the last of the great New York columnists, said:
“He always had this energy. I always thought he was writing his columns like he was double-parked. He was a tabloid guy in every fiber of his body. If it didn’t have conflict, he didn’t want to write it.”
Since Breslin, Hamill and Dunleavy — all three from the Silent Generation — were at their height writing on a daily or semi-daily basis, there have been scant few great cityside columnist-reporters in New York. Other than the departed Mike McAlary, a Baby Boomer who died young 10 years ago at 41, I can’t think of another recent columnist that fits the Tab mold, particularly from the next two generations. That’s a reality and an indictment of the dying newspaper business in the last 20 years, which, of course, dovetails with the rise of the Master’s Degree-trained “journalist” (rather than “reporter”) and the rise of the MBAs and Marketers running the newsroom.
Great soloists, as I believe Hamill once called newspaper columnists, are now largely off the scene.