GORDON WHITE: Ink in My Blood: Veteran Journalist Bemoans State of Papers
Stories of their demise and grand history do not appear on obituary pages. Instead, you read about the death of newspapers, large and small, on the front pages of those few other newspapers still standing -- for the time being, at least.
As this once-powerful industry that turned out thousands of daily and other periodical publications across America threatens to dwindle down to a mere shell of its former size, this nation is fast losing one of its most valuable assets.
Newspapers, with their formidable staffs of reporters and editors, produced our citizens' best source of truthful information ever since the First Amendment to our Constitution gave people the right to publish uncensored news. Despite what some critics may say, newspapers informed, educated and entertained as no other source did or does.
The causes at present for such a severe crisis in the newspaper business are numerous and endemic. Historically, poor business management has been a handicap within the industry. But it is generally conceded by experts in and out of the publishing business that the steady loss of classified advertising to the Internet in recent years is the biggest single financial loss for newspapers, particularly the big-city dailies.
Staffs and salaries have been cut across the industry while, from coast to coast, newspapers are folding. The 150-year-old Rocky Mountain News in Denver published its final edition in February, and The Seattle Post Intelligencer stopped its paper editions and is now published exclusively on the Internet.
The Boston Globe, founded in 1872, nearly went belly-up earlier this month but is holding on by a thin thread as its owner, The New York Times Co., tries to work out a job security arrangement with the Boston Newspaper Guild.
Both major Chicago dailies, The Tribune and The Sun-Times, are owned by companies that declared bankruptcy within the last few months. The McClatchy newspaper chain, which owns our neighboring News & Observer of Raleigh, recently laid off 31 staff members of that venerable paper.
Arizona's oldest continuously published daily newspaper, The Tucson Citizen, published its last edition yesterday.
I am a very lucky member of the Fourth Estate. I worked as a reporter for one of the world's greatest newspapers during the 20th century. That was a period when newspapers were at their best, even though many, including The New York Times, struggled at times to remain afloat.
But it was a period during which newspapers were our primary source of information about World War I, World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars. It was a period during which newspapers exposed the Watergate break-in and Pentagon Papers scandals that brought down a president.
These are primary examples of why men and women, including me, became journalists. We are admitted idealists who, no matter the field of reporting, will be vigilant for the story that tells our readers who might be crossing the line from right to wrong.
'Integrity Is the Cornerstone'
I chose sports as a reporting career because of my love for that part of American culture. The same spirit of idealism and honesty in reporting and writing pervades sports, the arts, theater and literature journalism as works for political, international, national, city and business news coverage.
Although I occasionally miss the hustle and fast pace of making deadlines two or three times a day, I am pleased that I am a retired and senescent journalist who does not have to partake of these desperate times for my profession. I sympathize greatly with those active reporters and editors who have lost their jobs or are worrying about their newspaper folding under them.
These men and women make up the teams that each newspaper needs to produce an excellent and respected product day in and day out.
You may read a byline such as mine or that of any other reporter. But before you got to reading that article, many people other than the acknowledged author with the byline had input to make sure of factual and grammatical accuracy. Team members such as copy editors wrote the headline, trimmed the story to fit the allotted space and decided where to place the story.
Every member of this extensive team, from reporter-writer to editors, copy editors and even pressmen and truck drivers, is working under a code of ethics generally accepted by all newspapers.
"Conscientious journalists strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty," according to the Society of Professional Journalists. "Integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist's credibility."
A Family Tradition
I worked for The New York Times for many years by following the traditions of that paper's core purpose: "To enhance society by creating, collecting and distributing high-quality news, information and entertainment."
This may sound high and mighty and somewhat unrealistic to many of our critics. But these are the rules by which I lived all of my professional life. It was simply part of my way of thinking and working. You might say it was in the printer's ink I had coursing through my veins.
After all, my father and mother met while they were working on the staff of The Chicago Daily News, from 1916 to 1918. My father grew up in St. Louis, where he followed his oldest brother, John, as a reporter on the staff of the old St. Louis Democrat in 1911 before Dad moved to the job in Chicago.
My Uncle John went on to work for The Houston Chronicle, then took a job with the United States Consular Service in the Canary Islands and eventually went to work as a reporter in South America for The New York Times.
Uncle John, stationed in Buenos Aires, Argentina, went across the River Plate to Montevideo, Uruguay, 70 years ago when he was the only United States reporter to cover the Dec. 13, 1939, Battle of the River Plate, which was the first big naval engagement of World War II. Three light British cruisers, the Exeter, Ajax and Achilles, cornered and defeated the much more powerful German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee, forcing it to retreat into Montevideo Harbor.
There my uncle was the only American journalist to cover the big war story when, on Dec. 17, 1939, Capt. Hans Langsdorff scuttled the Admiral Graf Spee. That was one hell of a beat for The New York Times.
All Part of the Job
With such a family history of journalism, can anyone blame me for wanting to become a reporter and eventually fulfilling my life's ambition?
The hours were long, and I worked as many as 21 weeks in a row. Rarely did I keep the same hours two days in a row and have three square meals each day. I had to travel far from home and be gone for weeks on end, particularly when I covered the golf tour.
It was rough on a family with two young sons. Journalism does not make one wealthy, since newspaper owners are notorious for suffering from the Scrooge Syndrome.
Surely reporters and editors never please all readers, and we hear from the unhappy ones much more than from the satisfied customers.
Our critics are, at times, correct when we err in pursuit of the truth. We quickly admit to such mistakes. But generally our critics are biased and misinformed. They want to read what they think the news should be and not what it is.
Journalists put their name on their work every day of their lives for the entire world to see. No hiding behind "the other guy" in this business.
Journalists have the courage to go to jail for a principle. In most of these cases it has been the principle of a reporter refusing to reveal news sources.
Journalists have been killed in all wars over the past century and have been assassinated during the past few years in Ireland, Russia, Italy, the United States and elsewhere for exposing crime, corruption and racism.
It is all part of the job that includes idealism as a blessing or sometimes as a curse.
A World Without Papers?
Fortunately, in my retirement from The New York Times, I found a way to keep my hand in writing when Steve Bouser, The Pilot's editor, invited me to write a sports column for The Pilot. This has been a joy since the people on The Pilot staff are just as dedicated and just as committed as the folks at The New York Times.
Unfortunately, many young Americans, plus some others who prefer to get their "news" from Internet blogs of questionable origin or other odd-ball Internet sources, lose out on the chance to be better informed by not taking the time to read at least one newspaper each day.
Also, too many people depend upon television, which offers up a truncated version of the news. Even the 24-hour "news" channels too often rely on totally distorted versions of events.
There are more and more electronic devices being invented for the purpose of presenting news. The remaining newspapers are attempting to see which ones might best serve their readers.
Many more jobs will be lost in journalism during the coming months and years as more newspapers stop their presses, while the really big losers will be the American people.
But I had a great life while newspapers were still in their glory days, and I can't imagine having my first cup of coffee in the morning without a newspaper.
Gordon White, a regular contributor to The Pilot, served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His email is email@example.com.
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