If you follow me on Facebook or the work blog, you know that Jan. 2 was my last day at the News & Record. The company offered voluntary buyouts several weeks ago, and I took one.
This obviously was a tough decision. My gut reaction when the announcement of buyouts first went out was, “You need to take this.” But I thought a lot about it, and talked to a lot of people, before pulling the trigger right before the end of the year.
My thinking went something like this, although I can’t swear it went in this order.
First, as even a lot of non-newspaper people now know, the newspaper industry is in a lot of financial trouble because circulation has been dropping more or less like a rock in most markets. A lot of places have laid off a lot of people. I won’t bore you with the details, nor will I belabor the point with statistics. But it’s grim, and the prospects of a substantial turnaround anytime soon look dim.
Historically, the N&R has weathered economic downturns better than a lot of places. During the 1990-91 recession, for example, there were retirement buyouts, but no layoffs, at a time when a lot of other newspaper chains were shedding jobs. Not being a stockholder in the paper’s parent (privately held) company, I didn’t know exactly what the numbers were for the N&R. But I knew they weren’t good. I also knew, and some of you will remember, that the paper laid off a number of people in mid-2007.
The details of the buyout are confidential, but as most such offers do, this one hinged on tenure with the company. I’d been with the N&R just shy of 22 years. With no guarantee that there wouldn’t be more layoffs sometime soon (with severance packages not nearly as generous), the math looked pretty compelling.
Finally — and I don’t want to use this to try to make me look noble or anything, but it did cross my mind — I figured that my taking the buyout might buy a little more job security for someone who couldn’t. I talked to a number of people who wanted to take the buyout but either hadn’t been with the N&R long enough for the money to be much help or who couldn’t leave because they would lose health insurance. And, of course, I talked to people who wanted to stay no matter what.
I hate what has happened to the newspaper industry. What’s ironic is that I’m awful at prognostication — I can count on the fingers of one hand the times I’ve ever even bet on a sports event, and I’ve never publicly predicted the outcome of any election. But I can’t say I didn’t see this disaster coming a long time ago. I was reminded of this recently when I popped an old floppy into my home machine to make sure the new drive was working properly and found on it a letter I had written to friends of mine in October 1994. At the time, I was leading the team that was creating Triad Online, the N&R’s first Web site. We were still about two months away from soft launch, but we were about to become one of the first 25 or 30 newspapers in the country to put up a more-or-less functional, news-delivering Web site. Here’s what I said to my friends:
One hidden blessing of my work with the online service is getting to spend a good bit of time on the Internet, exchanging ideas with people in my line of work and people on the outside looking in. It has aroused hope and despair — hope, in that I can see that the way things work in cyberspace is different and, in most ways, better than the way they work in most daily papers and offers a model for what we could become; despair, in that the newspaper industry does an awesome job of killing off its best thinkers early in their careers. If newspapers go on-line and try to stay there, either they will be abandoned by their customers or forced by them to become more open and responsive. The process of deciding “what’s news” will become more democratized, with fewer such decisions made by a closeted, small group of isolated, middle-aged white men. Reporters will be challenged by their online readers to find better source materials, better human sources. Editors who make stupid decisions about, say, naming rape victims will be forced by online readers to defend those decisions publicly — will be forced, in short, to do something they haven’t done in years: think about the news. Scary thought for a lot of them. But the scariest thought of all is that newspaper editors won’t make the change. They have invested too much time and effort to gain this power; they don’t want to give it up. And I think what will happen is that before they do give it up, their readers will give them up. Online doesn’t need to kill newspapers, but it probably will, and the newspapers will have only their own editors to blame.
As predictions go, this one was fair-to-middlin’. Newspapers actually did become more open; their online interaction with the public really did evolve in the way I described. The News & Record was a national leader in that regard, and I’m proud to have helped make that happen.
And, yeah, the industry’s editors were to some extent to blame for the dive the industry has taken. But the industry is getting killed not because of its content, although that’s a factor in some markets. It’s getting killed because its traditional revenue sources got siphoned off by competitors like Craigslist. Its business side never found a way to make money online in sufficient quantities to support a news operation, even at margins lower than print had historically achieved.
It was a bad scene, and just how bad it was was driven home to me as the word spread that I was going to be leaving the paper. The first thing every single person who had heard the news said to me on getting to talk to me about it or leave me a message was, “Congratulations!” I was starting to wonder if I should be developing survivor guilt.
I am at peace with my decision to leave, but that absolutely does not mean I regret any of the time I spent there. In my almost 22 years at the News & Record, I got to do a whole bunch of stuff I loved and had looked forward to getting the chance to do.
For one thing, beats at the paper defined certain minimum obligations but were not by any means intended to be confining. During my time as an investigative reporter, I got to do a big ol’ story on the resurgence of pinball, for example. (Obviously this was years ago; pinball is now basically dead except for computer simulations.) In addition to my beat responsibilities, I spent three years covering PTL and Jim Bakker. Later, I got to turn religion into a hard-news beat and then cover it that way, which was also educational, and I got to write a wide-ranging religion column while I held that beat — almost a blog in print, before I or anyone else in our newsroom had heard of blogging. I got to learn database analysis. As regional editor, I got huge satisfaction out of hiring good people and helping them grow and learn. As assistant features editor, I got to work with some of the most talented pure writers in the newsroom, a job that involved just as much learning as it did managing. I got to be an investigative-projects reporter. I got to lead an enterprise team. (And you haven’t lived until you’ve cut a reporter like Stan Swofford or Taft Wireback loose on a story. It’s the journalism equivalent of getting to drive a Ferrari.) I got to lead the aforementioned Triad Online team, a diverse and creative bunch who made sure we got our first Web effort off on the right foot. And as citizen-journalism coordinator, I spent 2005 neck-and-neck with Rob Curley in terms of who had the coolest newspaper job on the planet AND got mentioned in the New York Times. (I just wish Dad could have lived another month to see that.)
Even more important than that, though, were the relationships I built over the years, with co-workers and with people in the community. I even met my wife on the job. (She was working for another paper then, and she and I both covered the 1987 Klan march in Greensboro, the first one since the 1979 Klan-Nazi killings.) Those friendships have been amazing. Just one example: On the June day in 2005 when I returned from burying my father after having been out of town in the hospital with him most of the previous month, I pulled into the driveway and found photo director Rob Brown and his son there with a lawn mower, preparing to take care of the chores I hadn’t been there to handle. You think I didn’t tear up?
I started in the newspaper business on Feb. 26, 1984, almost exactly 25 years ago. On the twentieth anniversary of that date in a post that apparently has been lost to Blogger, WordPress, the Google cache AND archive.org, (UPDATE: Post is here), I composed a list of things I had learned after 20 years in newspapers. If I remember the last two correctly, they were something on the order of “I can’t imagine ever leaving newspapers” and “I know the day will come when I will have to leave.”
That day has come. I have nothing but fondness for the experience. And now it’s time to leave.
(I’ve tried to insert the *.pdf of the parody front page my colleagues gave me when I left, but WordPress isn’t letting me, even though it supposedly will handle *.pdf files. Anyone got any suggestions on getting it to show up? Thanks.)