The newsroom is nearly empty now.
Over the past three years, I’ve said good-bye to former colleagues leaving the newspaper, and when I did, I stood in a bowling alley of a room, where cubicle after cubicle reminded me of a grown-up game of Whac-A-Mole.
But no one is there, no one except ghosts and good memories.
And yet, I can stand there, close my eyes and hear once more the tapping of the keyboards, the tinny ring of countless phones and the whoop from someone across the room over the discovery of some kind of something.
And sometimes, that whoop came from me. My colleagues will vouch for that.
I’d get off a phone call or rush into the newsroom with pad in hand, excited about something that made my heart race.
Now, any time I go into the newsroom, I spot all those empty cubicles. So, I don’t go in much. Can’t. The News & Record – a place where I worked for nearly a quarter century in Greensboro, N.C. – is dying.
I hate it.
A few weeks ago, the newspaper laid off three more journalists from my old newsroom – columnist Susan Ladd, editorial columnist Doug Clark and special sections manager Whitney Cork.
I worked with all three of those fine journalists. Matter of fact, Susan was my old editor. She reined me in many a day. Chided me, too. I deserved it. So, yeah, I know all of them well — Doug, Susan and Whitney. Partners in arms, professional rowers in the bowels of a ship, all of whom I respect and love for what they do.
Or now, did.
Doug, Susan and Whitney had a combined 90 years of journalism experience in Guilford County.
That’s right, 90 years. In our county. Now, they’re gone.
Doug, Susan and Whitney are the the sixth set of journalists laid off from the News & Record since 2007. Quite honestly, I’ve lost count. It’s just lots.
And if you add the two or three job buyouts that happened in the past decade, loads of talent have walked out of that building on East Market Street near the railroad tracks.
Don’t get me wrong. Talent is still there. But there’s just not enough. Right now, from my count, less than a dozen reporters cover a city of 280,000. I remember when our reporters numbered at least four times that. Might be more.
And who loses? We all do.
They were the community’s watchdogs who kept the overreach of government in check and the gatekeepers who triple-checked every fact that appeared on every page every day.
They were the designers who turned newsprint into their own personal canvas and the photographers who captured history in action for all of us to see.
They were our neighbors, not numbers on a balance sheet.
That talent. Gone.
See this pic above? That was, I believe, taken after the first layoff at the N&R.
Up front is John Robinson, our editor. We all called him JR. He stood in front of us and tried to explain the unexplainable when he announced the first bloodletting. Look at the faces. That says it all. I’m in the back, hand on my forehead, trying to comprehend the why and the what for.
That was 2007. I still don’t have an answer. Neither does JR.
He left the paper in 2011 after going through two more layoffs. He had had enough. He now teaches journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill. On his blog two years ago, he wrote for the first time about the responsibility of making those tough cuts.
He now has a word for it: soul-sucking. Anyway, he wrote:
I felt so guilty. And alone.
As I stared at the flip chart covered with now-eliminated Post-Its, I realized that the mission of the newspaper would need to change. We couldn’t cover the news the way we had for years. Too many beats were going to go uncovered. And once the word got out to the community that we were cutting 15 percent or so of our news staff, our credibility would be in trouble.
You’ll find the rest of his post here.
In 2013, when BH Media – you know, Warren Buffett’s company – bought us, we all felt like we had been saved. Landmark, the family-owned outfit in Virginia, had owned the N&R for decades, and it had been a good company and treated us well.
When Landmark’s C-suite folks announced we were up for sale, they vowed to find a buyer that would keep our newspaper vibrant.
I’ll always remember the day when the announcement came down that BH Media had bought us.
We felt excited as teenagers at a pep rally. We all had read Buffett’s letter to his stockholders and how he saw newspapers as the heartbeat of our country, a vital cog in the complicated, messy machine of American democracy.
Real heart-felt stuff. He wrote:
“Newspapers continue to reign supreme in the delivery of local news. If you want to know what’s going on in your town—whether the news is about the mayor or taxes or high school football—there is no substitute for a local newspaper that is doing its job.”
From what I remember, his parents met at their college newspaper in Nebraska. He also delivered papers as a kid, and his first job after college was in circulation.
He made, according to my memory, $1.75 an hour.
He now makes, according to the internet, $1.5 million an hour.
Well, the guy’s loaded. We all knew that. But we saw him as smart, savvy, a benevolent man who believed in the power of print and pixels. So, we all thought the man known as the Oracle of Omaha would treat us well, inject more money into our operation and bring some stability to a situation that had felt so unstable.
Na. Didn’t happen.
Seems BH Media just wanted the N&R for its real estate. BH Media has put the N&R’s box of a building up for sale. It’s now been described as the most coveted piece of downtown property in decades, and all the journalists, ad reps and everyone else working in that building will go … somewhere.
But there’s still more bad news.
Two weeks ago, I read a piece that appeared last month in Fortune about the Oracle. It seems his attitude about newspapers had changed. Fortune wrote:
In an interview with CNBC on Monday, Buffett said he believes the only papers that are “assured” of a long life are probably the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and possibly the Washington Post.
“If you look, there are 1,300 daily newspapers left,” Buffett said. “There were 1,700 or 1,800 not too long ago. Now, you’ve got the internet. Aside from the ones I mentioned, [most of them] haven’t figured out a way to make the digital model complement the print model.”
Even with print circulation and print advertising declining, journalists had hoped digital advertising would in some way help lift the sagging bottom line of their professional home. We talked about that in my newsroom, and we thought someone smarter than us would figure out how to make it work.
That hasn’t happened — and might never will.
Last month, I heard this conversation on “The Kicker,” the new podcast from CJR, the acronym for the Columbia Journalism Review, the well-respected magazine that writes about all things journalism.
The conversation involved Mathew Ingram, CJR’s digital writer. He’s the same guy who wrote the piece in Fortune. Ingram knows the Internet. On the podcast, he said:
Facebook and Google have vacuumed up the majority of digital advertising. They control over three-quarters of the digital market, most of that is Google. But most of the growth is going to them as well. If you look at last year, if you take Google and Facebook out, advertising digital market didn’t grow at all. They took 100 percent of the growth in that market
So, if you’re a media company that relies on digital advertising, you’re watching that business vanish into the maw of Google and Facebook. So, it’s forcing a lot of media companies to re-evaluate how their business works.
In some cases, some of them can use pay wall subscriptions and so on, but that’s not an option for everyone. It might be working for the New York Times and the Washington Post, but there are a lot of papers that can’t make that work, and they’ve relied on advertising for so long, and now basically it’s disappearing.
But the problem is bigger than just lost ad dollars.
Last fall, The Nation wrote:
“The shrinking and disappearing of hometown newspapers has done incalculable damage to Americans’ knowledge of the world around them. Democratic self-governance presumes an informed public, but the -hollowing-out of America’s newspapers, in both their online and print versions, leaves citizens increasingly ignorant of vital public matters. It also undermines the press’s ability to hold elected officials and powerful interests to account.
“When vulture capitalism eliminates reporters and closes hometown papers, where can citizens turn for in-depth local news? Who will cover City Council meetings, school-board decisions, election campaigns, and other staples of civic life? And who will call out corruption and incompetence on the part of local officials or private companies?
“The most commonly cited culprit for the decline of America’s newspapers is the Internet and the assumption that no one needs to pay for news anymore. But simple capitalist greed is also to blame. Since 2004, speculators have bought and sucked dry an estimated 679 hometown newspapers that reached a combined audience of 12.8 million people.”
BH Media – the owner of the N&R, the Winston-Salem Journal and handful of other North Carolina newspapers — was name-checked in that piece. The scary stat for me was this:
In 2009, America’s newsrooms had 46,700 full-time journalists.
In 2015, America’s newsrooms had just 32,900 journalists.
That, according to The Nation, is a loss of roughly one journalist out of every three.
Here’s the kicker sentence for me:
“Whether that news is printed on paper or pushed to a smartphone isn’t nearly as important as society’s willingness to invest in the act of reporting itself — an act central to our founders’ vision of democracy.”
Hell, yeah. But will companies invest in the act of reporting?
I doubt it.
A week before Halloween 2014, I walked out of the N&R and accepted a job as the senior writer at High Point University.
I left because I wanted a change, and I felt that BH Media had bamboozled us. They were simply squeezing us, trying to make more of a profit as they made our professional lives miserable.
With HPU, I saw I could work with college students, talk to them about journalism and write for a university growing like gangbusters in a city that desperately needed an economic shot in the arm.
And that was happening, thanks to a president who is a capable leader with vision and an inexhaustible drive.
But I also wanted to leave behind the 24/7 lifestyle of journalism.
In the past few years, my journalist life in GSO felt thankless. None of us in the newsroom had gotten a raise in eight years, we had to take furloughs, and we were working longer and longer hours, asked to do more with less.
We sacrificed. Our families sacrificed, too.
Journalism for me became a jealous mistress. She never loved you back.
But leaving the N&R was the hardest professional decision I’ve ever had to make.
In my last gig at the paper, I worked as the N&R’s columnist, and I looked constantly for stories about who we are and how we lived in and around GSO. I did that for 100 months; my office was our city.
I did love that job. But I loved every job I had at the N&R. But the toughest thing about my exit? I had to leave a crew of talented journalists I saw as family.
As dysfunctional as we were, we did a damn good job. We all felt we were making a difference in our corner of the South. At my mugging, the N&R’s going-away tradition, I talked about that. If you’re interested, you can hear it here.
But even as I walked away – and walked back in for other muggings – I had hoped the N&R would thrive like it always had done. But since I left, the N&R has gone through two more layoffs.
The first was in June 2015. It was brutal. About the layoff, I wrote on FB:
We all need to hate what happened Wednesday.
Nine people were let go from Greensboro’s daily newspaper, the N&R, my old shop. Six came from the newsroom — two award-winning photographers, an award-winning graphic artist, a public safety reporter, an online editor and a city editor, a woman who had been a mentor, a friend and colleague to a generation of journalists.
She had worked at the N&R for more than three decades.
Institutional memory — a combined 100 years of experience — walked out the cubicle-filled newsroom, and it’ll be talent it won’t get back.
We all know times are tough for newspapers. But those stories packed with statistics and percentages disregard the human element — the staying late, the getting up early, the checking the facts three times to make sure you capture an accurate snapshot of history for readers the next day.
Speak truth to power. Tell a story. Create a beautiful illustration. Capture an image of a barred owl, an ACC basketball player or the drama sparked during a routine arrest. All of it would make readers laugh, cry and even call us names that would make your own mothers cringe.
But we made deadline — and probably missed a few dinners, a few kid performances, many hours of sleep and even your anniversary.
But we — us, you and me — were a better city for it. Now, some of that talent is gone.
So, I look at this photo, and my heart aches. It’s from my last day at the N&R right before Halloween in October. I’m hugging my editor, the paper’s city editor, a woman I simply called “T.” She saved my backside more than I’d like to know.
And now, she’s gone after staying late Tuesday night, missing dinner to edit a ginormous story about murder, family and redemption.
She made me better. But she made all of us better. She helped steer our newsroom, and we all worked together to create a paper we thought reflected our community. Sometimes, we succeeded. Sometimes, not. But hell, we had fun.
Now, here come … what … the fourth, fifth round of layoffs since ’07. Really, I’ve lost count. The N&R may save a bundle with these nine. But what does it lose?
Much. So much.
The photo I wrote about is below.
The same day I wrote that post, my wife Katherine – the former N&R feature writer I met in Asheboro in 1990 – said we should have a gathering at our house so our newsroom friends could say good-bye. We did. And man, it was memorable in a bittersweet kind of way.
You’ll see pics here.
The next morning, I took to FB once again. I wrote:
The last folks — Amanda and Joe, Jenn and Mike — left at 1:30 this morning. Could’ve been quarter to 2. Hell, can’t remember. We all went on for nearly seven hours about everything ink and pixels, what was and what will be at the N&R after Wednesday’s layoff of our newsroom six.
You see what’s left. The nearly empty bottle of tequila (thanks, Rachel Barron) and an empty bottle of Toad Hollow, champagne Lane Brown bought to toast the freedom of our six.
A classic N&R party. But this one was different.
There were speeches and tears, hugs and laughter. Piggy back rides, too. (Thanks Addison Glover). There was talk of the Rolling Stones plane Dick Barron wrote about this week (way cool), and of course, tequila shots.
What’s a N&R party without tequila shots?
Now, I’m bleary-eyed. Kath and I pluck M&Ms and empty beer bottles from our back patio, and after four hours of sleep, I battle this thought pinging in my brain, “Man, am I too old for this?”
Na. At least not yet. I think back to Friday’s blur of FB conversations. At least a dozen. Maybe more. Everyone said the same thing.
Like Dickie B, the biz writer and Rolling Stones fan.
Dickie B: “Man, I can’t tell you how much I need this.”
Me: “Dick, we all do. What is it? Oh yeah … You can’t always get what you want. But sometimes, you get what you need.”
Then came the news last month.
A longtime friend of mine encouraged me to write something for a major pub about what was happening in our backyard. He even had a headline ready: “”Death By Inches: How Warren Buffett’s BH Media Is Slowly Destroying the American Newspapers It’s Acquired.”
Inches, you say? It’s how we journalists measure copy in newspaper speak.
Death by inches. So right.
That brings me to my friend Al.
She told me about a conversation she had recently with her friends, all women, all local business leaders, all smart and strong-willed.
“You know, we all were talking the other day about which newspaper will close first, whether it’s the News & Record or the Winston-Salem Journal,” she told me. “And all of us think the News & Record will fold first.”
She may be right.
In five years, I see the WSJ and N&R becoming one paper. Seems practical, right? Not a chance. It’ll be the final nail in the newspaper’s coffin. Both cities are distinctly different and fiercely independent, and subscribers won’t cotton to a Triad-wide paper with a one- or two-page section for WS and GSO news.
So, subscribers will have to get their information from somewhere else. And God only knows where that’ll be – and if it’s right.
If that wasn’t bad enough, then came this note in the mail last week to subscribers. The letter was dated March 12. I read it first on FB, and a jumble of emotions erupted.
The letter is below.
You see the problem? They list Susan as one of reasons to subscribe to the N&R — and the reason the subscription rate is going up. And she had been laid off for two weeks before the letter even came out.
So, riddle me this: If Susan was so vital – a reader magnet if you will – why did they let her go?
What we do know is that the N&R building is now up for sale, and in a year – or two – it sounds like it will become a huge pile of dust in a few seconds.
Just like the old Burlington Industries headquarters on Friendly.
If that happens, I’ll stand at the corner of Davie and East Market and watch. It’ll be tough because no matter how ugly that building is, I’ll always remember it as a place of good journalism and good people who helped publish every day one of the best newspapers of its size in the country.
Once that building disappears, it’ll be one more thing dismantling the memory of a once proud paper.
Well, I felt proud to work there. Now, it’s time to move on.
A few weeks back, JR – John Robinson, my old editor — asked me once again to talk to the students in his feature-writing class at Chapel Hill. Of course, I jumped at the chance. I could take a day off, prod students to think like a tree – long story, y’all – and hang with JR and my son, Will, now a freshman at UNC.
While updating my lecture, I ran across a piece from 2014 about Pete Hamill, one of my favorites. He had just won the Polk Award for Lifetime Achievement, a big deal in print journalism. It’s an award named for the tireless reporter George Polk murdered while covering the Greek Civil War in 1948.
Hamill’s old newspaper, the New York Daily News, interviewed him from his hospital bed where he was recovering from some sort of age-related ailment. Hamill, he’s the definition of “wizened.” He’s, like, 82. About journalism, Hamill said:
This is still a vital, indispensable, noble craft. No politician — very few, anyway — could ever amount to a pimple on a good reporter’s a–. That’s why the demise of print newspapers doesn’t worry me too much. Readers will always need professionalized news. News gathered by skilled reporters who sometimes risk their lives the way George Polk did to get the story.
“I started out by delivering the Brooklyn Eagle as a kid. The Internet is just a new delivery system.”
So he would still recommend the profession to young people — like the kid he was 54 years ago?
“Absolutely,” Hamill said, as a nurse came in to check his vital signs, which were fine. “If you want to learn something new every day.”
I’d like to believe what Hamill believes. But with each passing month, I become more of an Eeyore realist, and I see my friend’s suggestion of the headline “Death By Inches” as a harbinger of new era that I really don’t want to see.
But I’m resigned to the fact that I can’t do anything about it. I’ve got to get over what Irish poet John O’Donohue calls the “ghost of loss.” You’ll find his whole poem here.
So, I can either bitch, moan and drink copious amounts of tequila — and I don’t know how healthy that is — or I can be like James Lee Burke.
Let me explain.
A month ago, I was finishing Burke’s lastest novel, “Robicheaux” when I came across a passage that fit how I feel about newspapers and the attitude I have to take.
“How do you handle it when your anger brims over the edge of the pot? You use the shortened version of the Serenity Prayer, which is “Fuck it.”
Like Voltaire’s Candide tending his own garden or the British infantry going up the Khyber Pass one bloody foot at a time, you do your job, and you grin and walk through the cannon smoke, and you just keep saying fuck it.
You also have faith in your own convictions and never let the naysayers and those who are masters at inculcating self-doubt hold sway in your life.
“Fuck it” is not profanity. “Fuck it” is a sonnet.”
Just wish I could do something about those empty cubicles.
That seems so wrong.