By Donald Kaul
It’s been a little more than 50 years since I first walked into the Des Moines Register newsroom to begin a career in journalism.
It was a beat-up scruffy place filled with beat-up scruffy people, almost all men. They worked in a big room lined with gray steel desks piled high with newspapers, stacks of books, notebooks, and ashtrays overflowing with cigarette stubs. They wrote on manual, black typewriters. The phones, also black, had rotary dials.
This scene right out of The Front Page was a case of love at first sight. “This is my kind of place,” I told myself. And, as it turned out, I was right.
But the most important thing about that room was something you couldn’t see: an invisible wall that protected its inhabitants from interference from the business department. It meant that, if you had the facts on your side, you could annoy the rich and powerful of the city. The wall would protect you from retaliation.
The best newspapers in those days tended to be owned by long-time newspaper families. These owners viewed their papers as profit machines, certainly, but also as a public trust. These families supported the principle that news was news and business was business, and the two should not be confused.
It wasn’t a perfect arrangement. It would have been better, for example, to have had more women and people of color reporting and editing the news. But it worked pretty well for decades.
Things changed in newsrooms as they did everywhere else. Computers arrived on the scene, bringing with them increased efficiency but also competition for readers and advertising dollars. The ranks of the ruling families grew too numerous to be fed by dividends alone. They cashed out, selling at elevated prices to newspaper chains, which then resold the publications to business brigands who had neither understanding nor interest in newspapers as newspapers.
Newspapers were just another kind of dog food to them.
In city after city, papers were closed down, staffs cut to the bone, and home delivery severely curtailed. The invisible wall? Can something invisible disappear? It did.
Nowhere was that scenario played out more starkly than at the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times companies, home to a half dozen of the nation’s finest papers.
A friend of mine, James O’Shea, a top editor at both the Tribune and the Times, had a ringside seat at the disaster. He’s written a book giving a blow-by-blow account: The Deal from Hell: How Moguls and Wall Street Plundered Great American Newspapers. It’s not a pretty story.
The Chicago Tribune papers and the Los Angeles Times group merged in 2000, a move that made L.A.’s powerful Chandler clan significantly richer and journalism considerably poorer in California’s largest city.
Increasingly the bulwark between the business and news departments was ignored. The business types couldn’t understand the need for it. News should be put at the service of profits and the quicker the better, they thought.
Soon the answer to every problem was to water down the product with brutal staff cuts, domestic and foreign bureau closures, and the pursuit of trivial, celebrity-oriented stories. Give the people what they want was the new mantra.
What was no-brainer logic to business people was anathema to old-fashioned journalists like O’Shea who held the quaint belief that the job of a newspaper is to inform readers. O’Shea and others fought for that creed but couldn’t overcome, in his words, “the greed, incompetence, corruption, hypocrisy…of people who put their interests ahead of the public’s.”
The sad story ends with the sale of the giant corporation to a Chicago real estate tycoon, Sam Zell, a bizarre foul-mouthed figure who makes Donald Trump look couth.
Eventually Zell led the company into bankruptcy, leaving his papers limping along with insupportable debt and ever-shrinking staffs.
I hate to be one of those old crocks who talks about how things were better in the old days. But you know what?
Some things really were better in the old days, including newspapers.
Donald Kaul worked some 30 years as a syndicated Washington columnist for the Des Moines Register before retiring at the dawn of the new century. He is a columnist for Other Words. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Reach him by email.