Obviously, we must save the newspaper industry. There’s no free and robust public debate without reporting, and there’s no reporting without pulping trees, printing stories on them and driving those broadsheets around the country. Websites are no substitute. Okay—they’re a substitute in that they’re putting print news out of business, but that doesn’t mean we could get the same journalism without physical distribution. It’s called the newspaper, not the news writers, and for that reason the paper itself must survive. That’s why the Great Falls Tribune has reorganized its newsroom and laid off John S. Adams, the best political reporter in Montana. It’s also why Gannett—owner of the Tribune and the Newsquest family of papers in the UK—has a new plan to charge journalism students to write for its publications.
Before you become enraged, know that this program will almost certainly fail. Journalism professors have already voiced their displeasure, and it’s hard to imagine their departments paying the £100 “registration fee” to let their students each pay £20 to work for free. Journalism undergrads may be desperate, but their professors are not. Indignation will trump naïveté, I bet.
But doomed though this plot may be, it captures the hubris of the contemporary newspaper. The introductory letter calls it “an exciting and unique chance to experience working for a local paper.” Some of that is the cheery rhetoric of the unpaid internship, which presents making copies and answering phones as a thrilling chance to experience the world of work. Some of it seems particular to the work of newspaper reporting, though, which is rapidly joining theatre and adjunct teaching among industries where the job itself is considered compensation.
Consider Jarvis’s description of the reward for paying £20 to write one article per month for eight months:
At the end of the scheme all students who complete all eight articles, receive a letter of recognition from the editor, which they can use as a reference with their CVs and their names go into our award ceremony brochure, which is distributed around London.
I would offer to move that first comma for them, but I can’t afford it. Here I should point out that writing for a newspaper is hard.1 Most people can’t do it at all, and those who can work long hours for low pay. They used to, anyway, before editors realized that there was an even lower level to this pyramid scheme, full of students so worried about finding work as to be willing to ignore the fundamental proposition of employment.
Newsquest has been laying off its paid employees all year. Its parent company has done the same in Great Falls, restructuring the Tribune newsroom, forcing its reporters to apply for new positions, and turning the position of capital bureau chief—at which Adams excelled—into a “state capital columnist.”
For those of you who do not work for newspapers, “columnist” is the title of death. It looks prestigious to readers, but it pays poorly and generally does not offer benefits. It’s great for old lions like Mike Royko2 and layabout stylists like me, but for an aggressive reporter like Adams, “columnist” is a demotion. The offer suggests that Gannett considers him a salary line, interchangeable with other lines regardless of the quality of his work.
It is totally cool to write for the local paper. I love it, partly because I like pretending to not like being recognized around town, and partly because I like newspapers. But the newspaper is only as good as the people who write for it, and Gannett seems hell-bent on proving that by wrecking its properties.
Make writing for the newspaper a pay-to-play proposition, and your newspaper will be written by rich people who couldn’t get the job on talent and hard work. Those people’s opinions are already overrepresented in public discourse.
Certain readers will keep buying the paper no matter how bad it gets. Then those readers will die, and a new generation that puts newspapers in the same category as opera companies and philosophy classes will move on. It’s not their fault for preferring the web. It’s Gannet’s fault for marrying an old form while evacuating its substance.