In the 1990s, when I first worked there, the Los Angeles Times was at the end of its legendary “Velvet Coffin” era for reporters and editors: unlimited time to work on stories (the years-long investigation of Scientology became a newsroom joke); first-class travel (at least for longer flights); salaries that, if they weren’t in the same ballpark as television reporters’, were at least in the same zip code. But then the Chandlers’ benevolent monarchy was overthrown by a series of moneygrubbers, in and out of the family. As one of my editors put it to an outraged reporter who threatened to appeal some decision by the bean counters, “Otis has gone surfing, and he’s not coming back.”
And so it went: buyout offer, layoffs, next buyout offer, more layoffs, voluntary severance, involuntary severance. Each round deliberately less appealing than the one before, so that nobody was tempted to wait for the next one. So many talented journalists suddenly without income, so much overwork, survivors’ guilt and fear among those who remained. Not just in Los Angeles, of course, but everywhere – Houston, Detroit, Boston, Baltimore. So you’d think that journalists would be prepared for anything.
Then, it happened: Not just the other shoe; the other army of jackboots. Advance Publications, through which the Newhouse family of New York and New Jersey owns the New Orleans Times-Picayune, announced that come autumn, New Orleans’ newspaper would no longer be daily. It will become a three-day-a-week print publication, but don’t worry; you can get all your news online the other four days.
Why is this so unthinkable? Many of us long ago came to terms with the fact that the careers we began twenty or thirty years ago would no longer be. Things change, things evolve, beginning way back when USA Today’s shorter stories and color pictures were apostasy.
But newspapers still matter, and not just to those who write and edit them but also to those who read them, buy the products they advertise, learn about their communities–their sporting events and scandals and lives and deaths–from them. And some of those readers don’t have smart phones or laptops or Internet access. Once upon a time, that community mattered too, not just to the reporters and editors, but also to the publishers and owners.
A velvet coffin may be too lavish. But surely there’s something between that and a mass grave.