It's odd being in England when so much is going on back in America: the presidential primaries, the new Washington Nationals' ballpark, Britney Spears's meltdowns.... Of course, what really affects me are the changes at The Washington Post: a new publisher, consolidation of our printing plants and buyouts. I don't think I'll arrive back in the newsroom this summer to find the lock on my office changed, but one never knows.
Ten years ago I was away from The Post at a time when there was churn at the paper. A new managing editor had been named and I was off on a fellowship. I felt a bit out of the loop. What if I missed my chance to toady and brown-nose? Successful sucking up, like comedy, is all in the timing. I'm glad to say that despite my absence it all worked out just fine, even if that managing editor didn't stick around.
I think I'm probably too young to qualify for a buyout, though each round does seem to get lower and lower. The Post may soon start paying recent journalism school graduates not to even apply. The main thing is, I like my job. I like The Post. I don't plan on going anywhere. That sound you hear is my fingernails sinking into the wood on my desk.
This is not to say that all is well in Newspaperland. This New York Times story succinctly lays out all the challenges facing the industry. Many of the challenges are external, things newspapers have no control over: the rise of the Web, changes in readers' lifestyle and commuting habits. But some are self-imposed: We've lost some readers' trust, we haven't reacted well to changes in technology.... Over here, the latest book to pile on is "Flat Earth News" by Nick Davies. I haven't read the book yet, but Davies's main argument appears to be that time-pressed staffs are required to pump out more stories more quickly, resulting in a debilitating reliance on PR material.
It's an argument that U.K. journalism professor Adrian Monck carefully disassembles on his blog. Monck argues that, given the great advances in technology in the last 40 years, journalists should be able to work quicker and more efficiently. This review by Peter Preston in the Guardian makes the point that the Golden Age Davies harks back to was probably non-existent, or at least less shiny than he remembers it. Simon Jenkins made a similar point in a recent column.
I liked Peter Preston's closing comments: "One inescapable point about journalism is that, base or lofty, ruthless or idealistic, it is a mess, and always has been. That shouldn't stop us from trying to clean it up point by point, problem by problem. We can't afford not to be serious about our serious trade. But nor -- like rather too many tremulous tradesmen -- should we wallow in a froth of self-loathing that blots out the good and the necessary and the essential, too."
"A froth of self-loathing." Lovely. And worth keeping in mind. Of course, Peter Preston, I believe, is at the end of his career instead of in the middle of it, like I am. Journalists such as myself may need to steer clear of the froth of self-loathing but we need to plunge ourselves into the cold bath of self-criticism and self-improvement. The message of the economics seem unmistakable: Business as usual won't cut it anymore.