The Exit Interview
I quit a good job at a good newspaper last week. I must be crazy.
That’s one explanation for why, after almost 19 years at the Anchorage Daily News – 14 of them as its metro columnist – I pulled the pin. I’ve seen enough long winters and bizarre happenings to make anyone loopy.
There are other explanations. My state has changed. So has my newspaper. And so have I.
In an almost spooky way, the history of Alaska and the Anchorage Daily News mirror one another. Alaska was a hardscrabble state until, in 1977, oil began flowing from Prudhoe Bay. That was followed by a fat period, when there were plenty of good jobs and lots of income for government, that lasted until the early ’90s. Since, Alaskans have been watching the money dry up and worrying.
The Daily News was an under-funded, spunky little newspaper until 1979, when the McClatchy Corporation bought it. That was followed by a fat period, when the company pumped people and money into a newspaper war with the Anchorage Times, that lasted until the Times folded in 1992. Since, the newspaper has been tightening budgets and trying to ship profits to corporate headquarters.
I got into journalism longer ago than I like to think about with a lot of dewy-eyed ideas about telling the truth and making a difference. I was born and raised in Alaska, and I’ve always worked here. I see my job as, in part anyway, public service, a way to help make my city and state better. I’ve used that rationale to turn down jobs that pay better than journalism and the occasional offer to do what I do someplace else.
Newspapers are schizophrenic. The drive to do good journalism and the drive to maximize profits often pull them in completely different directions. Now, I could go on at length about the changes in Alaska that helped me come to my decision, but this isn’t the place to do that. Instead, I want to talk about the changes at my newspaper and in our profession.
Newspapers are schizophrenic. The drive to do good journalism and the drive to maximize profits often pull them in completely different directions. Good journalism takes resources. Resources take money. Money spent on journalism doesn’t show up on the profit line.
Individual owners of newspapers could decide to spend money on journalism, because it came out of their own pockets. Corporate managers have more constraints; the money spent on journalism comes out of profits important to shareholders.
Good owners meant good newspapers. Good corporate managers mean the best newspapers possible, given the responsibility to meet the expectations of the market.
What does this nickel’s worth of analysis mean? To me, it means a workplace that isn’t as much fun. Here at the Daily News, editors spend more of their time tweaking budgets and less on journalism. Travel budgets shrink, a big deal at a newspaper that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1989 by sending reporters all over rural Alaska. Jobs go unfilled. Morale suffers; journalists get fired up by the prospect of doing meaningful work, not so much by the prospect of adding seven-tenths of one percent to corporate profits.
This doesn’t just affect grumpy old columnists, or not-so-grumpy, not-so-old reporters. Photographers have fewer pictures printed because the newshole is tight. Copy editors now do their own jobs, and the production jobs once done in the back shop. The drive for 100 percent on-time delivery pushes deadlines ever earlier.
I tell you, the world is going to hell in a hand basket.
By now, you’re saying to yourself, who is this whining old duffer? Most of you don’t know me from Adam’s off ox. But you can judge this for yourself. Look around your own newsrooms. Sniff the air. Use on your workplace the same skills you use on the people you cover. See what you think.
What I discovered was that the fire in my belly had gone out. I didn’t know how long I could have faked my way to a pay check, but I didn’t want to try to find out. There’s one more wrinkle to my story. For reasons too complex to go into here, my work included columns of political opinion. This is unconventional. Running opinion on the metro page made my boss uncomfortable, and was really the only difference of opinion between us.
I can understand his discomfort, having a loose cannon rolling around the deck, reeling off opinions that were sometimes different from those on the editorial page. And in Alaska, where politics is a full-contact sport, letting me spout left-wing drivel was more dangerous to the newspaper’s financial interests than it might have been elsewhere. God alone knows what kind of telephone calls he must have fielded. I don’t, because whatever heat he took, he never passed it along to me.
But the Daily News I went to work for didn’t mind being unconventional. This is a newspaper that once ran a front-page story in rhymed couplets, devoted four columns above the fold to a full-color artist’s conception of the UFOs a Japan Air Lines pilot said he saw and, during the first Iraq invasion, did a story about how easy it would be to blow up the trans-Alaska pipeline.
Can I trace this change to corporatization? No, but I can say it is evidence of standardization. To my mind, standardized newspapers are a problem for journalism, not a solution.
At any rate, the last discussion of this point I had with my boss – to the uninitiated, it might have sounded like an argument – caused me to think hard about my commitment to my job. What I discovered was that the fire in my belly had gone out. I didn’t know how long I could have faked my way to a pay check, but I didn’t want to try to find out. I’ve always believed that if you are only working for the money, they’re not paying you enough. So I quit.
Journalism will get along without me, and so will the Daily News. I mean, it’s not like I’m Dave Barry. And who knows, maybe when I get tired of eating cat food, I’ll come back to the trade. I loved it a lot once. Maybe I can again.