Newsrooms Filled with Lemmings

Updated: May 19

By Liam Lacey



This is an except from the new book, Fish Wrapped: True Confessions of Newsrooms Past, created and edited by David Sherman, a collection of writings on the joys and sorrows of lives in the newspaper business. Published by Guernica Editions. By Permission.


As we all know, the digital revolution, over a 20-year period from

the mid-90s, led to the Great Newspaper Diminishment: the loss of 30

or 50 per cent of newsroom jobs, the increasing mash-up of ads, editorial,

lifestyle, news, entertainment and gossip. While the change was

drastic, it was also a culmination of a kind we’d witnessed for years, as

publishers pushed to make newspapers more appealing to people who

don’t like to read: More pictures, shorter stories, more lists, side-bars and

“value-added” consumer tips. Marketing gurus had already determined

that advertisers, not the readers, were the real customers. We were in the

business, as our publisher told us, of “delivering readers to advertisers.”

And then the fickle advertisers found better, cheaper and more pervasive

vehicles – Craigslist and eBay and Facebook – to find their audience.

The marketing consultants offered us a bad news-good news message:

We were all lemmings heading over the cliff, but, fortunately, we were

still at the back of the pack.


Many of us were in denial. In my case, I was literally in the dark. As a

movie critic, I’d sit in theatres in the mornings or at night, and write my

reviews in my basement. When I read my morning paper, I could see the

attrition: Classical music and art criticism disappeared, dance was farmed

out to freelancers, pop music coverage became increasingly selective.

Movies and television, the entertainment that everyone knew, were fairly

safe. I couldn’t convince my managers that the Cannes Film Festival was

important and the Golden Globes really weren’t, but I had a job.

Then, suddenly, as the staff shrank and the competition for readers’

attention increased, competition increased. We were compelled to write

gossip, business stories, shoot videos, blog, tweet and post around the

clock, plugging up the ever-increasing number of news holes.

Every newspaper, apparently, hired the same consultants. Advertising

friendly, content-light articles on food, health and exercise would bring

back readers. They didn’t. Computer tablets would save the industry.

That didn’t work, either.


If there was a single moment when I knew we were screwed it was

in 2012, the opening day of the Toronto International Film Festival, the

day that the Globe’s arts section melded with the new Life section. I had

a long interview with the Austrian master, Michael Haneke, about his

Palme d’Or and Oscar winning film, Amour, a devastating drama about

an elderly man who euthanizes his ill wife. The interview was placed

atop a new advice column in which a reader asked what she should do

about her husband leaving dental floss in the shower drain? I wished

the response had been: “See above: Why not stick a pillow on his face?”


Our arts section was gutted, amputated, stripped-down for parts. Yes,

there was still good writing but we didn’t really expect people to cover a

whole beat. Some conscientious section editors continued to try to protect

their writers and focus on their strengths but too many were happy

to push us to match stories from Gawker and Buzzfeed so we looked as

though we were keeping up.

As revenues dropped, the proverbial Chinese wall or information

barrier between advertising and editorial, became porous. Editorial leadership

began to sound more like advertising cheerleading. “Believe in

the brand!” instructed our editor-in-chief and we vomited a little in our

mouths. Human resources started using phrases like “toxic morale” to

describe the workplace. We were journalists after all. We were supposed

to disdain propaganda, even if it was for our side.


I look to the movies for inspiration. “A free press, like a free life, is

always in danger,” said Humphrey Bogart’s character in Deadline USA, a

1956 film noir about an editor trying to fight injustice and keep his newspaper

afloat. (Yes, the newspaper business has been in decline since the

1950s.) Cynicism, journalists’ supposed deformacion profesional, has

always been about that disappointed idealism. Journalism is a romantic

line of work – travel, celebrity, the chance to change lives and improbable

luck of being able to write with some measure of independence.

For me, the thrill was gone. I retired from The Globe in 2015, a few

years early. At the farewell party, I said I discovered I liked journalism

too much and needed to stop before I became addicted. An amateur

again, I write, for free, for a web site.

Some days, I still have a vision of my Newspaper Spiritual, when I

read three or four pieces of strong writing in one issue, and I’m reminded

of the collective genius of the system. I look back in amazement, thinking

of older journalists, who, for no personal reward or prestige, encouraged

and harassed me to do better, for no other reason than they wanted

to produce something admirable.


When I was working at the paper, on a non-embarrassing day, I’d

emerge from the tunnel-vision of a deadline and I’d pass another writer

on the stairs, heading up to the slightly-improved cafeteria, or out the

door to go home. Even if we’d never spoken and knew each other only

by our faces and bylines, we’d exchange a wave or a nod. I think we all

understood how hard it was to do this job well and, on days when things

came together, how satisfying and worthwhile it could be.

LIAM LACEY was employed at The Globe and Mail from 1979 to 2015

as a feature writer, Western arts correspondent and critic of rock music,

theatre, television, and, for 20 years, film. After rashly retiring to Spain in 2015, he returned home 18 months later. He currently writes for the web site original-cin.ca and freelances on travel and film.


To order copies of Fish Wrapped: True Confessions of Newsrooms Past, contact:

Davidlsherman@icloud.com or www.guernicaeditions.com

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©2020 by  David Sherman - Getting Old Sucks

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