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