by Thomas Kies
Details at the end of the post on how to enter to win a copy of Random Road, and a link to order the book from Amazon.
“If you try and make this job about the money, you’ll be nothing but miserable, ‘cause we don’t get the money—never have, never will.” —That’s a quote from the 1994 Ron Howard film The Paper.
That was when newspapers were still vibrant purveyors of journalism. Part of the wit and wisdom of the movie is Robert Duvall’s smart-ass observations. At one point in the movie, he explains how a reporter can move through the rarified air of the elite, famous, powerful, and rich, but isn’t one of them.
The protagonist in my Geneva Chase Mystery series is a crime reporter for a small independent newspaper that’s on the brink of being purchased by a media conglomerate. Geneva is based on several women I’ve worked with over the years when I, too, worked in the newspaper and publishing business.
It’s a business that I loved. I did everything, including working as a pressman on a Goss web press in Detroit, becoming a staff writer, eventually becoming an editor, then moving into advertising management, and ultimately becoming the publisher and general manager of a magazine publishing house on the coast of North Carolina. I even delivered newspapers during a raging blizzard in one of the company’s ancient, rear-wheel drive vans navigating some steep, slippery hills…sometimes sideways. The business was exciting, interesting, and fun, but filled with the pressures of working on a daily deadline.
Unfortunately, the business has changed. The combination of the Great Recession, the effects of the Internet, and Covid-19 has been disastrous for newspapers. Their main source of revenue is advertising and all three of these factors have shrunk that revenue stream to a trickle.
Before the Great Recession, the housing market was booming. Real estate companies, as well as car dealerships and companies looking to hire employees, were spending a fortune in the classified sections of newspapers. Then, starting in 2007-2008, the housing bubble burst followed by cascading disasters in employment and consumer confidence. Companies suddenly found the Internet to be very attractive. It was cheap and easy to use.
The lucrative classified pages in newspapers diminished to a disastrous level. The advertising in the main pages of the paper also either got smaller or went away altogether. Over the past fifteen years, more than one in five papers in the United States has shuttered, and the number of journalists working for newspapers has been cut in half, according to research by the University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism. That has led to the rise of hollowed-out “ghost papers” and communities across the country without any local paper at all. “Ghost papers” are publications that have severely cut the staff in their newsrooms which makes any kind of investigative reporting non-existent.
Covid-19 has delivered even more pain to newspapers. When the world shut down in March of 2020, stores, shops, bars, and restaurants all closed their doors for months. Advertising became even scarcer. Even now, with the world starting to open back up, the number of pages in your local newspaper has become diminished. An unexpected circumstance from the experience of working from home is that more newspaper companies are closing their newsrooms, having offsite printing companies produce their publications, and they’re selling their buildings and assets.
A huge part of the joy of working for a newspaper was being with the people you worked with. Yes, the pressure of daily deadlines could lead to fraying nerves and in-office tension. But at the end of the day, these people were your “newspaper family”. Even though I’ve been out of the business for more than ten years, I still stay in close touch with a lot of them, mostly through social media and email.
Not only has advertising and marketing changed, but the way people get their news has also changed dramatically. The transition of news from print, television, and radio to digital spaces has caused huge disruptions in the traditional news industry, especially the print news industry. It’s also reflected in the ways individual Americans say they are getting their news. A large majority of Americans get news, at least sometimes, from digital devices, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted August 31-September 7, 2020.
More than eight-in-ten U.S. adults say they get news from a smartphone, computer, or tablet “often” or “sometimes,” including 60% who say they do so often. This is higher than the portion who get news from television, though 68% get news from TV at least sometimes and 40% do so often. Americans turn to radio and print publications for news far less frequently, with half saying they turn to radio at least sometimes (16% do so often) and about a third saying the same of print (10% get news from print publications often).
So, even in fiction I’m transitioning Geneva Chase, crime reporter, into going freelance, working gigs for her newspaper on occasion, and working for a company called Lodestar Analytics that does open-source research as well as instigating deep dive investigations.
Personally, I still like newspapers. I get the paper out of Raleigh every day (even they’ve stopped printing on Saturdays, however) and my local newspaper (which has cut back from three days a week to two), as well as the Sunday New York Times (which seems to be flourishing). I also have a paid subscription to a digital Washington Post feed and routinely scan other websites (all free) for news from around the globe. I’m a news junkie and the Internet feeds my addiction.
Still, I’m happiest when I’m writing scenes where Geneva Chase is working in the newsroom. She’s got ink in her veins. I’d like to think that I do too.
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