Twisting in the wind: The Boston Globe and every other newspaper

For most of my life, I've been attached to a newspaper. With little exception, ever since high school (when I was the editor of The Baysider in the New York City borough of Queens), I've written or edited for a newspaper.

As I watch the negotiations over the life and death The Boston Globe -- one of America's most storied newspapers (and one for which I write a weekly consumer column) -- I think about all the dreams that have been crushed in the wonderful business that journalism was... and hopefully can become again.

Many of the people who toil in newsrooms do it because they feel a calling. Journalism for us has never just been about having a job, but about righting wrongs and getting satisfaction from providing people with a service that could help them in their lives.

And when you do one thing your whole life, it's awfully hard to imagine doing something else.

Three old friends at three different papers in different parts of the country -- lifelong journalists all -- succumbed to the implosion of newspapers in one recent week. They were among many, many more whose assumption that they could ply their craft throughout their lifetime was scuttled. Instead, they must now join a huge collection of people in the same situation who must reinvent themselves.

I'm grateful that AOL and have provided a venue for some of us and demonstrated there is still a demand for what we do. But it also is a different business model and one that doesn't have enough room aboard for everyone.

What is going on at the Globe is also about busting apart another throwback to a time when newspapers were invincible cash cows: unions. Newspaper newsrooms with unions are part of but a fraction of all papers, but are fairly common among bigger papers like the Globe and one of my former employers, The Philadelphia Inquirer. In good times, these unions delivered fat deals to their people. We had good pay, excellent benefits and what seemed to be rock solid protection from management whim.

Then, as it all started to go south, the unions lost their power and instead created a collision point that seemingly made everyone's situation even more unstable. I left a wonderful and cherished job at the Inquirer because I thought the next round of layoffs there would consume me. I was wrong. But now the company that acquired the Inquirer from longtime owner Knight Ridder is hashing out its future in bankruptcy court. Even if I stayed, would I still be standing right now? It used to be a lot simpler.

At least for now, I believe the Globe will survive. Its workers will lose most of the security they thought they had. It's a big game of chicken. Management tends to win those contests. What do the unions have left? Could anyone even fathom some kind of job action in this climate?

The Globe's owner, The New York Times Co., doesn't want to drown in Globe debt nor does it want to go down as the killer of a great newspaper so many hundreds of thousands count on.

There is some recent precedent for newspapercide in big cities, but not to a region's dominant media outfit.

Hearst took away the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Scripps Howard shuttered the Rocky Mountain News. But both were in the unusual position of being in federally permitted joint operating agreements, were without their own business operations and had competitors of significant size that remained.

Newspapers have been unquestionably slow in adjusting to today's world. Still, it is painful to watch all the bloodletting and all the talented people who helped show readers the way across America wonder where their next paycheck will come from.

From someone who has lived through the sale of several newspapers and two more being shut down (The Anchorage Times and BostonNOW), I feel the pain of those sitting inside the Globe's offices. And I hope for all of us who believe in journalism and commentary from trained, skilled professionals that newspapers will find their way and more outlets like this one will give hope to those whose resolve is evaporating.
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