Back in 2000, when I hired in as a reporter at the Grand Rapids Press, a big to-do was made of the company’s job security policy. A job here is a job for life, I was told. The hell it is, I thought to myself.
Turns out I was right.
Despite the company’s promise that “as long as a paper is being printed, you’ll have a job here,” that newspaper is barely a shell of what it once was. Buyouts were offered in 2009. When not enough workers took the hint, a round of layoffs followed a year later. Management broke the promise, but the paper’s workers soldiered on.
And then the other shoe dropped.
Earlier this week, the Grand Rapids Press’ parent company, Booth Newspapers, made an announcement. I’d love to tell you what the announcement said, but it was shrouded in so much jargon and corporate fertilizer that I’m not entirely sure myself. But the upshot is this: Newsrooms across the company’s seven papers are being gutted, cut about in half, and newspaper delivery is being cut back to three or four days a week. The building where I used to work is going to be shuttered and the few remaining workers will be shuffled off to an undisclosed location.
I left the Grand Rapids Press in 2003. Between then and the advent of Facebook I lost contact with most of my former coworkers. Gradually, I reconnected with several. Many of them had already left the building, leaving either for new jobs in new industries or having taken a buyout. Others stayed, keeping a tenuous hold on a job in a dying industry.
Of those that stayed, many, if not most, who I had worked with face losing their job in 60 days. Unlike me, my former coworkers get a two-months notice before their job up and vanishes. That’s not the company being magnanimous; it’s just that the volume of job cuts is so large that it triggered a federally mandated warning period.
I am sick over this. It hurts to imagine such a large group of my former coworkers being told at the same time that, to be blunt, their careers are over. Let’s be honest – this isn’t just a job loss, but a career killer for many of them. Because if you’re in your mid-50s and have been a reporter all your life, what then? Are you going to spend three years in school to learn a new trade and then seek a new career when you’re pushing 60? I have no idea what people like this will do, and my heart aches for them.
It’s hard to explain what it’s like to see your profession implode like this. I remember the good years, the cocky years, the years that we were proud that we were so much better at news game than TV news could ever be. We had the space to print longer stories and the staff to write them. It was rare that a television station ever bested us with a news story, and when it happened, it was shameful.
But now, newspaper newsrooms have as few reporters as television stations. The luxury of space is gone, too. Stories fit into what is known as the “news hole,” or the space left over on the page once ads are placed down. The number of ads in a paper dictates how many pages are printed: the more ads, the more pages, the more news hole. Ads disappeared and so did pages, with newspapers becoming ever thinner and stories shrinking to fit inside the smaller spaces.
In short: The “product,” as bean counters call journalism, became less and less a thing of pride. Eventually, it became exactly what it was called, a product. A commodity. An expense. But not an integral part of an informed democracy.
I hardly know this industry anymore. I don’t think I want to know it.
We used to be proud. Being a newspaper journalist had a cachet. When people found out I was a newspaper writer, some were impressed and others got a dig in at what they had decided was a biased media. Being a journalist meant something. It was important.
If you meet a newspaper reporter these days, it is still impressive. It’s impressive the way seeing a Bengal tiger or panda bear at the zoo is impressive. It’s impressive because you’re encountering something that’s nearly extinct.