Of Buggy Whips and Cell Phones

October 26, 2008

There are times when I want to say “I’m getting too old for all this crap.”

I am of a certain age, one where I have actually started to think about what to do when I retire. I always said I’d never retire. I’ve rethought that position. I have several projects I’ve been piddling around with for longer than I care to admit, and I’d kind of like to finish them before I’m back in diapers.

And then there’s what has been happening in the newspaper business over the past few years.

It’s scary. Readership is down. Advertising revenues are down. Everything’s going to the Internet. People are getting their news from notoriously unreliable sources, such as the new phenomenon of “citizen journalists,” not all of whom feel bound by the standards and constraints that people who do journalism for a living are supposed to exercise.

People say they’re too busy to sit and read a newspaper, but they’ll sit around for hours reading God Knows What on forums and blogs. I’m not sure what to make of it.

So. Right and left, newspapers are laying people off in order to stay solvent, or even simply in an attempt to sink more slowly. At my own newspaper, the company has offered buyouts to qualified employees in an attempt to reduce the workforce by 25 percent.

I was one of those who qualified for a buyout. It was tempting, but I turned it down.

Maybe I’m stupid, but I am not convinced that what I do for a living is really becoming obsolete. I have often said that I think I know how people who made buggy whips felt in the early 1900s when they started seeing automobiles everywhere.

But I think I may have forgotten something important.

Buggy whips became, essentially, extinct because the thing for which they were made, horse’s fannies, had become almost extinct, to be found now only in quaint settings like Amish settlements, historic re-enactment groups, and Congress.

But people didn’t stop moving hither and thither. They simply stopped doing it so much behind horses.

The buggy-whip factories pretty much went away. The people who used to work there moved on to other things. I would be willing to bet that a fair number of them moved on to work in the automotive industry.

I don’t know why it took me so long to realize that really, what journalists do has not really changed, has it? We’re witnesses and story-tellers, plain and simple. Whether it’s in front of a campfire or at a keyboard, that’s what we do. That part’s easy.

The hard part is figuring out the new context for the story-telling. I’m all for bringing back the campfires, but I suspect we’re too late for that. Besides, OSHA would never approve. It may be that the newspapers we all grew up with, the paper-and-ink versions, anyway, will be gone, maybe within the next decade. The price of newsprint is ridiculous, getting rid of the old papers is a headache (there are only so many birdcages to go around, after all) and the time-honored method of delivery by underpaid people in beat up old cars has always been a logistical migraine. If newspaper circulation managers had been in charge of the Vietnam War, we probably would have won.

The hardest part for some of us (read “we the geezers”) is adapting, not only to all the new gizmos – digital audio recorders, mini video cameras, etc. —  but to incorporating said gizmos into the way we think about reporting, to the point that we don’t have to think about how it works.

For example: I once vowed I would never own a cell phone. I thought they were silly.

Now, I don’t even have a landline. My phone has text mail and GPS, a damned good thing, too, with my sense of direction, and a fairly decent built-in camera. I can check the news on it. I could do a lot more if it weren’t for the expense of some of the more advanced features. If pressed, I could actually write a news story right on the phone.

On a personal and professional level, I can’t imagine my life without it. The same holds true for my laptop. I have to force myself to take notes on paper now and then so I won’t forget how to write in script.

I’m all but 60 years old. All this stuff was science fiction when I was in high school. God knows what we’ll have to play with by the time I’m ready to retire or I’ve been needled to death by some editor.

I’m still having a ball. I’m trying not to fear change. It’s not easy. I have good friends who have left the business before they were ready. One, a pretty tough dude who worked for one of the nation’s great newspapers, was sent packing after 30 years or more in the business. He’s worried sick.

On the other hand, I’m staying, and I’m worried, too. I really do believe that so-called print journalists will end up mostly working in an on-line format, and soon, without losing anything and maybe gaining a few things.

The biggest worry there is that nobody has really figured out how to make money doing it that way. I think they will probably figure that out eventually.

I hope they hurry.


3 Responses to “Of Buggy Whips and Cell Phones”

  1. valwebb said

    For most of my adult life, I have bounced between newspaper work and the art studio. Five years at a Florida daily, then four years in the studio. Back into the newsroom — this time in Alabama — for three years, then three years of illustration. Four more years of news…and then I left journalism for good. I still miss it. But with each return to reporting, the changes became more evident: less public service, more corporate bottom line. Sections were trimmed to the bone, then combined to cut expense. Ownership changed, then changed again. I have plenty of good memories, but on the whole I’m glad to be out. Thanks for another poignant and thought-provoking post.

  2. judecowell said

    Hope you stick with journalism as long as you like, Terry!

  3. What an affecting view on this subject. I am happy you shared your ideas and I find that I agree. I really appreciate your clear writing and the effort you have spent on this article. Thanks for the solid work and good luck with your site, I greatly look forward to more updates.

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