JS Archive

Aug 2008: Newspapers are going through tough times, but we’ll get through it

Mike Nichols Mike Nichols

I cleaned out my newsroom desk this week. Discarded some old, bent paper clips and empty pens. Threw out reams of yellowed papers and documents — the sort of stuff a lot of people “access” on the Internet nowadays.

A lot of this business, more than I ever cared to admit, is about access, where you read what you are reading, how it gets to you.

It used to be in one basic way. Kids with newspaper bags slung over their shoulders would toss a paper on your porch.

It was that way still when I moved here 18 years ago; took a job with the old Milwaukee Journal, rented a room above a garage in Shorewood.

It was no different when I was a kid in St. Paul with my own route to do, sometimes two if my brother Tim needed help.

That was always a little dangerous because papers, even during the week, could weigh a ton back then. I would balance one bag of Minneapolis Stars on each shoulder and climb precariously up on my orange Stingray.

To this day, I feel sorry for the plump woman taking up more of the sidewalk in front of me than I, at first, suspected as I tried to maneuver around her by going up onto somebody’s sloping lawn.

The shifting weight of one of the bags threw me off balance, and I ended up running right into her, actually knocked her down.

I was aghast, though not nearly as much, I suspect, as she was.

If it’s any consolation to her, whoever she was, she’s not the only one this business — still trying to figure out how best to get the words to the readers — is knocking for a loop. Many of us who have invested ourselves in newspapers in so many ways are feeling the shocks, too.

All across the country, newspapers are slimming down even as they, via the Internet, reach more people than ever. It’s going to be a good and lasting business, but a different kind of one. So papers everywhere are offering buyouts. Some people here at the Journal Sentinel, in fact, decided to take one. Including me.

This is my last column in the Metro section. I’m going to continue writing once a week (elsewhere in the paper on Saturdays). So, while I’m going to look around at other things, I’m not leaving completely.

But a lot of people are, including some in the newsroom. And I’d like to say something about them and what they have done for all these years: a tremendous amount of good.

That probably sounds too simple, too biased. But it’s that basic. This can be an acrimonious business. The best journalists are the ones with the hardest noses. That can leave hurt feelings.

But the fact is there is something fundamentally good for a community, and a democracy, in what journalists pursue.

A colleague who spent 31 years here, Tom Heinen, reminded some of us what that was in a final e-mail Friday: truth — what a onetime Milwaukee journalist by the name of Carl Sandburg once described as “the most elusive captive in the universe.”

Yes, a newspaper is a business and a difficult one right now. But it is also a community service and a community institution that many of us believe deeply in, no matter how the words get to the readers — at least some of whom probably never much liked kids on bikes riding up on their lawns anyway.

That woman I hit with mine up in the Twin Cities, by the way?

Much to my relief, she got up, shook it off and kept going.

I’m confident we all will.