My heart aches for the dozens of former colleagues — some of them close friends — who were shown the door in last week's layoffs at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Many are too young to take early retirement (as I did when I left the paper three years ago), and find themselves looking for work, not only in the worst job market in 25 years, but also carrying rAcsumAcs overweighted with experience in a shrinking trade.
Most will land on their feet. Newspapering teaches you two things: How to write clearly and concisely, and how to process complex, sometimes contradictory, all-too-often-distorted information into a coherent factual summary.
Those skills will be valued by any manager who has to read memos or devise a business plan. Technological, scientific, academic and public-policy fields have a chronic shortage of capable facilitators, as the University of Virginia's E.D. Hirsch Jr. terms those who translate technical or bureaucratic jargon into English. The hemorrhage of news writers could be a transfusion for corporate and institutional communication. We also may see some clever ads, maybe some TV and movie plots, emerge from the news upheaval. (It took a newspaper refugee to give us “The Wire.”) Probably not the Great American Novel, though — landing a quality book deal these days is about as tough as holding onto a newspaper job.
For most of those affected, leaving the T-D will not mean losing a living; but it will mean losing a way of life. In a newsroom, people bond on a level not seen in other large offices. Long-term relationships and marriages are common. So is kinship in adversity, the kind that grows among combat troops or emergency-response teams. Colleagues tolerate — often cheer on — shouting matches, sarcasm, exhilaration, deep gloom, simmering rage, eccentricities of all kinds, constant second-guessing and perpetual grousing. (Truth and candor breaking free, we like to think.) Hardcore newspaper people need to be housebroken before they can be let loose in the corporate, bureaucratic environment.
What the public loses in a big newsroom layoff goes by the clunky term institutional memory. Community memory is a better way to put it. Experienced reporters and editors have developed hundreds of contacts, extending deep into the rosters and mindsets of local institutions; their lists often branch off to experts encountered during the years, people who can offer perspective — and sensible quotes — on most any subject that crops up in the day's news. That Rolodex, and the person-to-person encounters that built it, leave with the newsroom veteran.
Younger news gatherers bring a different currency, and different stakes, to the table. A 20-something reporter typically is eager and energetic, ready to drop everything to jump on a promising story, skip meals, lose sleep, put in hours that aren't rewarded in the paycheck. At that age, reporters are on the make professionally. A few years of solid work culminating in a hot story well told, leading to a job at a bigger paper, seems a real possibility — especially if you're not yet married, rearing a family and sinking roots into the community.
Richmond and similarly sized markets have long been stops along the way for ambitious young television news people. A fair number of T-D alumni have moved up to bigger media, too; but most staffers settled into Richmond and a career at the paper. The best of them learned to speak to the town in its own vernacular — to sense how readers would interpret issues and respond to trends, to anticipate the questions readers would ask, to guess right about the stuff they would find fascinating and the stuff they would dismiss as foolishness.
Maybe these veterans were too wedded to an older Richmond, whose manners, mores and agenda are viewed with indifference or irritation by newer residents with different histories and perceptions. The newsroom needed younger blood, better connections among more varied racial and ethnic groups, more curiosity about changes in the way life is lived here now.
But Richmond is not Anytown, U.S.A. It has a singular history, which deeply informs it and needs to be known if you hope to make any sense of current events. It has grapevines, which you're on or not. It has a civic and cultural personality and a certain rhythm in the way it processes information. It cogitates a lot before making decisions, and no aggressive editor or eager reporter is going to push it faster than it's inclined to go. Nor will Richmonders jump on some trend that's been ripped off the wires and slapped onto a page. The newspaper may reinvent itself, but it shouldn't imagine for a moment that it's going to reinvent its readers or their town.
Having shed much of its senior staff and hired a smaller cadre of younger fry, the T-D is going to be on a steep learning curve for at least a couple of years. It's going to miss some stories, and misinterpret others because a reporter doesn't know the back story or misses some signal in a source's turn of phrase or body language. It's going to have awkward encounters with both its longtime readers and the newer, younger, more diverse audience it hopes to attract. It will negotiate the shifting terrain of printed and online content: words written and spoken, pictures still and moving, audio breaking the silence of print. While coping with all that, it cannot forget where it lives and whom it speaks to.
A newspaper can be the clearest collective voice a community has, or it can be the semilocalized branch of a generic, Anytown style of media. The latter is the path of least resistance after a dramatic downsizing and the departure of experienced news people. I hope the Times-Dispatch doesn't take that path. Richmond deserves, and needs, better. S
Clarke Bustard was a staff writer, columnist and critic at the Richmond Times-Dispatch for 36 years. He now is a Style Weekly music critic and producer of Letter V: the Virginia Classical Music Blog (www.letterv.blogspot.com).
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