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Keeping the Faith


Style recently published a missive I had posted on an in-house computer bulletin board at the Richmond Times-Dispatch before I left the paper ("Final Markdown," News & Features, Jan. 24). One or more of my former co-workers chose to leak it.

I don't blame Style for running it — I probably would've done the same. It was characterized as a broadside directed at management, but it was more of a final encouraging word to my brothers and sisters at the newspaper to stay true as our paper, and newspapers across the country, adapt to an increasing corporate climate while readership dwindles and plush profits are threatened.

There have been stark layoffs at many papers and newsmagazines, such as the L.A. Times and Time magazine. The number of pages for news at many papers has decreased as advertisers seek other outlets. Even touchstone papers such as the Washington Post are feeling the bite.

Reporters at more than a few papers have staged walkouts and protests. In Los Angeles, six journalists were fired from the Santa Barbara News-Press for hanging a sign on a freeway overpass urging people to cancel their subscriptions.

I sometimes hear readers say they don't like the changes at the Times-Dispatch. Some have canceled their subscriptions or have threatened to do so. I don't want to be a part of that. I care about the paper and about many of the people who work there. Many of them are like family. I wouldn't want to hurt them, which is why I flinched when my posting wound up in Style.

But the paper is more important than the interpersonal relationships of those who put it out. The T-D, and papers like it, remain the prime guardians and exercisers of free speech. They are the watchers of politicians, governmental bodies and public servants. Some may argue that they're biased or not competent enough for that responsibility. But if not them, who?

Television news shows and magazines do a good job, but they have the fraction of the reporting staff of print news operations. A short newspaper story takes longer to read than your average minute-and-thirty-second TV news report. The Web is assuming a leading role, but today is too fragmented to offer a reliable alternative to daily newspapers. And most of the news stories appearing on the Web initially came from some print reporter slogging in the trenches.

Today's newspapers still have the depth, strength and room for the diverse types of stories that keep this nation honest and strong, despite the push for flash-bang, pop-journalism that some industry executives and savants believe will attract more readers and keep the 20 percent profit margin that newspapers typically enjoyed.

Newspapers can send reporters to sit through city and town council and school board meetings or sift through mundane budget documents. They can invest long hours investigating allegations of wrongdoings by police, politicians and businesses. They file lawsuits to keep meetings and other government business open.

Woodward and Bernstein spent months fishing and landing the Watergate story. They weren't out chasing the latest traffic fatality, broken water main or pop freak show involving some space cadet in diapers.

The T-D's city jail package last year shows our local paper can still invest the time and money that it takes to foster the dialogue that leads to positive change. Has the T-D changed? No question. But far less than many other papers.

I battled with new Executive Editor Glenn Proctor, arguing that this city wants its paper to be companionable and detailed, and to underestimate the sophistication of Richmond-area readers is certain suicide. Yes, I made a pest out of myself fuming (for example) about yet another Elliott Yamin story on the front page (feature section, please) or another thin Taylor Behl follow-up (what about other victims?), while Proctor drove home his goal to "give the people what they want, not what we think they need."

When I lost creative freedom in my column, I chose to end it and made plans to bolt. Rick Howard, the news director at Channel 6, offered me the freedom I had lost. I'm really enjoying learning a new way of telling stories.

But I didn't want a messy departure from the newspaper. The T-D is going through the same seismic flux as so many other publications. Proctor, hired as a fixer and visionary, is new to the area and has never held the top spot at a newspaper before. The new managing editor recently came here from Fargo, N.D. Some of those filling other top management jobs are still settling into their positions.

Some of the recent changes are smart, such as promoting business columnist Bob Rayner to the editorial page, now headed by penman Todd Culbertson and moderated by libertarian Bart Hinkle. The pressure for staff to meet expectations has certainly been dialed up. And the T-D still has some of the finest reporters and photogs in the country, such as David Ress and Eva Russo, among others. The paper also has some truly elegant writers, such as Rex Bowman, Bill Geroux and Bill McKelway.

The T-D still stands as one of the best midsized papers in the land. Will it continue to dig deep into the bedrock issues that haunt the metro area? Will it have a heart for the underclass, or focus on pop-culture platitudes such as the slavery apology, while modern-day slavery lives on in the toughest sections of the inner city?

Yes, Elliott Yamin gave us pleasure, pride and the hope that the little people can soar, but tell it to the little boy looking at another dead body in his neighborhood, or the girl who thinks it's normal for some grown man to climb on top of her before she's out of middle school.

Will the T-D bring you full-flavored coverage of the national and international news as well as fine coverage of the fine arts? Bottom line: The T-D isn't Media General's paper. It doesn't belong to the stockholders or the new chief leaders or the reporters, editors and photographers who put it out. It belongs to you, the people who buy it and trust it to bring the news. There have been dark eras in print journalism's distant past, but likely never like this.

Today's corporatized climate will require that you watchdog the watchdog — that you demand that the T-D and other daily papers carry out the unfettered search for the truth that our Founding Fathers had in mind.

The bosses at the T-D have recently said newspapering is a business. It shouldn't be. It's more like a religion. It should be a higher calling, not one held hostage to an unnaturally high profit margin.

I'd never recommend that you cancel your subscription. But I do hope you and newspaper readers across the country hold your papers to the highest possible standard. Call. Complain. Congratulate. Cajole.

Our local paper must be strong for our area to be strong and rise to the level it so richly deserves. It begins and ends with free speech. Support your local guardians — but demand their vigilance. S

Marl Holmberg is a former columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch who now reports for WTVR-TV 6.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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