The death of print hits home

I worked in print newspapers for nearly four years — more than six if you count my internship and college newspaper — until moving to online-only journalism in 2009.

I was there for the crest of newspaper advertising revenue in 2005 in Minneapolis, which was also, roughly, the height of circulation for one of the nation’s top 20 papers. Then, I was at a much smaller paper in New York that witnessed multiple publisher changes, a sale, newsroom attrition, budget cuts, furloughs and pay freezes and a general diminishing of morale. Still, even near the end of my time there, I felt, the paper was holding its own considering the collapse of the national, state and regional economies and the general dismal state of upstate New York.

What I’ve managed to not think about that often in the past 18 months is how I left for two reasons, not just because I was embracing a great opportunity in a major city. The second was because I had exhausted my energy and ability to take on more projects and causes, and, too, lost confidence in the paper’s ability to act intelligently, to weather the financial crisis still affecting journalism everywhere.

It wasn’t that I had some naivete about print journalism; I saw the problems years ago and the difficulties in transitioning to whatever the new order would be. Rather, it was that I thought a tipping point had been reached, that there was probably no coming back, regardless of whether I stayed.

Why all this buildup? Because there have been newsroom layoffs now at my old job, affecting roughly 18% of a staff that puts out a six-day-a-week paper and at least two weeklies, by my back-of-the-envelope math. One newsroom department lost up to 55.6% of its staff, depending on how you calculate it.

These are the beginning of its end days: If it weren’t true before, now there’s no coming back from the loss of manpower, knowledge and morale. Quality, breadth and depth of coverage will decline, advertising and circulation will decline at least at the same pace, and the cycle will have to be repeated.

(Let’s take a moment to note that you’ll never read about these layoffs in the paper, or the furloughs, even as the readers left wonder what’s happened. But if any other entity lays off or idles someone, you’ll be informed. Full disclosure only applies outside the fourth estate.)

What may have been a sick, in decline patient is now a terminally ill one. People are out of jobs — unfairly, for sure, in at least one case, and unfortunately in all of them. And my first full-time job has become a place beyond saving, which does bring moments of survivor’s guilt.

But that survivor’s guilt is assuaged, however grimly, by the reminder that I, and any other journalist, should be looking for the best of today and the best of tomorrow — not the entrenchment of hopelessly outdated methods, management and delivery. To be fair, it’s not just in print — is trending close to DOA, to believe the reports.

My current company’s surely not perfect, nor am I, and nobody has the one answer — not Huffington/AOL, not The Daily, not Gawker. But intelligent daring — not an oxymoron — is the only hope we have. And maybe my old paper never stood a chance, small, isolated and corporate-smothered as it is. But it’s sad to give up the dream, and tragic still when people’s lives are thrown into turmoil because of it.

What hope is there? Start with this guide, and keep your head up.