When I started working in newspaper journalism 38 years ago, some reporters were paid by the column inch for stories still written on typewriters. Blocks of printed text and photos were waxed and pasted together to make pages by guys who several years earlier had been making them from hot lead.
The rapid advances in technology have obscured an important change in the industry — newspapers became more like regular businesses. They had to in response to growing competition from more newspapers, magazines, TV and radio, direct mail services and eventually the internet.
When I started at The Press — my third newspaper — it didn’t have a regular budget with revenue estimates and department spending proposals. The revenue stream was so wide and the profit margin so high that there was plenty of money for whatever was needed — just like a family doing well enough that it can dispense with the annoyance of a monthly budget.
There were no scheduled employee reviews or wage increases either. If someone felt they needed or deserved a raise, they went to the publisher/editor, made their case and in a few days a little piece of yellow paper appeared in their mail slot informing them how much more they’d get an hour.
Drinking on the job was not uncommon, and several bottom drawers in the newsroom contained bottles to dampen the stress of an approaching deadline or celebrate making one with a big story. A reporter who lost his license for driving while intoxicated was said to have gotten a raise to help with the additional expense of taking public transportation — from an executive who had been caught in the same misbehavior.
Ethics were a bit challenged too. A political reporter used to brag that he never had to pay for a meal. Gifts for favorable coverage were accepted and distributed to the newsroom staff — preferably ones to eat or drink. The best I ever saw was a case of Veuve Clicquot Champagne.
Once as a reporter at a previous paper, I got a state official to admit that a well-connected restaurant owner had paid to have an unnecessary traffic light installed at it to make cars stop there. After writing the story, the publisher told me it wouldn’t run because he was a good advertiser.
When I was named entertainment editor of The Press in the 1980s, I immediately ended a column that an advertising rep was writing, mainly to plug his accounts.
In the early ’90s, the previous owners of The Press decided to run the newspaper the same way they operated their other businesses. Annual budgets were set, spending was controlled, employees were evaluated and compensated accordingly, drinking on the job was banned and accepting gifts was prohibited.
Many on the news staff didn’t like being reined in, but there’s no question they became more professional, focused on serving the readers and did better work.
Around the same time it became the policy to hire only those with college degrees.
This improved many basic skills in the staff and led to more insightful reporting and better writing. But I think in this case there was also a tradeoff.
Newspapers traditionally had employed people from all walks of life, quite a few self-educated, and many of them characters, eccentrics, weirdos, whatever. We had a guy that was never seen in daylight, another sent out to buy dinner who took the money and ran, and a copy person whose evening job was on Pacific Avenue in Atlantic City.
Many of these divergent characters were difficult to manage, but they also connected the newsroom directly with a wider range of the community. Overall, though, from what I’ve seen, there’s no question that journalists today on average do better work, do many more kinds of work and work a lot harder.
Market forces compelled newspapers to become better businesses. They seem to have made the transition just in time to re-create their business models for a market still changing rapidly.
Email Kevin Post, the editorial page editor, at firstname.lastname@example.org.