Just another eulogy for the incredible, shrinking newspaper
I'm out of metaphors or analogies or clever quips. It’s with great sadness that I’ve been watching this week as my friends and former colleagues from The Orange County Register post on Facebook about the closing of the big building in Southern California.
Pepto-Bismol pink and planted in a celery field off the 5 Freeway in Santa Ana, the building is now much too big to house such a small workforce. When I started there in 2005, it was hard to find a place for my Honda Civic in the five-story parking lot.
The Register, of course, is not alone in its decline. Here in Kansas City, the Star made news in March about plans to sell its historic building. The few remaining workers will decamp to the Star’s building that houses its print shop.
KCUR’s report about the sale was written by a former Star reporter, now a freelancer for the public radio station. Apparently, the Star building will be turned into lofts, much like the other old factories that were once rotting in downtown.
God, I loved working at newspapers. I got in a few good years before the fall, starting in 1997 at the Denver Post, then moving across the street to the Rocky Mountain News in 2000. Working in a two-newspaper town was the best daily adrenaline rush I’ve had to date.
Now I feel like a survivor watching from the shore, slightly guilty yet grateful as hell to still be a working journalist. The agonizingly slow drain of the workforce was charted this month by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which reported that newspapers lost more than half of their jobs from 2001 to 2016. No surprise there, except the knowledge that there are just 174,000 souls still left with a newspaper gig in the U.S.
Much better writers and thinkers than I have opined about this awful fall of the Fourth Estate. What the decline of local newspapers means to civic engagement, watchdogging politicians, or just the loss of our own morning rituals, like walking to the curb to pick up yesterday’s news. Paul Krugman wrote last week that the "long decline of small newspapers has eroded the sense of local identity." I agree.
Along the way there were lots of weird milestones as I survived 10 rounds of layoffs and buyouts at the Register. Bosses tried to keep up the good spirits and even advance into the Inter-webs, with mixed results. Like the day in November 2009 when they threw a party in the newsroom to celebrate the launch of our new website. Free coffee! Free orange juice! Plastic leis! Yuck.
Even as reporters were trying to work, a woman was playing a harp in the middle of the newsroom. When one of the big bosses got up, the harpist stopped playing briefly so he could tell us that the company had invested lots of money in making the website load more quickly, an improvement from the 27 seconds it took in the past to open the home page.
I couldn't take the false excitement, so I went to my desk, determined to ignore the whole thing. That is, until I heard that Celine Dion song. Yes, the harpist was playing the theme song to the movie "Titanic." I looked around to see if anyone else caught it. The senior writers around me in the business section were ignoring the whole affair and were, as usual, working their tails off.
I thought I was the only one who got it until I checked my Facebook page. One of my fellow reporters had written this post:
"I'd rather be in traffic. A harpist in the middle of the newsroom is playing "Memories" from the musical "Cats" to celebrate the launch of our paper's new website. Did they want this to feel like a funeral?"
"Totally creeped me out," another colleague wrote.
The harpist played on as the Reg struggled through rounds of bankruptcies, lay-offs, and finally, this latest downsizing that placed the paper in Anaheim, near Disneyland. The paper was sold last year to Digital First Media, now owner of the Denver Post and the San Jose Mercury News.
Digital First sold the valuable Southern California property, so the remaining staffers moved to a new building described as “modest” by a Reg writer and with just enough bodies to fill two floors of a three-story building. Hope you get a good lot with lots of free parking.