Or, Smile When You Say "Podunk Local Newspaper"

I’m a little bit distracted this week.

As anyone who works at a newspaper, magazine or any other publication can tell you, there’s a near-constant war between the editorial and advertising departments. The ad department is all about the money – as they should be, really, but what often irks the editorial department is that they can’t understand why we would, for example, talk badly about a potential advertiser, even if they’re breaking the law and we have the scoop. Ad people don’t read the editorial pages, and vice versa, of course, but it’s a bone of contention among editorial people, because how can you sell the paper on its merits if you don’t know what those merits are?

The sad reality that few editorial people realize is the shit they write means nothing at all. It’s the circulation numbers that sell the paper, and as long as we don’t praise Osama Bin Ladin on page one, it doesn’t matter what we fill the space around the ads with. The flip side, unfortunately, is that editorial content is the first thing blamed when the ad sales slip. Since the two departments have little to nothing to do with each other, blaming one for the other’s lack of success seems out of touch with reality. But it happens all the time.

At my newspaper of employment, word has come down from the top that editorial must change to bring in more advertising. Our owner, who’s like four hundred years old, is trying to force a symbiotic relationship upon the two departments. The thinking goes like this: If potential advertisers see their kids’ pictures in the paper, or they see that we lavished whole columns on their church social or picnic or whatever, then they’re more likely to buy ad space in the paper.

Henceforth, we editorial types are now going to be running around town covering every dumb shit event, no matter how insignificant. We are to ignore larger issues, to the point of not covering county and state government. Our focus is to be what editors the country over derisively refer to as “chicken dinner content.” It’s lots of pictures, fewer words, and whole herds of smiling kids.

My contention is that you don’t need journalists for that kind of work. Anyone can write advertorial pieces, and anyone can cover the latest Lions Club cookout in 15 inches. I’ve always felt that the skills I’ve been honing should be used in service of larger issues, like governmental mismanagement and corporate crime. This may sound helplessly naive, but I still feel that the press should be using its power for good, and that includes exerting the power of the common man on those in control, to make sure they do what’s right.

And honestly, I’m not running for office here. I just don’t know what greater good I can do covering vacation bible schools, or community craft fairs. The shame of it is, I was starting to get a nice foothold in the crazy little town I cover, and I had people calling me with tips and information because they know I’ll dig around and find the answers. What am I supposed to say now? “Sorry, but my boss says I can’t write about this unless there are cute kids involved?”

Our paper is a weekly, which means we can’t compete with the daily papers when it comes to breaking stories. All we have to offer is depth, which we had been doing really well. The average story in a daily paper is around 15 to 20 inches. Our average is 30 to 35, and I’ve even gone to 50. In order to provide the depth necessary to outdo the daily papers on the same stories, we need that extra space. But now we’ve been told that our stories must also be no longer than 20 inches.

But that’s not all. We’re not even trying to compete in that arena anymore. Our publisher actually seems excited about this idea – we’re going to be the paper that covers all the crappy things the daily papers don’t want to. Never mind that the dailies don’t want to waste the space on these stories because they’re just not that important, and they make for boring reading. Our publisher actually used the phrase “podunk local newspaper” without a trace of irony, as if it were a good thing, a noble aspiration.

Now, I ask you, who with any ounce of journalistic training and experience is going to want to commit 60 hours a week busting his or her ass for a “podunk local newspaper,” especially one that doesn’t even try to rise above that distinction?

Well, not our associate editor, that’s for sure.

I’ve mentioned this guy before. He’s 20 pounds of asshole in a 10 pound bag, most times, but I’ve actually learned quite a bit from him in the past few months about the law, and about tracking down a story. When this guy, who’s a grizzled, hardened journalist of old, heard about these changes, he quickly resigned in protest. His last day is next Friday.

As many times as I’ve wished this guy would be fired, I’d never imagined that he’d willingly leave honorably, and that I’d respect him for it.

And now I’m wondering who’s going to be next, and if it’s going to be me.

Back to the music next week, I swear, with Beck, Ryan Adams, Mark Knopfler and Ben Folds. Seriously. I wouldn’t lie to you.

See you in line Tuesday morning.