Posts Tagged ‘Democrat and Chronicle’

Jeff Spevak’s farewell

September 25, 2017

Last week the Rochester, N.Y., Democrat and Chronicle, which is my local newspaper and former employer, laid off Jeff Spevak, its arts and entertainment reporter.  Here’s what he had to say about it.

MY OBITUARY MOMENT

by Jeff Spevak

Last week I had caught my bus for the usual ride downtown and found a seat next to another fellow. He looked at me.  “Hey,” he said. “You’re the guy. The newspaper guy.”

“Yeah,” I said.

A few days ago I was watching Paterson, a beautifully subtle film about a bus driver who writes poetry. After a conversation about William Carlos Williams, a Japanese tourist who was sharing a park bench with the bus-driving poet asked him if he wrote poetry.

“No,” the bus driver said.

Twelve hours later, the connection between these two scenes, one from a movie, one from my life, fell into place.  In Paterson, the bus-driving poet’s dog had shredded his notebook filled with poems.  How can you be a poet when you have no poems?  So no, he answered honestly, he was not a poet.

It was the same thing when I got called into the Democrat and Chronicle Human Resources office on Tuesday.  “We’re eliminating your position,” the editor said.

So now my answer to the guy on the bus will be, “No, I’m not the newspaper guy.”

Two characters, a New Jersey bus driver and a newspaper arts and entertainment writer, who no longer knew who they were.

It’s a dangerous thing to tie your identity to your job. I’m not sure where the tipping point came, but somewhere during my 27 years at the Democrat and Chronicle I could no longer tell the difference between my personal life and my professional life.  Maybe it was the day at the jazz festival when a guy asked me for my autograph.  I looked at him and said, “Are you joking?”

The editor was wrong when she told me they were eliminating my position.  Someone else will have to write the long Sunday feature stories about the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra trumpet player whose wife didn’t get proper treatment for breast cancer and died, because the cult-like church they belonged to believed God heals all.  Someone else will have to interview Brian Wilson, carefully navigating his drug-ravaged brain to discover the genius within.  Another writer will have to find the words to describe the giant spermatozoa floating over the heads of 10,000 people last weekend at the KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival.

The newspaper wasn’t eliminating my position. It was eliminating me. That’s just the language corporations use so they don’t have to deal with the humanity in the situation.

I believe I said, “I’ll go get my shit and leave.”  My language might not have been quite that coarse, I can’t remember now.  But that’s what I was thinking.

As my fellow newsroom employees gathered around my desk for the uncomfortable condolences and hugs, I couldn’t find the words to explain how I felt.  Which was… I felt like nothing. I’ve always taken my job so seriously.  Now that I didn’t have the job any longer, it was like I didn’t care.  I hear 27 years of being rode hard and put away wet does that to a horse.

If they live that long.

I wonder what parts of me have gone missing, and which ones will return. A few months ago, I was told I couldn’t use social media for political comment, and I was not allowed to appear at public rallies; not as a speaker or anything official, I just couldn’t be there to see for myself what was going on.

As a condition of employment, I had to be someone other than who I am.

Big companies guard their images closely, and I can’t blame them for that. There are millions in CEO salaries to protect, shareholders must be rewarded for their investment. Yet news organizations use social media for political comment, and they are often observed at public rallies, if only to report what’s going on.

They aggressively protect their First Amendment right to do so. As Mitt Romney famously said, “Corporations are people too, my friend.”

More so, I think.

My final act before walking out the offices of the Democrat and Chronicle for the last time was to go on Facebook.  I typed:

Myself and two of my newsroom colleagues just got laid off at the Democrat and Chronicle. After 27 years here, I feel… relief.

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If newspapers die, will we lose anything?

March 23, 2016

My friend and former editor Anne Tanner worries about the future of journalism, and of newspapers in particular, as I do.  She e-mailed me a link to an article in Britain’s Prospect Magazine about the future of newspapers, from which I pull the excerpt below.

So far, the online news world has had a slightly shabby reputation.  On the one hand there are endless feeds simply repeating or re-tweeting the same basic information; the spread of lazy list-based journalism; and the parasite websites, picking the dirty bits out of the teeth of the major news corporations.  On the other hand there is the reactive underworld of almost incoherent anger, the moon-faced, flabby-fingered trolls who reduce all public argument to puerile sexual abuse.

newspaper-2Yet as more and more of us turn to our laptops, the news is getting better.  When I am researching I like to “read sideways”—that is, find a story or a footnote, trace it down to its origin, and keep going from there.  This sideways reading, made possible by hyperlinks, is the essence of the best of what is on the web.

On websites such as Buzzfeed, there is delight as well as disappointment.  The disappointment is that although there are in-depth essays and some foreign coverage, it’s still a long way from the regular, reliable foreign news service that the average news junkie would expect from the average serious newspaper.  The delight is about the ingenuity and creativity of its staff—if you haven’t seen Kelly Oakes’s “If newspaper headlines were scientifically accurate” you are missing something special.

It’s not only possible to become a really well-informed and engaged person by reading the news—it’s getting easier all the time. But relying on a single, under-funded, pressurized editorial team and a dampish wodge of flattened spruce arriving on your doormat every day is no longer the best way to go about it.  You just have to be more proactive and spend a bit more time to get what you need

Source: Prospect Magazine

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Affirmative action for conservatives?

July 1, 2013

Back when I was a reporter for the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, our city editor once did an informal poll on our internal e-mail system as to what reporters and editors thought about the topic of abortion.

Not all the reporters and editors responded, but of those who did, there was a large number (including me) who were pro-choice and one brave lonely individual who was pro-life.

I recalled this the other day when I read that the University of Colorado Board of Regents intended to conduct a survey to determine whether conservatives and conservative viewpoints were underrepresented on the university’s faculty.

newspaper-2In the case of the D&C newsroom, I think our near-unanimity was a handicap in doing justice to both sides.  We all tried to be as fair to all points of view as we could, but you never know what you are unconsciously taking for granted until you interact with someone whose assumptions are different.

I don’t what could have been done about this imbalance.  Nobody asked my political opinions when I was interviewed for the job.  I don’t think that would have been a proper question to ask, any more than a question about my religion.  If a newspaper were ever to start an intentional policy of hiring more conservatives and Republicans, what they would get is a lot of opportunists claiming to be whatever they thought would get them hired.

It is a fact of life that certain occupations attract certain types of people, and it is also a fact of life that working in certain occupations gives you a certain point of view.  I doubt you would find, to pick a few random examples, that the political opinions of military officers, climate scientists, engineers or bankers necessarily represent a cross-section of the population.

Looking back on my own work, I think I was biased not so much liberal or conservative as biased toward the point of view of the people I covered—in my case, the Rochester business community.  This is an old and familiar tendency in newspaper work.  The sports writer becomes a fan of the home team, the police reporter take on the point of view of the police, the political reporter starts to think of herself as a political insider.

The answer is not to try to correct a bias with a corresponding opposite bias, and certainly not to put journalism under the supervision of politicians, but to strive for professionalism, which means reporting the relevant facts as accurately and completely as you can, stating opposing views fairly and being willing to acknowledge errors and inconvenient truths.

I don’t in fact think we did a bad job of covering the abortion issue.  Both sides complained about our coverage in about equal measure.

§§§

Click on University of Colorado plan to survey political climate draws mixed reactions for a report on the Colorado regents’ plan.  I found the link on the Unqualified Offerings web log.  I agree with  “Thoreau” on Class is a battlefield and Samuel Goldman of The American Conservative on Trolling for Conservatives.

What do you think?

Stars, cows, dogs and newspapers

April 16, 2010

When I reported on business for the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle in the 1980s and 199os, there was a business management philosophy which held that all lines of businesses could be classified in one of four ways:

(1) Stars, with high profitability and high growth

(2) Cows, with high profitability and low, zero or negative growth

(3) Dogs, with low, zero or negative profitability and low, zero or negative growth

(4) Question marks, with low, zero or negative profitability, but high growth

The job of a manager was to (1) feed the stars, (2) milk the cows, (3) shoot the dogs and (4) answer the questions.

Back then the owners of the nation’s great newspapers treated them as cash cows. Newspaper circulation did not keep up with population growth, but newspaper companies typically had profits exceeding 20 percent, greater than oil companies. Profits were not typically put back into the newspaper to improve the product. Instead, newspapers shrank their circulation areas, published fewer editions, allowed news staffs to shrink and sought to maintain profits by cutting costs and staff.

Now the newspaper industry is in crisis. The Tribune Co. is reorganizing under bankruptcy, but at this point it appears it will continue publishing the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and other properties. Other famous newspapers have gone to less-than-daily publication, replaced print editions with Internet-only presence or gone out of business entirely.

I would like to believe that this need not have happened if the big newspaper chains had put professionalism above profits. Unfortunately the facts don’t seem to support this belief.

The McClatchy Co., the third-largest U.S. newspaper chain, which bought Knight-Ridder newspapers in 2005, has done just what I want.  They have set an example of journalistic excellence, but financially they are down with Gannett Co. Inc. and all the others. The newspaper chains that are doing best, or least bad, are the ones that have diversified away from print journalism.

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