I got my first newspaper job at age 14, taking classified ads over the phone. I did that all through the rest of high school, and went full-time for a bit right after high school.
While in college, I started stringing for Gannett. I wrote for two daily newspapers and five weeklies, and was sometimes syndicated more widely by the company. That’s because at the time, Gannett owned newspapers across the U.S., including the Detroit News and USA Today. (Now it bills itself as “a media and marketing solutions company.” I understand why; I truly do.)
After that, I was hired by the Press of Atlantic City (which some of us remember as The Atlantic City Press) as a copy editor. I thrived in that role, partly no doubt because the hours were 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.
After moving to Los Angeles in 1988, I kept freelancing for newspapers and magazines for five or 10 years, including some of the papers I had worked for, plus the Los Angeles Times, the Arkansas Democrat Gazette and others. Gradually, both the theatre and other interests related to changing the world (business, politics) swept me away. But to this day, I read the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal daily, and check in on other newspapers frequently.
All this background is by way of telling you how much I love newspapers. Many of my plays feature newspapers, much to the detriment of their lastability.
This is also by way of preamble to something I saw last night that should have come as no surprise, but which confirmed everything that has happened to journalism in recent years.
My daughter and I are watching House of Cards on Netflix. I saw the original British version on PBS back in the 90s, and again about six years ago. This new version stars Kevin Spacey as a conniving Congressional majority whip who beds a budding journalist named Zoe and uses her to further his ends. The young reporter’s rash behavior puts her at odds with the executive editor at The Washington “Herald” (which seems much like The Washington Post, right down to the plummy female publisher), who fires her. Upon being fired, the reporter fires off a tweet mentioning that the editor called her “a cunt,” and that action, backed by the exclusives she’s been landing thanks to her relationship with the majority whip, lands her her choice of new positions elsewhere.
So, of course, she takes a job with something called Slugline. Slugline, it seems, is like Politico, as done by TMZ. That’s implied both in words by the reporter Zoe and by the actions of the “editor” who hires her. To wit: Zoe submits her first story to the editor for editing and review; the editor comes out and tells her that she can write — and post — what she wants, with no editorial review needed.
Zoe gets this message, by the way, while sitting on the floor in a large common work space, a space where writers sit on the floor or on bean bag cushions. No offices, no desks, no chairs, no file cabinets. No editors. I’m aware of this sort of workspace, naturally, and have seen some of them. But seeing it depicted as the next generation of journalism made my heart shrivel. It also helped me understand, again, why so much in the news is wrong and so quickly: no editors. Not for grammar, not for spelling, not for names, and not for facts. That isn’t the case everywhere, and it never will be, not so long as major news organizations want to preserve their reputation. But I will note that two weeks ago I gave a speech in Glendale, and the local paper came to cover it. The little writeup was riddled with errors, right down to my company’s name: “Counterintuity LCC.” An “LLC” is a limited liability company; what’s an “LCC”? It’s an admission that you have no editor. Who owns the paper? The Los Angeles Times.