Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Work history

 In 1968, when I was a junior in high school, Lowell Denton invited me to work for the summer at the Flemingsburg Gazette, the weekly newspaper in Fleming County, Kentucky, that he and his wife, Jean, owned and operated. 

That turned into six summers of practical training in journalism: attending meetings, interviewing, Englishing the country correspondence, writing profiles of notables, reading proof, taking classified and subscription orders over the phone, addressing and bundling the papers for the mail, and sweeping out the office on Fridays. 

Lowell and Jean made a comfortable living, and though there were only a few thousand subscribers, they were loyal. The paper, now owned by a small regional chain, is still being published. 

In 1980, abandoning pursuit of a doctorate in eighteenth-century English literature (though not yet acknowledging to myself that I had done so), I took a seat on the copy desk at The Cincinnati Enquirer, learning the craft while working with an experienced band of editors. I thrived. 

The Enquirer had recently been acquired by Gannett, and soon Gannett's practice of cycling its apparatchiks through all its papers became evident. In six and a half years I worked under two editors and five managing editors. (The in-house term for these worthies, "Gannettoids," was not a mark of esteem.) But the copy desk was a haven of mild subversion and gallows humor. Our motto was "They can make us eat it, but they can't make us say it tastes good." 

In time they decided that they wanted us to say that it tastes good. The day my supervisor told me that henceforth my annual evaluation would be based half on performance and half on attitude was the day I began to look elsewhere. As a native Kentuckian, I was of course interested in the Courier-Journal in Louisville, and the editors were enthusiastic about me on the first day of interviews. The second day was the day was the day Gannett purchased the Courier-Journal and Barry Bingham handed over the keys to Al Neuharth. 

In 1986 I was hired as a copy editor at The Baltimore Sun, which had recently been acquired by Times Mirror. Times Mirror ran its papers with a loose rein, because the profits were exceptional, partly because introduction of computers into publishing allowed huge savings in labor costs as the positions of craft unions were gradually eliminated. 

During this plush time I was made head of the copy desk and allowed to hire, train, and mentor a cadre of smart young editors, with the encouragement of the editor, John S. Carroll. But top corporate management at Times Mirror was so feckless as to allow agents of the rapacious Chandler family to sell the company out from under them to Tribune. 

Tribune came in boldly, with a too-clever-by-half plan to conceal the purchase of Times Mirror as something else to avoid hefty tax payments, but the Internal Revenue Service was not deceived. Tribune's visionary plan to link its nationwide newspapers to gain a bonanza in national advertising also came to nothing. Corporate cuilture was soon marked by sniping between Chicago and the Los Angeles Times,  the larger, and better, paper, and around 2000 the bottom started to fall out of the paragraph game. 

Instead of expansion, Tribune entered into contraction, reducing staffs, curtailing overage in repeated efforts to maintain profitability and satisfy shareholders. Eventually gormless corporate masters at Tribune were supplanted by Sam Zell and his band of louche bros, who took the company into bankruptcy in a year. 

(In 2009, as revenue plummeted in the recession, I was laid off, along with sixty other newsroom employees, and hired back a year later.) 

Management after Zell maintained the pattern of skimming the cash flow without investing in staff or improvements. The ever-diminishing staff at The Sun struggled to keep doing responsible work in difficult conditions, even managing to achieve a Pulitzer. 

In 2021 Tribune Publishing was acquired by Alden Global Capital, which took the company private. Alden Global almost immediately offered the staff a series of buyouts. I asked for one, received it, and retired, which is the extent of my personal experience with Alden Global. 

So my forty-year career in newspaper journalism, thirty-four of them at The Sun, is done, but I have to say that the itch to edit does not fade.