Tuesday, March 16, 2010

One Year Ago: Shutting Down the Seattle Post-Intelligencer

My phone rang as I walked into the empty newsroom before 9 a.m. on March 16, 2009. It was a New York Times reporter fishing for confirmation -- about something he wouldn't reveal. That is never good news.
My heart pounding, I ran to the managing editor's office but stopped short. The publisher was already there. I tracked down an assistant managing editor. The look on her face said it all: We were finished. Tuesday, March 17th would be the feisty, 146-year-old Seattle Post-Intelligencer's final edition.
What I remember most that day is feeling numb. It had been two roller coaster months since Hearst put the P-I up for sale. Yet I still could not believe this was happening. Condolence emails and calls poured in as I cleared out my desk and packed up three boxes of documents and unfinished work. 
 Reporters from other news outlets gathered in our lobby, clamoring for comment. A TV reporter couldn't resist asking, "Are you scared?" I stared into the camera. 
Damn right I was scared. Not just of losing my job -- but of losing journalism's heart and soul. Of the erosion of a profession that is paid to question authority and tell the truth. Of being left with reporters who do little more than wield microphones and ask "How does it feel?"
The dismantling of the newsroom went fast. Recycling bins filled to overflowing with stories that would never be told. Desks were swept clean for the first time in years. Everything about it looked wrong. 
The year since then has been a blur of survival strategies and piecing some kind of life back together. I got lucky and found work for a good cause. 
But it is not journalism. I still miss the newsroom like a lost friend. I miss uncovering and telling stories that matter. I worry about talented former colleagues who have still not found work.
Journalism is struggling mightily to remake itself. I'm cheering each new development. Getting rid of jobs is one thing. Getting rid of journalists--not so easy.
In my basement, the three boxes I packed on my last day at the P-I are stacked up on a chair, unopened. Waiting.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

More Dads at Home in the 'Hood

When my husband stayed home with our young son a decade ago, he was a novelty on the playground. The moms of our son's playmates weren't sure what to make of a guy who chose the home front over career. And my husband rolled his eyes at being exposed to daily conversations about stretch marks, breast-feeding difficulties and how to lose post-baby fat.
So I was delighted when I walked by an elementary school yesterday and saw not one but FIVE dads picking up their kids in the space of a few minutes.
One guy was skipping down the street, hand in hand with his young daughter, and singing -- I kid you not.
I overheard another dad asking his son what he did that day.
"Math," the little boy said.
"What kind of math?" his dad asked.
"Math sheets," the boy said.
"Adding and subtracting?"
"Yup," the boy said.
When I was growing up, dads didn't show up at school and walk you home while chatting about your day. Dads went to work early in the morning and came home late.
What's happened in the intervening decades is a cultural shift. Staying home to raise children is now something a  guy can choose without incurring social scorn.
Less than one percent of couples include a dad who stays home with the kids. But there are three times as many as a decade ago, according to the Census Bureau. This year the number increased to an estimated 158,000 fathers from 140,000 in 2008.
The bad news is that for some dads, it isn't a choice but the harsh consequence of this recession's high unemployment rates.
But for others, it's a chance to share more fully in the wonder years that slip by so fast.
(Photo: by Roland)

Sunday, February 21, 2010

When does Hyperlocal News = Hyper-Nosy?

I'm a fan of my neighborhood news blog. It tells me when new restaurants open, tracks coyote sightings and reports what caused the latest traffic jam on the bridge. If you live in the 'hood, that stuff matters.
The down side of hyperlocal news is that having a public platform can turn some folks into proverbial neighborhood busybodies of the worst sort.
Not long ago, a controversy broke out on MyBallard.com after someone complained that a new homeowner was chopping down a large monkey puzzle tree. Soon a photo and story were posted on the blog -- minus an interview with the owner of the tree -- generating heated comments from all sides. The brouhaha attracted the local TV stations. A week later the owner was facing a fine for failing to get a permit before removing the tree.
 Welcome to the neighborhood.
Whether the tree's owner was right or wrong is beside the point. It's what this says about how we treat our neighbors that creeps me out. Whatever happened to knocking on the door and talking to someone who's doing something you disagree with? Why publicly out someone just because you can? 
When I worked as a reporter, there were checks and balances built into how we covered the news. Rule number one was get both sides. Fairness demands it. 
Stories also had to meet a certain level of newsworthiness to justify taking up space in the newspaper let alone dragging someone into the public spotlight. My editor would have laughed me out of the newsroom if I filed a story about somebody who cut down a tree -- on their own property.
But that was then, and this is now. Lurking on every corner is a wannabe reporter with a cell phone and the ability to turn a neighborhood spat or a mistake into a full-blown incident.
That's not hyperlocal news -- that's hyper-nosy.
(Photo: by Zimpenfish)

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Seven New Year's Resolutions for Journalists Adrift

I spent my 20s searching for a vocation. When I landed in journalism, I knew I'd found my calling.
But after two decades, my calling left me when my newspaper, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, closed last March.
I'm not alone. Thousands of journalists have lost our jobs in the last year. How we cope after the shock wears off falls into two general camps. 
Some walk away and don't look back, launching new businesses and careers or returning to school. Others refuse to abandon their first love, risking it all to stay in the field (moving across the country, working for free for journalism start-ups) or accepting other kinds of work while dreaming of the day they can return to their true vocation. A survey of former P-I journalists I did three months ago confirmed this.
I find myself somewhere in between. Practically, I have had to move on, translating my considerable writing/editing skills into communications work for a very good cause. Emotionally, I still struggle with what I/we have lost.
 I miss the newsroom almost daily -- that lively, eccentric mishmash of talented colleagues who made up the P-I. I always looked forward to that first hour of the day when I fired up my computer, answered readers' emails and felt the hum of the newsroom coming alive.
Looking back, I marvel at the miracle of cooperation and productivity that it took to put out a daily newspaper.
And I still grieve over the death of my feisty newspaper and the team of journalists who poured our hearts and souls into so many of the stories we covered.
As we begin a new year, here are my resolutions for journalists adrift:
1. Take care of yourself, whatever that means, from exercising to eating better: there have to be some benefits to being freed from daily newspaper deadlines.
2. Take care of your family: there's no shame in accepting a non-journalism job to pay your mortgage and put food on the table while you figure out what comes next. The days of snubbing journalists who go to the "other side" are over.
3. Don't be afraid to try something new: what do you have to lose? This is the time to experiment and find out how your journalism skills translate to other professions.
4. Find other outlets for your passions: Your new job may be just a job. But you are still a writer or a photographer or an artist at heart.
5. Believe in yourself: Unemployment erases self confidence faster than a blackboard brush. But journalists are incredibly skilled. We know how to cut to the chase, size up a complex issue and explain it in simple terms. That's a valuable asset in the real world.
6. Don't bail on journalism: Support a journalism start-up, subscribe to a newspaper, blog. It still matters.
7. Tell the world what's happening to us: This isn't just personal. Journalists are witnesses and watchdogs -- and essential to a healthy democracy. Believe it or not, a lot of people still don't have any idea that newspapers are melting down or what it means to the future.
(Photo: by Adam Tinworth)