On print journalism and what I wish I’d known first

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Sometimes, when words fail, I’ll sit and listen to the rhythm of the office around me. The distribution manager talking about delivery complaints and manifests, soothing customers in her soft Canadian accent I never noticed until I knew it was there. Customers at the counter, asking for ad changes, a Pennysaver, a copy of the newspaper that’ll be $1 and it’s comforting, hearing my coworkers solving the million tiny problems that make up the march through our day.

And me, sitting like a restive turtle, wondering what it all means.

Some days, journalism is a calling. Others, it’s a curse.

An anonymous letter-writer sends me missives, once every other week or so. His handwriting is thick and deep and I imagine him in his 60’s, his hand curled over a pen at the coffee shop down the street where men of a certain age gather for coffee and gossip most weekday mornings. Where working women rush in and out with to-go cups and couples of ladies who just got their hair set next door linger over tea and whisper about each other. I picture him sitting with his buddies, that’s what they’ll call each other, and scribbling his anger into the looseleaf paper he probably purchased for that purpose.

He thinks he knows me as a “thin-skinned liberal,” a “joke,” and sometimes an “idiot girl.” I am none of these things, but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the callers who criticize our misspelling of a name, the photograph we used or didn’t, the news we missed or the news we published they didn’t like that happened and here we are, someone to blame.

I think back to freshman year in journalism school, J-school as we called it. My Introduction to Mass Media course was held in the biggest lecture hall they had, and I always sat square in the middle. Took tedious notes on the progression of the field I craved, at a tipping point where Internet was starting but there wasn’t news there yet, not really, not in the way anyone read. We learned about cross-platform publishing, but what we didn’t learn was that our field was crumbling before our eyes, like the towers we’d watch fall a couple years before. And they didn’t tell us our bright-eyed ambition, that would be dying too, at desks in chairs with spreading asses that crept down over the dreams we didn’t know were futile until it felt too late.

“The Internet won’t kill papers,” our professors said with bravado in their voices. They asked us at the beginning of each course, each year, how many of us read the newspaper. Hands raised. Fewer each year, but still. At the end of each week, the school paper came out and newsstands emptied, heads bowed over crinkling pages every Friday morning. The sound always reminded me of a crackling fire. Of a home hearth you could cozy up to, the news burning into your brain.

I taught a digital writing course this semester, asked my students how they got their news. Twitter. Snapchat. Rarely Facebook, already passe. The school had already killed its student paper. There were no newsstands in the hallways. I asked who read it, hard copy with their fingers. No hands went up. Not one.

So I sit in my office sometimes and I stare at the screen, reading about Facebook direct news publishing, about viral marketing and the importance of social media and how websites aren’t the future, they’re the present. My coworkers come into my office, ask why I wrote a headline that way, why we didn’t run this, ran that, why people are dropping their subscriptions, why our readership is literally dying before our eyes as I lay out the ever-growing obituary page. And the only answers I have is on the screen on my desk, the one I carry in my purse, the one my fiancé wears on his wrist and it feels antiquated to say it, that the Internet is news, now. That as the editor of a newspaper, I can feel like I’m already dead.

That gentle crackling sounds like a bonfire now, and we’re the witch they’re hunting. I love my job, like I’m sure those Salem ladies loved theirs, when their spells worked and raised their babies from the dead. Each week, I raise a baby of my own. Each week, I lay out stories like Tetris pieces, I pour thoughts from my brain onto screens, onto pages, and I send it out into the world with a kiss and a prayer. Each week, it comes back buffeted, but by the time the pitchforks come, I’m already gestating another one.

The news stops for no one, neither compliments or criticism. And our budget numbers fly like ticker tapes too, faster than the copies off the shelves. It’s a balancing act I haven’t got the stomach for, but it’s mine to try and steady. Sometimes, I’m standing at the helm of a sinking ship. Other times, I’m clinging. Today, it feels like we’re swimming against a current we couldn’t stop if we wanted to, and there are more and more days like it as we go. Today, I want to shake that freshman J-school girl. The one who followed her heart instead of her wallet, with convictions stronger than her spine.

“Go,” I want to tell her. “Take your words and your paper heart. There are scissors in the wires.”

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