Nov 9, 2007

My treatise

The newspaper industry is acting like a person afflicted with anorexia nervosa. It continues to starve itself for fear of being bloated or fat, despite the fact that everyone else can see that it is killing itself. Once the self-destructive cycle of compulsion begins, it is difficult to break with logic and reason alone. And, in the ultimate irony, the destructive behavior becomes the one thing the person depends on to offer them a sense of self-esteem, of control.

Too bad pharmaceutical companies don't have a pill for corporate compulsive behavior. If only those at the top would jump from the cliff already, rather than stand paralyzed at their fear of death, we could use their salaries to plug a few holes in our newsrooms. Instead, we all suffer from their nervous disorder. And we starve.

The new delusion is for executives to talk about having "fewer editors and more reporters" in the newsrooms. As though papers are overstocked with editors. Then there is the line about freeing reporters from the confines of their desks so they can do all the exciting stuff editors and photographers used to do, such as post things on the web, take pictures, edit stories, blog, take video, etc. These rationalizations for what are really a cost cutting plans will only exacerbate the nervous disorder, since any good psychologist will tell you that lying to oneself and others further entangles the tangled mind. "I'm not starving myself, I'm just eating more sensibly."

As we shift expectations in the newsroom about what a reporter should be, based on what we are willing to pay, we will shift expectations along the path of career advancement and do harm at our advanced institutions in the process.

For so long we have looked at the problem of newspapers as a top down issue: Wall Street investors leaning on executive boards leaning on publishers leaning on executive editors leaning on budgets, resulting in painful "but necessary" cuts. But we should be paying more attention to the bottom up problems associated with lowered expectations, overworked and underpaid employees, lowered expectations, and harmful concessions made about what it means to be "professional".

This is what disturbed people do to cope. They surround themselves with other disturbed people to feel normal. They self-destruct and run from responsibility so that their environment does not force them to reflect on their poor decisions. They do harm to the people around them who would demand that they live up to their potential and hold to values that they already believe they have fatally transgressed.

The newspaper industry needs a heavy dose of intensive therapy.

Instead, I assume the upper-level managers will simply squirrel away just enough to retire with that all important $2 million bank account and leave it to the rest of us to pick up the pieces of a broken life.

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