Success by association

We are no longer in a golden age of newspapers. This we know.

There was a time when newspapers carried greater weight and bigger staffs. Those left on big urban dailies are ideologues, clingers and the occasional innovator.

I met someone who in the 1980s worked at one of those newspapers that were still power brokers. The staff was almost triple the size what it is today. He had some stories, and he had collected and organized contacts and sources. He learned the game of newspapering and reporting at a time when newspapers had enough editors to truly pass on the details of the game.

Of course, old reporters don’t like to admit that in that way, they had it a lot easier: there were more mentors and editors to teach them the craft, while I don’t know who’s teaching journalists of today.

Other than this learning and the respect he held, this old head journalist didn’t strike me as deserving of the esteem he demanded. After all, he only happened to work in a field that was succeeding. He held success by association.

Many of the newspaper reporters left today get picked on. Their industry is crumbling, their reporting is incomplete, their stories are less meaningful.

And those who got out of the game in the 1980s or even into the 1990s are somehow salvaged the blame, the criticism. They can `serve up that institution’s name, and folks can know that was at a different time. They were on a winning team. They were better reporters.

It’s a question of whether they deserve that unquestioned, residual luck and respect have today.

Many do. I think some do not.

Because it’s simply harder to report in a newsroom today. There are more pressures: falling revenue, shrinking staffs and an increasingly critical public, skeptical of today’s newspapers. The garden wall of the Fourth Estate has been toppled. Citizen journalist have realized, hey, yeah, I can call and find information just like a journalist.

But it’s not that all the good reporters fled to PR. It’s that when newspapers were winning, it was easy to win with them. There were more resources, more institutional acceptance of power. If the big daily newspaper called a politician’s office even a decade ago, I bet there was more fear than there is today.

I know a newspaper travel editor who went to fine arts when his previous section was cut at his urban daily. Today, he occasionally fills in on the city desk. He doesn’t have the same sources, the same knowledge. The respect for his newspaper from the people he covers isn’t the same. His job his harder, so his product is, probably, often not as strong as what a counterpart of his would have done 20, 30 or 40 years ago.

Those in the past can have that success by association, while those left in newsrooms today are dinosaurs by association.

It’s not quite the same focus, but author Henry Ford below talks about a culture of winning breeding winning. Men and women who were partying in brighter newsrooms of the past, too, seemed better and brighter than, perhaps, they were.