Editor's note: This is the sixth of a series of articles on the financial crisis facing The Seattle Times.
I've never worked for The Seattle Times, nor have I held a job at any daily newspaper. For a brief time last summer, I enjoyed the byline glory and slave wages of freelance writing for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and for a year in my early 20s, I worked for almost nothing at a monthly arts publication in the Midwest. I've read about the Times layoffs with surprise — but not at how many people they're letting go; rather, I've been surprised by how many they have to let go.
Maybe things have been different out here in the Northwest, but I was under the impression that newspapers were already lean machines due to displacement by not the Internet first and foremost, but television.
By the time I was growing up in the 1970s and '80s, many of the towns where the Air Force stationed us were already down to one, morning-only newspaper. Like a lot of people, my parents subscribed only to the Sunday editions. My parents got their daily news from TV, as did most everyone else we knew. I'm not saying this was adequate or that the quality was the same; it's just what they did. It's not that we weren't readers. My mother hauled us to the library at least once a week, from which we would cart home thick histories and novels and biographies. I was always being told to get my nose out of a book. There were always stacks of National Geographic, Scientific American, and Popular Mechanics to pore over, just not many newspapers. In retrospect, this seems inexplicable, but my high school current events teacher used copies of Newsweek as a text, not the Belleville News-Democrat.
Already by the time I was in college, newspaper readership rates in general had seriously declined. Sadly, I suppose, since it has a reputation as a strong paper, no one I knew read the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as if it were gospel, or even with any regularity, at least not without having to supplement with other news sources. Most didn't read it at all, opting instead for National Public Radio or The New York Times for superior national and international coverage and The Riverfront Times, our weekly tabloid, for the local stuff. Perhaps this is because I'm part of the comparatively cynical Generation X, but most everyone I knew regarded mainstream media with intense distrust. We picked up a copy of our city's only daily newspaper and failed to see ourselves in it; very little resonated. Maybe this was our fault; maybe not.
Yet we thrilled to discover Utne Reader and Z Magazine and pledged our allegiance to Harper's, even if we'd been brought there only by way of Harper's Index in the aforementioned weekly tabloid. To challenge our viewpoints with anarachist-libertarian provocation, we St. Louisans sent away to far-flung places like Port Townsend, Wash., for a copy of Liberty. Some of us thought mainstream media had been co-opted by corporations and the far right; some of us thought mainstream media had been co-opted by liberals and big government. Liberty met us in the middle.
Even if we wrote for our high school and college papers, which I did, few of us entertained the notion of going into journalism as a career. One of my professors, who worked for the Post-Dispatch as a copyeditor to supplement his teaching income — or maybe he subsidized his copyediting by teaching — cautioned against it. Not that there were any jobs. There were never any jobs. When I graduated in 1994, the country was in the middle of a recession, and if there were jobs to be had at the only games in town, they didn't advertise them. Which brings me to my yearlong stint basically as a volunteer at a monthly arts publication, which was never a profitable venture and eventually closed up shop. I know several graduates of prestigious journalism schools who never found jobs in traditional journalism. One edits an entertainment Web site. Another writes labels for New Age self-help CDs. Still another makes a far better living than any of us as a copywriter for a car insurance company.
I remember being intensely involved in a bulletin board system run by a friend of mine in the early 1990s, pre-Web. The bulletin board featured plain text posts without any bells or whistles, but we had a many-months-long discussion on the philosophy of war. We "bbsers" argued passionately, drawing upon research and personal experience in tandem in a rich public dialogue unlike anything you'd find in the newspaper. To this day, some of the best quality exchanges on the Internet are low on features and pizzazz but high on user gusto.
I'm guilty: I never subscribed to the Post-Dispatch. But when they launched their Web site around the same time I signed up for Internet service at home, I made it my home page. I became an online reader, suffering through registrations and subscriber walls of many publications, delighting in the launch of Salon (but disappointed to find that participation in The Well was by invitation only, and further disappointed at Salon's subscription-only tactics). When I moved to Miami, I was thrilled to discover Herald columnist Leonard Pitts, but most of what I read wasn't in a traditional daily newspaper. By this time, bloggers were the ones breaking news and challenging the status quo. Where were newspapers? They seemed to be part of the status quo.
When I moved to Seattle three years ago, I ditched my TV and subscribed to the print edition of the P-I, pleased to have a choice for the first time between two daily papers. I'm too young for this kind of nostalgia, but there you have it. I wanted to devote myself to the last vestiges of the printed word.
But I'm clearly in the minority here, even in Seattle, as a non-TV-viewer and daily newspaper reader. To me, the Times layoffs — and some of the comments by my fellow Crosscutters — reveal a perhaps stubbornly held, romanticized notion of the newspaper world. It's one I wistfully yearn to share, but it's not one I've been privileged to hold.