Doug Clifton: Fear the loss of newspapers; a healthy democracy depends on them

We meet at 11:30 a.m. on the third Monday of every month, this informal group of retired Miami Herald alums called the HACKS.  We’re former editors, artists, reporters, refugees from a time past. What we have in common is long tenure at The Miami Herald and passion for a business that has changed profoundly over the last 15 or so years.

Many of the HACKS took retirement buyouts during one of The Herald’s multiple rounds of staff reduction but wanted to keep alive the camaraderie typical of newsrooms everywhere.

We talk about recent travels, illnesses, books, movies, politics, old friends, deaths. But almost always the conversation drifts toward the salad days when the staff was robust and the economic health of the business was unquestioned and newspapers fulfilled their obligation to cast a skeptical eye on society’s institutions.

We marvel at how swiftly the changes came, how the digital age came crashing down on the “business model,” compromising the ability to provide that oversight.

We express dismay at the changes: “Reporters actually tweet the news!”

We’re dumbfounded at the size of the newly reconfigured staff: “When I was there, the newsroom had a staff of 500. It’s a fraction of that today.

We are aghast at the loss of readership: “When I started as a copy boy, everybody on my block got the paper. Today only two do.”

And so it goes, some gatherings more grousing than being sociable. This week was one of those.

Bill Robertson is one of the HACKS. During his career at The Herald, he was a writer, editor, copy editor, book critic, pretty much the entire range of what a newspaper professional might be called upon to do.

As a writer he could turn a phrase and as a critic make a stunning observation.

He lived up to his reputation at the last HACKS meeting. “I wonder,” he drawled. “I wonder if the cowboys sat around the campfire and groused about the golden age of the prairie and its loss.”  The point being…join the crowd guys.

Modern America is filled with stories of glory days gone dark. Yes, the cowboys. But before them, the Indians and their limitless herds of buffalo, the steam boaters, the railroad men, the telegraph operators.

Entire industries hang by a thread, put in that precarious state by some fundamental change in the norm.

Think Kodak, a business based on a technology rendered all but finished by digital photography.

Think the record industry, once definer of the music world, now nearly an afterthought in an iTunes world.

Economists call these game changing arrivals “disruptive” events.  The steam engine, radio, TV, cars, telephones, cell phones, typewriters, one innovation eclipsing another, one business model hollowing out another.

Companies come and go with a speed once unheard of. Gimbel’s, once a giant in the department store world — I worked for it as a college student — is long gone and all but forgotten. The number of Gimbels and Kodaks mount by the day.

Pity the buggy-whip maker. Pity the blacksmith. Pity the Western Union dispatcher.

Pity the daily newspaper? Maybe I’m an egotistical hack, but I think the loss of the newspaper has serious ramifications for society. Lose the work newspaper journalists do and we lose a vital cog in a fully functioning democracy.

If you have a bit of time on your hands, visit the website. With a few clicks you can review the kinds of things awarded this highest of journalistic prizes. Political corruption. Organized crime. Vote fraud. Racism. Malfeasance of every kind. Abuse of power. No institution is immune from scrutiny, even the press itself.

I genuinely feel for those cowboys and the end of cattle drives.

 But I fear the loss of newspapers.

Guest Author


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