Paper chase

“Are you sure you want to do that?” he asked, with a devilish gleam in his eye as he took a slug off his beer. “It’s a dying industry. The internet is taking over.”

He was, of course, referring to my newly chosen profession as a journalist. And despite his notorious gift for tactless pot-stirring, it was something I had heard before. In fact, during my four years in journalism school, the death knell for our chosen profession was sounded repeatedly: “Get out while you’re young. You can still change your majors. Go for something more lucrative, like finance or business.”

Of course, we didn’t listen. Maybe we were lured by the long, low-paid hours; the constant tappity tap of the keyboard; cheesy polyester suits; ulcer-producing deadline pressure; or brow-beating editors. Or maybe it was the prospect of nursing pack-a-day habits in a smoky newsroom or the opportunity to actually be able to yell “Stop the presses!” and mean it.

Alas those romanticized Citizen Kane days had long since passed by the time I was unleashed on the literary world, ink barely dry on my diploma. By then, newsrooms had gone politically correct, banning butts and booze, at least in plain sight. IBM Selectrics had been replaced by Macintoshes and PCs, and the afternoon edition had gone the way of the passenger pigeon. Cell phones – although still the size of large toaster ovens – were making it easier to pound the pavement without actually leaving the air-conditioned comfort of your cubicle, and laser jets took the guess work out of hectic nights at the light table.

Yet, there was something about the newspaper business that kept me in the fold, poo-pooing the naysayers, even when the world wide web reared its head, threatening to snare us in its sticky grasp.

“They’ve been saying that for years,” I would retaliate before launching into my well-rehearsed defense of the newspaper industry. Bear in mind, this was a good 12 years ago, well before the days of cheap laptops, wi-fi or even DSL, for that matter. “For starters, one word: coffee,” I began. “A computer is not portable. You cannot spread it out on the breakfast table, hold it in your hands, and leisurely peruse it over breakfast. You cannot fold it up, put it in your pocket, spill on it, crumple it back up, and take it out again on the bus ride home.

“You cannot split a computer’s sports section from the comics section or doodle on the crossword puzzle during long road trips,” I continued.

Of course, this was only the tip of the iceberg of how an actual newspaper – ink and paper pulp – far exceeded circuitry and motherboards, in my opinion. Clipping coupons; keepsake birth and wedding announcements; and the ever important commode-side companionship were all other notable qualities. And I have to admit, I even took pleasure in perusing the advertisements (this is not shameless pandering, I swear.) Plus, there were the litany of post-reading uses: fly swatting, dog training, barbecue lighting, and inclement weather shelter, to name a few.

Anyway, that was my story, and I stuck to it steadfastly for a number of years. However, chinks eventually began to form in my paper-plated armor. For starters, there was that little thing called the dotcom revolution, followed by affordable laptops, lightning quick internet and wireless access. Soon enough, even my close friends and loved ones admitted to “occasionally” picking me up online. And then there was the Blackberry – that portable, handheld gizmo that drove a stake through the heart of my once-Teflon argument. That’s right, not only could you now take your news on the go, but you could take it when you go.

To make matters worse, this was followed by more bad news for us paper peddlers. See, just like Garrison Keillor lore, I come from a long line of English majors. Perhaps, it had something to do with abysmal genetic ineptitude for numbers (as evidenced by the erroneous historical tabulation in these pages just last week.) Whatever the reason, we were drawn to words, which pretty much rendered us unemployable in the modern workforce. As a result, we all went into publishing in some form or another. My brother, the proofreader, was the first to get pink slipped. He was soon joined in the soup line by my sister, a librarian and researcher for an established big city daily in the Knight Ridder family. My uncle, a highly tenured sportswriter for the McLatchy dynasty, was the only one spared, but only after a tumultuous and hostile buy-out.

As if it couldn’t get any worse, now Colorado’s own Rocky Mountain News, aka “The Rocky,” has gone to the big recycling heap in the sky. See, much like the underdog fighter of the same name, it was hard not to root for The Rocky. It was smaller, leaner and meaner. It landed its punches precisely and squarely. It was a newspaperman’s newspaper, commanding respect and admiration. Even when it was gobbled up by the bigger, flashier broad-sheet on the block, its fans clung to the hope that at least there would be separate newsrooms.

Nevertheless, like a heavyweight on the ropes, The Rocky was down for the count and the Front Range Newspaper War finally called. Sure, the news really wasn’t “news” at all. We’ve been watching the drama unfold for some time now, with each downsizing and merger another nail in the coffin.

But all this, much to my dismay, has resurrected that old debate. Video killed the radio star, but is newspaper next?

We can say with some certainty, that, like everything else right now, there will be a shake up. And much like those top-heavy investment firms and corporate banks, big, well-endowed papers will fold under the pressure. Nevertheless, I am a firm believer that the news business will weather the burst of the paper bubble (and it has nothing to do with the fact that my lifeblood happens to depend on it.) Sure, when the newsroom dust settles, things may look a little different. The erstwhile publishing-for-profit model may lie in pieces on the press room floor, but, may I swear on Gutenberg’s grave, the mother of invention will prevail. See, since primitive humanoids etched their first crude drawings on cave walls, there has been a need for people to communicate with one another – to tell stories, relay news of the day, record history.

Newspaper giants may tumble, but last I checked, the First Amendment was standing strong. And apparently, there are a few brave souls still eager to scale its heights – or plumb its depths. How else do you explain the marked rise in enrollment at my alma mater’s journalism school (aside from the plausible excuse that the business school was full up)? It seems that for every staggering, goliath daily gasping its last breath, there’s a lively, small, start-up springing up.

Could it be that as civilization beats a hasty retreat from the precipice of conspicuous consumption to the comforts of homespun, grass-roots, small-scale subsistence, journalism will follow suit? OK, so our news may come to us via, say, a microchip embedded in a pair of 3-D glasses. But that’s a long way off. And in the meantime, I’ll take my paper the way I always do, with cream and sugar, please.

– Missy Votel