A couple of weeks ago, as I was discussing the state of the republic with my daughter, I said, “And I only have two more columns left to fix it.”
“They’d better be good,” she said.
Now I’m down to one, and it won’t be good enough. That figures. When I went into the newspaper business nearly 40 years ago, it was at the height of its post-Watergate rejuvenation. News staffs were large and growing, peaking at nearly 57,000 in 1990. By 2015, the number had fallen to fewer than 32,000, and it’s still falling. Circulation has plunged, and nearly 40 percent of Americans say we don’t do our jobs very well.
The family-owned newspaper in Texas that I first worked for is now owned by an Alabama company that announced Monday it has put its newspapers in 22 states up for sale. The second newspaper I worked for was owned at various times by two chains that have both since gotten out of the newspaper business. The third, the Billings Gazette, went through bankruptcy in 2011. The fourth, the Billings Outpost, folded two years ago after 18 struggling years.
With the at least temporary shuttering of Last Best News, I complete my perfect record. If you want to crush a news outlet, just hire me.
OK, I don’t think it was all my fault. In fact, a new Showtime documentary about the New York Times called “The Fourth Estate” demonstrates just how arid the newspaper desert is becoming. Film makers were given remarkable access to the Times as its reporters hustled to cover the biggest story of their lives – the recurring chaos of the Trump administration – while also coping with staff cutbacks and increasing demands on their time, from daily tweets to podcasts to quick takes for the web to regular appearances on cable news.
Now, I’m not comparing my own career to the New York Times. Well, actually, I am. Anyone who has ever worked in a newsroom will recognize the questions Times editors and reporters constantly throw at each other: What’s your lede? What’s your nut graph? Is that one story or two? When are you writing? Does the competition have it?
For an aging editor, just watching an editor and a reporter debate whether a situation was “fraught” or “dire” was worth the whole four-hour series. Some critics complain that the documentary is boring, but I liked that about it. Any honest depiction of daily journalism has to have some monotony built into it. A lot of a reporter’s best work involves staring at a blank screen until, as the saying goes, drops of blood appear on your forehead.
Readers often assume that news coverage proceeds according to some grand design, carefully calculated to push a particular – usually liberal – point of view. The documentary confirms what Ed Kemmick and I have often joked about: Even the best newspapers are usually slapdash operations, a daily struggle to dip the best available stories out of an incomprehensible and overwhelming river of news.
While much of what goes on in “The Fourth Estate” is familiar, parts are brand new. Thanks to the internet, the Times has more readers than ever, but its revenue model is broken. It also is covering a president who attacks the press more viciously and who tells untruths more frequently than any president in history.
There are three kinds of people in the world: those who have been insulted by President Trump, those who will be insulted by President Trump, and Vladimir Putin. Still, it’s bracing to watch Times reporters sitting stone-faced in roped-off press sections at Trump rallies as he attacks them to the cheers and pointing fingers of the crowd.
In one scene, a reporter who has struck up a relationship with Steve Bannon, then still a Trump adviser, shares a car with Bannon to an Alabama rally for Senate candidate Roy Moore. They exchange small talk along the way, and Bannon even compliments the reporter on his latest book.
But at the rally, Bannon spews the usual venom against the “dishonest” press. The reporter isn’t even angry about it. He knows that Bannon doesn’t believe the trash he’s talking; he’s just feeding red meat to the hungry crowd.
The documentary also touches on what makes the news business so damn addictive. You see reporters cranking the adrenaline up to full-story mode, sweating out the last phone call they need to nail a story down, rushing against deadline, agonizing over le mot juste. They live out what my old boss once described as the chief form of exercise among newspaper editors: sitting bolt upright in bed at 3 o’clock in the morning.
In one evocative scene, a reporter silently debates whether the word “collusion” is right for his Trump story. In another, Times editor Dean Baquet muses about whether calling Trump’s many misstatements “lies” just devalues the impact of the word.
The series barely touches on some of the richer rewards of journalism: the endless opportunities to talk to interesting people about their lives and work. I have spent my career at smaller news outlets, but still could not even begin to list all of the fascinating lives I have been a small part of.
For me, departing journalism has been a gradual weaning. It has been a great pleasure to work with Ed, but it became clear early on that Last Best News would not support two aging journalists full-time. Fortunately, my teaching load at Rocky Mountain College picked up at about the same time, and most of my energy has been devoted to that. Beginning in August, I will be teaching there full-time while also, I hope, keeping my German classes at Montana State University Billings.
For the first time in nearly 20 years, I will have only two jobs. That matches the number of grandchildren, and it feels a lot like retirement.
While winding down from Last Best News, I also completed the long task of cleaning out my Billings Outpost files. I’m not a sentimental guy, but I found myself lingering over old copies of the paper, sometimes rereading stories that I had forgotten I ever wrote.
They have to speak for themselves. I have nothing to say about them, except this: I made my share of mistakes in 40 years, but I was never credibly threatened with a lawsuit. I never watered down a story to please an advertiser or a political ally. I never inflated a story to hurt a competitor or an enemy. I never wrote anything that I did not believe to be true.
And I never intentionally misquoted anybody, until now: As Chief Joseph said, from where the sun now stands, I will write no more forever.
Unless something really pisses me off.