(Editor’s note: Executives at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans announced yesterday they would no longer print a daily newspaper, switching to publishing three times per week. Management dismissed 84 people from the 175-year-old newpaper’s 173-person newsroon staff.)
Could the great Woodward-Bernstein reporting of the Watergate story have happened in today’s newspaper environment?
That’s more than purely idle speculation.
Louisville’s consciousness has been roiled by the departures of Courier-Journal sports columnists Rick Bozich and Eric Crawford to local TV news.
But unless you’re a regular reader of Insider Louisville, you may have missed all the staff cutbacks and “voluntary” early retirements that have drastically reduced the C-J newsroom.
Even the anachronistic term “newsroom” is symbolic of the problem.
When I started in the newspaper business – admittedly during the John Quincy Adams administration – the newsroom was the communal gathering place for all reporters. The beat guys might have spent much of their day at police headquarters or the courts buildings, but even they came back to the newsroom to write their stories, return phone messages and dig the gin bottles out of their desk drawers.
For most of the rest of us, the newsroom was the place reporters gathered to complain about management and the way our articles were edited, trade war stories and compare contacts. If you were stuck on a story, guaranteed that one of your colleagues had a source, or a source who knew a source.
We read our own paper, of course, and the competition. The New York Times came into our newsroom every morning, too. For reference, there was the voluminous “morgue” upstairs, a clip library of articles our paper and other papers had written about nearly everything and everyone.
We smoked cigarettes together, went out for drinks after work together, partied on weekends together. And in the process, we turned out some damn good reporting.
The 1976 Robert Redford movie might have dramatized things a bit, but Woodward and Bernstein met almost by accident in the newsroom and began collaborating under the watchful eye of the Post’s editorial board and its editor, Ben Bradlee. They’d come rushing into the newsroom excited by a new interview and huddle in Bradlee’s office.
Reporters are largely an independent lot. No need to come into the newsroom as much – they text message associates and file their stories remotely. For background, they Google and surf the web. Many of their interviews are conducted by email: “Can you A these Qs and email me back EOBD?”
More to the point around the CJ, they’ve been reduced to a skeleton crew, depending on the vast Gannett resources to provide reporting and national articles. Much of the local leg work is reduced to an apartment complex fire or a shooting in the West End.
Who does the serious leg work these days? The contributors to this news web site, who have little in resources besides knowledge, contacts and ability to get insider sources in Louisville to take our phone calls.
By the way, I’m not saying the CJ has no good reporters, or that it lacks the ability to bring readers breaking news and investigative pieces. It does.
And I’m not saying the CJ is any worse that most urban dailies. Apart from daily newspapers in our most throbbing metropoles – New York, Chicago and Los Angeles – the Courier-Journal is as good as nearly all the nations’ major dailies, better than most.
What I’m describing is a condition that’s affecting daily print journalism in general.
So what would Woodward and Bernstein have done in today’s circumstances?
That item on the ticker about a break-in at the Watergate complex would almost certainly have registered with no one. Woodward would have been trying to key in on his laptop a post on last night’s civic citizens committee meeting amidst the background clamor of his corner Starbucks. Bernstein would be writing mid-level copy at a New York public relations agency.
In today’s newspaper climate, an underachiever like him would be out of a reporting job fast.
The small Watergate item would come across somebody’s desk, who’d shrug, think “just an ordinary office burglary,” and delete.