JUNE/JULY/AUGUST 2009 – NO. 34
Newspapers at Season's End: Journalism, Farming, and Other Lives
My wife asks me to fetch some goat manure for the garden, and as I push the heaping wheelbarrow up the barn hill, I think about my newspaper career.
I think, too, about a western Pennsylvania farm of long ago where I came in from milking one day to hear Richard Nixon on the radio proclaiming he wasn't a crook. My father guffawed.
The next summer, as we made hay in a field of timothy shimmering in the July heat, my father proudly told our Amish neighbor about my ambitions: "The boy wants to be a reporter." The Amishman peered at me. "What would anyone want to go and do a thing like that for?" he asked, scratching his beard. "Stay with farming – that's honest."
But I went off and did the newspaper thing – first, in the towns near Pittsburgh, back when steel barges roiled those many rivers, then on to Allentown, and Washington, New York, Philadelphia. My first job was in Sharon, Pennsylvania, where I was issued a typewriter and went out to observe the steel industry dying. The mills hadn't modernized, people said. Some blamed unions. But times had been so good so long, and who really saw it coming?
I missed the farm, but this was newspapers' heyday. I still got to help spread plenty of manure over fertile ground. It stunk, at first, but it leached to the roots and turned, with time, to good. Sink in a spade, loosen the dirt, and you can grow better potatoes, and politicians.
And I still got to work the hopper. Back home, during the oats harvest, my job had been to catch the grain as it spilled from the roaring thresher that belched straw onto the barn floor. We put up oats the way our Amish neighbors did, using outdated machinery. A modern harvester cost a pretty penny. We should have got with the times, I guess, instead of just getting by.
Besides, the crop was so heavy, then. I could scarce keep up as bushel upon bushel tripped from hopper to auger, but I was right there in the thick of things and could rest when evening fell. I felt the same rush years later in the newsroom, when the computer hopper filled with story assignments and headline orders. As recently as 9/11, during that cascade of destruction, I thrilled to be part of the team ushering a special edition to the streets. I saw tears of humanity around the newsroom, even as we worked together in perfect concert to tell the story.
The hopper hasn't been so full lately. Day is done.
At age 51, I am a jobless journalist. Fourteen years' seniority at the Philadelphia Inquirer didn't save me this time. The newspaper finally belched me out like chaff, with dozens of other editors, and writers, and photographers. The big old machine that roared for generations felt like it was finally breaking down. But how I loved that paper.
I had been through it before: I lost my job at New York Newsday when it closed abruptly in '95. My colleagues and I huddled together silently as the massive presses hummed to their highest pitch and we watched the final edition come flapping onto the conveyors. We each claimed a copy. It felt like a funeral. But the industry, though suffering, wasn't in its death throes, then.
Afterward, I returned to my Pennsylvania, weathered the failure of my marriage, raised my children in suburbia, and longed to go home to places and times that were gone. I remarried a few years ago and we have a little farm of our own now. Chickens, goats, pigs, horses, even a peacock.
Last year, in a book titled Home to Roost, I wrote about life and love rediscovered. It deals mostly with chickens and what Big Agriculture did to them. I wanted the title to reflect the boom in backyard farming as people long for what once was, but I also wanted it to have an ominous note: We'll pay for what we've done.
But what is it that we're missing, really? We do need to feed this hungry world, and agriculture has tried to rise to the challenge. Farming hasn't gone away. And I still see the skyscrapers rising in Philadelphia: Steel is still with us.
Family farms dwindled and the mills morphed, but what of it? If farming were to go strictly backyard, eggs might be costly as caviar, and how elitist is that? It saddens me to see the Bethlehem Steel yard turned into a museum, but that's where dinosaurs go. A few of those old industrial spaces are going green now, and it's not the undergrowth that's reclaiming them: They've been retooled to produce wind turbines and other elements of an age we hope beyond hope will be cleaner.
Journalism? Still with us. It's the passing of newspapers we mourn. Senate nabobs have even talked about legislation to save newspapers, as if the morning daily were a quaint survivor needing protection so the world will remember. A museum piece. Back in 1970, when so many evening papers were folding and we feared some cities might be left with only one voice, Congress likewise intervened with a "Newspaper Preservation Act." Nixon signed it.
Today's bailout ideas actually include government subsidies and licensing of journalists. One bill would turn newspapers into nonprofits (not much of a leap) – with the caveat that they could not endorse political candidates. Please, God, no. I'd rather my industry rust apart slowly than let the politicians blast away its girders. I think of the Amish farmer who implored me to make an honest living.
"Get your facts first," Mark Twain advised, "and then you can distort them as you please." As a frontier journalist, he wasn't given to letting the facts get in the way of a good story. What is important about newspapers, he said, is their irreverence, which should be "preserved in America forever and ever – irreverence for all royalties and those titled creatures born into privilege."
The newspapers of his day, yellow as their journalism might have been, were legion. Twain might worry today. When I started in newspapers more than three decades ago, nearly 600 news organizations were accredited to cover Congress. A Pew study reported that the number had fallen to 160 by 2007, and oh how we've bled since. When I joined the Philadelphia Inquirer, it had foreign bureaus aplenty. Now, none. Few papers do.
Twain also smirked that reports of his death were greatly exaggerated. The same must be said for journalism. Every journalism student is subjected to Milton's famous quote: "Let the winds of doctrine blow," he wrote, the better to discern truth. And blow they do. New voices join the online cacophony each day, and though intelligent readers roll their eyes at the babble – well, many rolled their eyes at Thomas Paine, too, and those pesky pamphleteers. Amid the online rubbish, a reader can also find nuggets of news and commentary, and the new media can spread it far and wide, and in a twinkling – without the burden of presses and delivery trucks, or even editors like me to help sort through it all.
I feel as homesick as I did when I left the farm where I grew up. I think I'll be all right as I redefine my career, and yes I'm confident the human spirit will always strive to speak out. But I can't help feeling something's lost as we turn away from newspapers.
It's not journalism we're losing, any more than it was agriculture or steel. What I saw dying when I left the farm was a way of life. What I saw dying in those steel towns was a way of life. When my mother's parents left Ireland, the Pittsburgh steel mills sustained the family. When my father's parents fled Brooklyn during the Depression, it was a farm that sustained them. I grew up on that farm, and when it was my time to go, I turned to another venerable institution to earn my way.
Small farms, factories, newspapers – these are part of what defined me, once, and the generations before me. They were facts of life for so many people. As new generations sweep in, the Internet is distorting the facts radically. Go online, young man: That's the mantra I hear now from well-meaning career advisers. I'm young enough to adjust, indeed, and by working online, I can work from home, alone. No more newsroom bustle, no more sweating together as stories break on deadline. Goodbye to that.
And maybe that will be all right. I'll stay on this little farm that reminds me of my other bygones. I've learned that you can't go home again – nothing is quite the same. But I can say with pride that once I made a good living at one of the great dailies, and didn't we have us a time?
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