Thursday, April 2, 2009

Nostalgic for newspapers

Are there going to be jobs for newspaper reporters in the near future? Until recently, newspapers were always one of the few reliable sources of employment for writers. If you could write, you could get hired, or at least paid per piece. I know this from experience.

I got my first newspaper job, as a staff correspondent for the Spokane Review, by walking into its Idaho bureau and offering to write about all the teenagers who cruised up and down the main drag of Coeur d’Alene on the weekends. I’m not even sure I showed them clips from my college newspaper (all I had for my portfolio) and I don’t remember meeting with an editor. I was told to go ahead and submit an article. It was accepted and got a two-page spread in the Idaho edition’s tabloid weekend section, complete with photos of the teenage cruisers.

The pay for each article was almost as much as I made working all week as assistant manager at a local bookstore. [At $4.75 an hour, I was bringing home $190/week—around $150 after the government took its cut.] For medium-length articles, the Spokane Review paid $100, and $150 for longer articles. I thought I could get rich if I could write more than one article a week. (This was in the mid-1980s, when the rent for my three-room apartment, with free heat, was $160 a month). But then the cold weather started to get to me, and a longing to return to the South, so my freelance career there ended after only a few months.

A few months later, after a miserable job as a part-time waitress in my hometown—the only job I could find there—I applied to the Winston-Salem Journal for any job they would give me. This was without having a journalism degree and with only a few clippings to show from the Spokane Review. [I didn’t know it at the time, but most reporters hired at regional/mid-range dailies usually came with experience at smaller/local newspapers and/or with graduate journalism degrees in hand.] I was called in, it turned out, only because my hometown was near the bureau office that had had a recent opening and they figured I might know the terrain.

The managing editor at the Journal was an eccentric fellow who usually pulled out a spittoon during employee interviews, to see which potential hires flinched when he spit tobacco juice into it. He also happened to have graduated from Duke with a degree in Classics, so when he saw on my written transcripts from UCSC that I had studied Ovid’s Metamorphoses, he asked if I could recite any of it in Latin—which I did, though I only remembered the first five lines. He called me later and told me that he was hiring me primarily because I knew Ovid. Perhaps I’m the only reporter in the history of newspapers to be hired in this manner. At least he felt the Latin was intimidating enough—he didn't pull out the spittoon on me.

And so I was hired at the marvelous rate of $250 a week, with health (not dental) insurance benefits, the first time I’d had insurance since college, with my salary later raised to $300/week. But eventually, after needing a root canal and a crown and having to pay the dental bill in installments, I realized that maybe $300 a week wasn’t that much after all. Even with renting the cheapest apartment in Boone that I could find—7’ x 9’, with my bed hoisted on top of my chest of drawers to have enough room to walk into it—I was still unable to save any money. So I fled to graduate school, for the comparatively better paying career of librarianship (which I’m not doing now, either).

Yet always, in the back of my mind, I've thought that I could return to writing for newspapers, if needs be. Freelancing had been my backup plan until recent months, when the newspapers that are still around started slashing their staffs and closing bureau offices. A recent article in the Irish Times (of all places) reports the grim statistics for U.S. newspapers:
  • 120 newspapers have shut down in the last year
  • a number of major regional newspapers – including the Los Angeles Times and Philadelphia Inquirer - have filed for bankruptcy.
  • 16,000 American reporters lost their jobs last year
The upside of this is that perhaps newspapers will be in need of more freelance material, since freelancers earn no vacation time, get no benefits. That is, if there are still any newspapers around. Recently, I've mulled the idea of writing an opinion piece about re-living through the recession, but I'm hesitate to cart it around to area newspapers—I'd hate to take space away from any of the news reporters who are still left.

1 comment:

Chandra Garsson said...

Wonderful to read about your colorful history, as usual. I was struck in particular by your description of the bed slung over your dresser in the Boone apartment, 7'x8.' Yes, yes, I know the point of your blog is the ongoing tragedy of newspapers, but for me the joy of your writing is reading about your life, in your voice. I hear it, and your accent all of the moments I give to reading about whatever topic you write on. Right on. Oh yeah, so back to that tiny apartment. When I lived in Amsterdam I lived in an apartment that tiny, at least. The rent was 100 guilden I recall; I paid about thirty dollars per month. I had what I called a hide-a-bed, it may have been a trundle bed, perhaps a Dutch invention. There was one little sink, a largish table (room for my knees only when the bed was down---gives new meaning to breakfast in bed). On each floor was a shower and WC shared by all tenants. The year was 1973. I wish that you could have had such a wonderful bed in your tiny apartment, it would have helped.