It's been 15 years since I worked for the Chicago Tribune, but this week's announcement that its owners have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection has intensified my concerns about the nation's unemployment woes. It's also given me second thoughts about having encouraged hundreds of teenagers to become journalists.
The news about the Tribune did not come as a total surprise. It had been overburdened by debt since it was taken over a year ago by Sam Zell - a businessman who, when it comes to journalism, couldn't find his behind with both hands, a map, and a GPS navigation device.
Zell's view of the Tribune as simply a vehicle for maximum profits has made the paper a shell of its old self and prompted top-flight journalists to head for the exit signs. Among the people who served in the Washington bureau with me, for example, Nat Sheppard left for an Internet firm in Chicago; George de Lama, who had become managing editor for news, quit last summer; and Mike Tackett, the former Washington bureau chief, took a job with Bloomberg News. One of those who did not leave voluntarily, Pulitzer Prize winner John Crewdson, was recently laid off.
My work over a 10-year period as a Tribune Washington correspondent and the New York bureau chief gave me some of my fondest memories of daily journalism. I covered presidential campaigns, reported from the White House, and traveled to London, Rome, and other faraway places.
But the Tribune I worked for is not the Tribune of today. When Tackett volunteered to take a buyout and go to Bloomberg, he told Politico, "It was a combination of the tremendous opportunity presented to go there, coupled with the situation at the Tribune, where there's a lot of contraction and consolidation."
The Tribune Co., which also owns the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, Allentown's Morning Call, and other outlets, is slashing the staffs and budgets of its other subsidiaries, too.
Sadly, Tribune is not unique. The rise of the Internet, a decline in advertising revenue, and a tanking economy have wreaked havoc in the newspaper industry, causing many to reduce pages, fire employees and close bureaus. This newspaper has not been immune.
Despite protestations to the contrary, the net result of trying to operate on the cheap is a weakened product. Papers are foolishly eliminating many of the features that attracted readers in the first place. While that might help finances in the short term, it could spell more disaster down the road.
I have spent most of my career urging young people to consider careers in journalism. I was founding director of workshops affiliated with the National Association of Black Journalists chapters in St. Louis, Washington and New York, which encouraged minority high school students to enter the profession. As a past chairman of Youth Communication, a news service for teen papers across the country, and as a board member of Young D.C., a regional teen paper, I have worked with hundreds of young people over the years, many of whom entered the field.
This has always been a source of great pride for me. But now, for the first time, I am wondering if I did the right thing. That's not because I have any less love for my profession, but because the news business is changing - for the worse. Many big-city newspapers are putting less emphasis on social issues and providing less coverage of the poor than when I first entered the business in 1970.
I became a journalist not only because I could write, but also because I thought newspapers did a poor job of covering the poor, and I wanted to help change that. Though there has been some improvement, it looks as if much of that progress is about to be eroded.
I have heard those who claim that, while newspapers may be losing their clout, the Internet holds new possibilities for employment and a new method of delivering the news. And I know there's a kernel of truth in that argument. But only a kernel.
Despite the immediacy and convenience of the Internet, it is no substitute for comprehensive newsgathering, which has been the hallmark of good newspapers. And cyberspace certainly does not provide the same credibility as reputable papers.
We're losing more than just good journalists. We're witnessing the weakening of the most reliable vehicle we have for preserving and protecting our democracy. And neither the Internet nor the endless chatter of cable TV is an acceptable alternative.