The Golden Age We Didn't Know We Had
By Larry M. Elkin
I will be in the Chicago area this weekend to watch my younger daughter receive her journalism degree from Northwestern University - the same degree, though from a different school, that I received 34 years ago.
History may repeat itself, but it never repeats itself exactly.
I graduated in what is now sometimes called the Golden Age of American journalism. This was a period of just over a quarter-century that began with Walter Cronkite's affable celebrity and The Washington Post's pursuit of Watergate and ended around the millennium, when television audiences fragmented and the Internet began to siphon newspaper readers and advertisers. In my era, newspapers were adding sections, cable news was invented and broadcast networks raced to add news magazines and late-night coverage. ABC's Nightline was born amid the Iranian hostage standoff of 1979-81.
When I pick up certain newspapers today, I actually wonder where all the news has gone. Staffs have been decimated by round after round of layoffs and buyouts. From the columns they write and the comments they post on social and business web sites, I sense that a lot of my former colleagues feel victimized, though I'm not sure precisely by what. "Corporate greed" seems to be a recurring theme, though the alternative of "corporate altruism" would seem to be an oxymoron. The decline of the labor movement - most big-city newspaper staffs are unionized, though they seldom refer to it - and the rise of Google and other search engines, which divorce advertising dollars from the creators of content, are other culprits. The multiplying demands of technology is yet another. Reporters today don't report breaking news the way I did; they blog it, they tweet it, they upload it, and they discuss it endlessly on comment pages with their audiences.
The funny thing about golden ages is that we usually don't recognize them while they happen. There was a lot of griping about corporate greed in my day, too. There was never enough staff or enough space or, for that matter, enough money, back when inflation was running in double digits. I went to my office in Albany, N.Y., one night around 1982 not knowing whether I might have to walk out mid-shift when our union contract expired. (Thanks to a last-minute settlement, I have never carried a picket sign.)
Despite all the challenges today's journalists face, I wonder whether my daughter will look back at this era as a golden age in its own right. Precisely because everything is so new and change is coming so fast, her generation has opportunities that mine never envisioned.
A lot of people have forgotten how rigid the business world was back in the 1970s. If you wanted to buy a truck and carry freight between, say, New York and Philadelphia, you had to first get permission - for the route and for your rates - from the Interstate Commerce Commission in Washington. Airlines needed a green light from the Civil Aeronautics Board before they could launch new service routes; such permission was often denied if the incumbent carriers objected to the prospect of more competition. If you are a young person and have never heard of the ICC and the CAB, it is because both agencies were abolished years ago.
It took courage and deep pockets to launch a significant new outlet for the news, or something that might pass for news, back then. The Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church backed The Washington Times, which it hoped would be a conservative counterweight to The Washington Post's influence in the nation's capital. Gannett launched USA Today. Time Inc. created People and Money magazines.
Although there were specialty newsletters in which a single reporter-editor might cover a narrow topic in depth, it was almost impossible for a lone journalist - or even a small group - to launch a new, advertising-supported general news venue that would attract a regional or national audience. We had no practical way to create a Drudge Report or a Patch or a Business Insider.
Some friends of mine once tried. It was in Montana in 1979. Four of the state's five largest papers at the time were owned by Lee Enterprises of Davenport, Iowa; the fifth was the Great Falls Tribune, then locally owned and now part of the Gannett chain. Three reporters with whom I had gone to school at the University of Montana decided to try to start a statewide weekly that would focus on politics, government, the environment and similar weighty concerns. Joined by an advertising salesman and a circulation employee at Lee's Missoula newspaper, they drafted a prospectus seeking $10,000 to launch an experimental issue of the "Montana Sun."
The Tribune got wind of the enterprise and wrote a story about it, at which point the Missoula paper summarily fired the four individuals who worked there, including Jonathan Krim and Gordon Dillow, who are among the best journalists of our generation. The fifth member of the group was Barbara Miller, who had been my editor on the college paper; she resigned a job at the Lee paper in Butte.
Montana's loss turned out to be America's gain. Krim went on to help win two Pulitzer Prizes at the San Jose Mercury News; he then became a news executive at The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, where he still works. Dillow did brilliant work at the Orange County Register in California, which foisted him onto the Marines as an embedded reporter on the first night of Operation Desert Storm. Miller remains in Butte, where she directs the National Affordable Housing Network.
If journalists of comparable talent decided to launch an online Montana news outlet today, they wouldn't need to raise outside money to do it - and the folks at Lee and Gannett would never see it coming.
Walt Disney liked to say, "If you can dream it, you can do it." Our family's many visits to his Orlando theme parks were not wasted, because both daughters absorbed this philosophy early. One, who loves to work with young people, is pursuing a doctoral degree in psychology; the other is about to launch her post-college journalism career.
Despite all the challenges in today's economy, Disney's philosophy may be truer today than ever before. If so, we are living in a golden age. We just don't know it yet.