The Power of Individuals
“Top management is discouraged and saddened, and middle management is drinking too much. Morale in the newsroom is fair, because of the recent raises, but the shining brows of the copy boys, traditional emblems of energy and hope, have begun to display odd, unattractive lines. At every level, people want management to stop what it is doing before it is too late.” — Donald Barthelme in the New Yorker, 1980
IT IS UNFASHIONABLE to say in this time of group identity but we hold it to be true — Individuals matter. And if the Declaration of Independence is too old school for you, we have updated it in our mission statement. “Emphasize the primacy of the individual in addressing public concerns,” we vow.
By individual we mean a single person with a soul, an immaterial essence, animating principle or whatever you want to call it. If you are part of an organization that is not accountable to such persons, however humanly flawed they may be, you are at the mercy of the arbitrary.
I have seen a great industry ruined by the transfer of ownership from individuals to corporations. Newspapers were once the largest manufacturing classification in the nation. Circulation began declining steadily in the 1970s as inheritance tax law pushed the sale of home-owned newspapers into the hands of corporations.
Know that this decline was independent of the development of the Internet. First, the evidence is clear in the annual data tables of Editor & Publisher that newspaper circulation began falling well before the Internet took hold. Second, the increasingly bizarre, often reader-contemptuous content of the corporate newspapers didn’t change when the switch was made to digital. Systemic changes had trumped technical changes.
“Each new generation born is in effect an invasion of civilization by little barbarians, who must be civilized before it is too late,” the economist Thomas Sowell warns. For my profession, the civilizing came too late — or more accurately it was abruptly curtailed. No longer were there adult supervisors. That is, there were no owner-publishers who sat down at the local coffee shop or dined at the town’s popular restaurant, approachable to varying degrees by readers and, whether they liked it or not, facing a street-level market test of their products and views each and every day.
It turns out that these men and women were all that had held back the default setting of the profession. That default being a continuing invasion of journo-barbarians coming out of hyper-liberal J-schools determined to change the world to the measure of their limited understanding. Their wildest ideas, the ones that eventually would tank circulation, until then had been unceremoniously spiked.
No longer. The owner-publishers were replaced by revolving corporate managers, “occupiers” a senior editor friend called them. They could ignore the warnings of the market, the profits of the industry now being driven not by circulation or advertising but by a false reputation for being an inflation-proof investment. Managerial arrogance abounded. Immaturity and narcissism, imagining themselves to be Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, ran riot. The quarterly profit-loss statement was god.
At the time, I wrote the following for the Wall Street Journal editorial page, presciently may I say:
“Things aren’t working out the way Mr. Knight and Mr. Gannett and Mr. Copley envisioned. And management is coming to understand that this problem is systemic, that there is little it can do about it. Readers have made it clear to media researchers that instead they want papers to have a personal identity — that a newspaper is like a guest into their homes every day. And even though corporate managers have done their best to give them that identity through reader sensitivity campaigns, signed editorials and celebrity columnists, the surveys continue to show something critical is missing. My guess is ’it’ is a person who has an overwhelming interest in how the newspaper is viewed in the community. ‘It’ is person, however bothersome to the various political factions about town, who can be counted on to avoid posture and seek conviction when sorting the issues of the day.”
But by the millennial, just as the nation was beginning to realize the calamity that was the new journalism, Walter Cronkite, “the most trusted man in America,” threw in his two bits: “The profession of journalism ought to be about telling people what they need to know — not what they want to know.”
And that’s the way it is, as the old fraud liked to say. — tcl