Bye-bye, democracy

Oct 24, 2007 at 12:00 am

I had dinner the other night with a fine reporter and writer who works in another city where I was once a consultant. She loves what she does, and is good at it; she covers community news and sports. She has done this all her life, and still enjoys it. But she is now 48 years old and is a little concerned about security.

That's because she makes ... $28,000 a year.

That's enough to make me pray daily that all the executives of every large newspaper company, but especially Gannett, get some terrible skin infection that isn't covered by health insurance. What makes me maddest is not that they aren't paying this poor woman even half of what she is worth.

What makes me truly angry is that they are sabotaging our freedom by failing to decently pay people whose jobs it is to be the watchdogs of democracy, and thus usually driving them out of the business. Reporters tell us about what is happening in our communities and cities. They watch for and expose abuses and direct our attention to things we should know about.

Reporters have never been paid enough money, but now things are getting worse. The Detroit Media Partnership, which publishes The Detroit News and Free Press, is in fact entirely controlled by Gannett. Two weeks ago, the partnership announced that it wanted to eliminate 110 jobs. That's 5 percent of the total.

Why? Hard times for Gannett, comrades. The monster corporation's profits for the July 1-Sept. 30 period were only $234 million! Never mind that Ford Motor Co. executives would kill small puppies for a quarter like that these days. No, what matters is that a year ago, Gannett profits for those three months were $261.4 million. Cancel the Porsche detailing service, Thurston.

No wonder Gannett thinks it's clearly time to do the prudent thing and get rid of some of those highly overpaid $28,000-a-year workers. Now in Detroit the average reporter, etc., makes nearly twice that. But soon some will be making zero. Gannett's buyout offer is pretty cheesy as these things go, by the way.

Workers get two weeks pay for every year worked ... up to one year of pay. What if they don't take it? Well, then, our Media Partnership strongly hinted, they'll start laying the buggers off. True, the cuts are mostly to come from the business side of operations. But the papers still intend to eliminate 16 newsroom positions at the Free Press and another six at The Detroit News. (They have been, however, looking to hire photographers to take video of things like traffic accidents and put it on their Web sites. They think that is the wave of the future.)

For years, the Detroit Media Partnership has had a pretty lame PR woman named Susie Ellwood. When asked about these layoffs affecting the quality of the journalism, here's what our Susie said: Losing these people won't matter one bit!

"Something we're not going to change is our commitment to providing the right amount of news coverage," she bragged. That was so monumentally stupid it got a lot of attention on Romenesko, the nation's best media-industry blog.

Here's why chipper little Susie's words were so brainless: If the cuts really don't affect news coverage, these people now being laid off weren't needed.

They must have been doing nothing worthwhile at all. So if what she says were true, it also means the idiots running the papers are incompetent. Think about it; if you haven't already gotten rid of people who aren't needed in these tough times, what kind of manager are you?

In fact, everyone knows Ellwood's statement was a not-very-good-lie.

Had Susie been a little slicker, she would have said something like, "in spite of economic setbacks, we're going to make every effort to bring readers what they need to know." That's the kind of meaningless blather we expect.

Everyone knows that after this latest round of cuts there will be less news and more errors. The papers are already vastly diminished from what they were.

The worst, no doubt, is yet to come.

Earlier this year, I talked with Phil Power, who founded and built up the Observer & Eccentric chain and other similar small suburban newspaper groups elsewhere in Michigan, Ohio and Kentucky. I was his editorial vice-president for the last year and a half before he sold his company to Gannett.

Since he did that, Gannett has shrunk the payroll of those newspapers — though not as much as the other out-of-town suburban publisher in this market, the Pennsylvania-based Journal-Register Co., which has turned the Oakland Press into a largely contemptible rag with screaming headlines about nothing.

Power is alarmed by what's happening to journalism. "Newspapers were the economic engine that allowed the employment of reporters. And for a century and a half, their work collectively invigorated the civic life of the republic."

If newspapers don't do it, "what society needs to ask is, 'Who is going to hire and sustain these people now, these journalists who provide us with the essential information a free society needs?'"

That's a darned good question, and you may be tempted to say, "What the hell right does he have to ask it? He sold his papers to the greedheads, didn't he?"

Point taken. But you can't fault Power too much for selling his newspapers; his sons had no interest in eventually running them.

Nor did he take his millions and sit on a yacht; he has founded the Center for Michigan, a "think and do" tank dedicated to getting this state a future. Mainly, he is trying to get people energized and engaged. The goal is to move our mostly appalling politicians — and the rest of us — toward policies for our state that are based on political and economic common sense.

Yet common sense begins at home too. People do have to look after themselves and their best interests. So what could I tell my friend, who went to Indiana University — a very good school — and has since devoted her life to a profession that pays her less than this society would a bartender?

I told her that, realistically, it was time to change careers, especially if she planned to keep living in Michigan. Something like public relations for a college or a university, or for a sports team, if she could find one of those jobs.

And she could always write freelance on the side, I noted. Yes, she agreed, but it wouldn't be the same. No, that's right, it won't be the same.

But journalism isn't the same either.

Dysfunctional state update: Remember when the state shut down for a few hours Oct. 1? Afterward, some poor wretches thought the budget problem was over. Not even close. That deal didn't solve very much; it just gave your legislators till Halloween to solve the deficit problem. As this week started, they didn't appear to have done anything. But Oct. 31 is a day for the undead and creatures without backbones, and perhaps your state Legislature will be suitably inspired.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]