Remembering newspapers

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First, thoughts on Neal Shine: The death last week of the longtime Free Press managing editor and publisher produced an outpouring of grief, affection and respect that was remarkable in itself — and for the deeper meaning of what it represented. Shine was, indeed, everything the eulogies said about him. He was a fine journalist, a witty and delightful friend, and a superbly decent human being.

You can read a ton of Neal Shine stories on the newspaper's Web site, or in the columns people wrote about him, or in his own too-infrequent writings. But it is important to remember that for many years he was the conscience of the Detroit Free Press. He inspired generations of young reporters and students, and gave more to this community than the vast majority of its politicians.

Yet part of the sadness many feel over his passing is also a mourning for newspapers as they used to be, especially in Detroit. The Free Press today bears little resemblance to the paper to which Shine gave his life, and he knew it, and was sad about it, and told me so.

Some of that is probably unavoidable, the legacy of changing times and technologies. But a lot of what's happened didn't have to be that way. As he died, word from sources inside the paper was that the Gannettized Free Press has decided to pretty much abandon its distinguished trademark coverage of the abuses in the juvenile justice system. "I didn't believe what you said about Gannett when they came," one staffer told me. "I thought you were bitter and were wildly exaggerating what they were like.

"But they are even worse than you said." Indeed, the veteran journalists on the staff now seem to be attempting to join the University of Michigan's PR department en masse — those, that is, who haven't bailed out in other directions. The school already has hired several of them, and others have applied.

What is saddest, perhaps, is that there are some people who have never forgiven Neal Shine for what happened during the 1995 newspaper strike. Shine, who had retired as a newsman in 1989, had been brought back as publisher the next year. That was sort of a figurehead title; most of the traditional duties of a publisher were taken care of by the agency that ran the business operations of the merged Detroit newspapers.

That's not to say Shine didn't work hard at it. He seems mainly to have been the public face of the Free Press, a job he did superbly well.

When the strike happened that summer it was a terrifically wrenching experience for him. Eventually, he had to sign letters telling strikers that they needed to come back to work, or they would be permanently replaced, as in fired.

Many bitterly attacked him. Some never spoke to him again, have never forgiven him, and never will. I thought his decision was a terrible one. I was emotionally on the side of the strikers, who I knew from the start were doomed.

What I thought was that when the labor dispute began, Neal Shine should just have retired, period. (Indeed, he did retire as publisher at the end of 1995, long before the strike fizzled out.) I was dismayed because he was a man of the people, the son of traditional Irish working-class folk, and was siding with Wall Street against the guys in the unions. I still think he made a mistake, but I think I understand his reasoning better now. My guess is that he felt he owed the company, Knight Ridder Inc., his first loyalty.

He had worked for them his entire life, and they had promoted him from copy boy to publisher. Threatening to fire people he had known for decades must have given him enormous pain, but it was something he felt bound to do.

Where his tragic mistake lay was in thinking that the modern corporate newspaper company appreciated and valued loyalty. Indeed, Knight Ridder mostly undervalued Shine. They never gave him the top newsroom position (executive editor), probably because he was from Detroit and never had worked elsewhere. Indeed, he had to help a succession of out-of-town bosses find Woodward and try not to unduly embarrass themselves.

Two years ago, Knight Ridder dumped the Free Press, selling it to Gannett as though it were nothing more than worn-out fertilizer. I don't know how Neal Shine found out about that, but most longtime loyal employees had to read the news on the wires, or in some cases, find out from people like me.

Knight Ridder soon blew up and died. Free Press journalists, having been urged to look down on Gannett for decades, suddenly found themselves traded to it. Meanwhile, having pretty much destroyed the News, Gannett dumped it, or more accurately, found a partner to run it for chump change.

Neal Shine was far better than that, and devoted his life to trying to make his city and his newspaper a better place. It would be easy to conclude that he failed. But he touched many people, helped many people, taught many people and made an enormous positive impact on many people's lives and careers.

And how many of us can say the same?

And now, the future: Newspaper companies, not just those in Detroit, seem to have made a decision to publish newspapers for people who do not like to read. They are putting out papers for those who would rather watch television.

That might have made some sense in somebody's head at some cocktail party somewhere, but I can report I have talked to actual humans who prefer watching television to reading. Talked to them at length, in fact. The truth is that they don't want a newspaper that looks like television. They just don't want to read, period. People who do want to read find increasingly less and less in newspapers in general, and the Detroit papers in particular. The Free Press has lost half its subscribers since the partial merger called the Joint Operating Agreement destroyed competition here.

The Detroit News has lost far more. They have lost five out of every seven customers they had in 1987. Undoubtedly, some of this would have happened anyway, and some people read the paper only on the Internet.

Possibly someday these papers will exist only in cyberspace. Yet something will have been lost when they don't offer a printed product you can hold in your hands. Yes, you can print things out. But is that the same as cutting out the picture of your little daughter after she won the skating contest? Or the little feature story on your new business?

Time was when these newspapers thought they had a social responsibility to show how government worked and where corruption lay. Yet that costs money and produces stories too long to be comfortably read on little screens. Today, what was Neal Shine's newspaper does endless features on the chopped-up Macomb County mom.

Yet it refuses to investigate the shadowy man who owns the Ambassador Bridge, and now wants to build another span, a move the Free Press supports. So what's the bottom line on Detroit journalism here? Well, to twist what Gandhi said about Western civilization, it would be a good idea. We had some damn good journalism here once, and someday may again.

What I do know is that Neal Shine would really like that.

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