Graveyard Shift


If you want to see frenzy personified, check out the newsroom of a metropolitan newspaper around 6:30 p.m. on a weekday. Deadlines loom. Reporters and editors argue over things as small as a comma. Clerks fly back and forth with obits or faxes or page proofs in their hands. One group of editors debates which stories should go where, just so another group of editors can try to shoehorn the burly foot that is copy, photos, and graphics into the size 6 high-heeled pump that will be tomorrow morning's newspaper. Watching the tumult, it is not hard to see why young people would be attracted to the newspaper business and why older ones are invigorated by it. The scene is at once electric, Rube Goldberg-esque, and exciting. And, in a certain way, it is fun.

Except at the St. Paul Pioneer Press. You could walk into a funeral parlor and find more happening. These days, on the sixth floor of the Pioneer Press Building in downtown St. Paul, you can still find reporters and editors arguing, but there are fewer of both. Clerks still fly, but there are fewer of them, too. Editors still debate and shoehorn, but there are fewer decisions to debate and fewer pages in which to shoehorn the copy. As someone who has made this newsroom and other newsrooms his working home for several years, I am struck by the relative quiet. Newspapering is part science and part art. We can discuss the science part calmly and as professionals, but staffers at good newspapers spill blood when they argue over the art. Now, though, it is clear to see that demoralized people are not boisterous people.

There was a time in the Pioneer Press newsroom when reporters slammed down their phones in disgust after getting the run-around from a source, but they'd also slam down their phones to punctuate the fact they'd just gotten the interview that made a big story. There was a time when reporters and editors barely tried to hide their contempt for the other's point of view when discussing a weak story (the editor's view) or the editor's intent to eviscerate the hell out of a piece of solid-gold journalism (the reporter's view). There was a time when everyone shared in the journalistic joy of a scoop, of beating the reporters and photographers at the bigger (and better-paying) Star Tribune.

There was a time. A decade of cost-cutting by Knight Ridder, the long-time owner of the Pioneer Press, left a lot of us thinking things couldn't get worse. We were wrong. The past year has seen Minnesota's oldest newspaper sold twice, and those transactions, coupled with a decline in advertising revenue, have been followed by firings, buyouts, elimination of the newsroom's "on call" workers, and the threat of even more to come. The new owners (in a convoluted arrangement, the paper is owned by New York-based Hearst, but managed by Denver-based MediaNews Group) wanted to eliminate 40 full-time positions paper-wide. When they offered buyouts, management granted 30 of them, and 21 of them were in a newsroom that wasn't huge to begin with. Company-wide, the workforce of 745 was reduced by 5 percent, but the reductions in the newsroom workforce amounted to 10 percent. Now, empty desks outnumber the ones that have people at them. The gallows humor among those who took the buyout was that they were being "raptured" out of the newsroom. But even with them gone, God, or in this case publisher Par Ridder, still wasn't entirely satisfied. As a December 1 article in the paper noted, Ridder was dismayed that more employees in other departments didn't go for the buyouts. "We had hoped for a little more cooperation than we got," the article quoted him as saying.

Demoralized people are not necessarily cooperative people.

Ridder said in the same article that the paper would have to "be smart in how we go down in size," adding, "Our challenge here is to not torpedo the business." But many of us feel the torpedoes have already been fired, they struck below the waterline, and the ship is taking on water fast. And we're tired of bailing water. The amount of news in the Twin Cities that needs to be covered—that indeed must be covered—hasn't declined, but the size of our newsroom has. So stories that would've gotten assigned a year or even six months ago now don't get done. Photos don't get taken. Graphics don't get designed. There just aren't enough bodies. We're professionals and we do the best we can, but we feel we're letting our readers down. They used to depend upon on us for a lot of their information, and now they really can't. We're not giving it to them. We keep getting told that newspapers are dying because readers are going online to get their news, but maybe we should be thinking of it the other way around: People are going online to get news because their newspapers are dying.

Examples of this slow death abound in the newsroom, and it pains the people who still soldier on. It wasn't that long ago that we had four reporters in a bureau in Minneapolis; now there is one. The news coming out of Minneapolis certainly hasn't declined by 75 percent, but you can't expect one person to do the work of four. Local business coverage has suffered; the business news department just doesn't have as many bodies as it used to. Name a section of the newsroom and it's the same story, over and over: There just aren't enough bodies to cover the news. Or at least to cover it in any meaningful way.

Every newsroom I've ever worked in has been filled with reporters and editors who exude cynicism. It is a quality we refine into one of the fuels we pump into the journalistic engine. Still, in the past, there was always—always—the knowledge and the certainty that we would still be here tomorrow, our colleagues would still be here tomorrow, and the paper we all worked for would still be here tomorrow. That knowledge and that certainty are gone. More and more in the Pioneer Press newsroom, it is getting hard to find anyone who sees things getting better. They've been told the positions held by the people who left to take other jobs or were laid off or bought out are jobs that are gone for good. Management doesn't even trot out the old "work smarter, not harder" aphorism that they seemed to think would pacify us (or at least make us stop to wonder if we'd been working stupid) in the past. It's all been replaced by a quiet, and around 6:30 p.m., a time when any decent metropolitan newsroom is buzzing with activity, that quiet gets eerie.

We're professionals. We care about what we do. The inability to cover the Twin Cities like we have in the past is something that keeps us up at night. This was a paper that won three Pulitzer Prizes, journalism's highest honor, between 1986 and 2000, a relatively short span in the life of a newspaper. Awards like those showed that the Pioneer Press was capable of thinking big and willing to expend the resources to execute those big visions. But we don't think big anymore. We don't plan on a grand scale. We've lost our cocksure belief that we could provide important journalism that didn't just get noticed in the Twin Cities or the region, but nationally. We have gone from thinking big to merely hoping there's a tomorrow.

Mr. X is a Pioneer Press newsroom employee.