Tomcats on a rooftop

June 23, 1996|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE de GRACE -- As this is written the Newspaper Guild and the Baltimore Sun are snarling at one another once again like a couple of tomcats on a rooftop, and even way out here in early-edition land we can hear the unpleasant noises faintly in the distance.

The Guild is generally thought of as the reporters' union, although many of its members hold other newspaper jobs, and it has been around a long time. It is often argued, although not usually very persuasively, that without the Guild, journalists would be little more than their publishers' serfs.

I was a Guild member for about 15 years, during which time I held jobs on two big newspapers. Each time I was hired I was given the option of joining or not joining the Guild, and each time I chose to join. Why? Herd instinct, I suppose, reinforced by a strong sense of personal priorities. It was much easier to join than to resist.

As it turned out, I didn't find much about union membership to recommend it. It was expensive, with thousands of dollars deducted each year from my paycheck. It was sometimes embarrassing, as when the union's national leadership insisted on endorsing candidates for public office. And it often seemed ridiculously confrontational. Once a friend who worked on a North Carolina paper came to town for a visit. He went with me to a pre-strike Guild meeting in Baltimore, and was astonished at what he heard.

''I've never worked anywhere where I didn't respect the people I worked for, and feel they respected me,'' he said. ''I had no idea the people running this company were such monsters.'' I told him most of what he'd heard was boilerplate labor rhetoric and not to be taken seriously, but he wasn't persuaded and seemed glad to leave town.

In those days the biggest labor-management issues in the newspaper industry were wages and benefits, but now they seem to be concerned more with job security -- not surprising in an era of widespread corporate downsizing and the closing of many once-prosperous newspapers.

Important people on the fringes of newspaper journalism, such as Bill Kovach of Harvard's Nieman Foundation and James Fallows of the Atlantic Monthly, think the future is pretty grim. Mr. Kovach blames it on corporate concern with profit over editorial excellence. Mr. Fallows fears that rising public antipathy to the media may prove terminal to the press as we now know it, and implies that today's journalism is nowhere near as hard-hitting as it used to be.

Don't listen to deans

A lot of this pessimism is unfounded. Consider the source, advises business writer David Warsh of the Boston Globe in the Nieman Foundation's quarterly magazine, and ''don't take at face value what anybody in a university says about a newspaper. That includes deans of journalism schools, proprietors of centers on the press and others who no longer write and report the news for a living.''

Many of the above were brilliant professionals, he notes, who were squeezed out of the business during one of the endless struggles for control which all newspapers, and most other large institutions, regularly undergo. And while their insights may be real, so are their biases; few are saintly enough to evaluate impartially the performance of those who elbowed them off their papers.

Mr. Warsh suggests that newspapers are doing just fine, thank you, despite the impact of two cyclical setbacks -- sharp increases in newsprint prices and a drop in advertising revenues. Few of them are making the 20 percent profit margins they had gotten used to in the fat years a decade ago, but that doesn't mean they're close to collapse.

Sure, Baltimore lost The Evening Sun, and a bunch of editorial jobs with it. But is the Baltimore Sun that survives little more than a weakened relic of a better time? I doubt it. The Sun has its shortcomings, which have often been commented upon here. But a paper with the imagination, reportorial talent and financial resources to produce a knockout series like this past week's on slavery in the Sudan certainly hasn't thrown in the towel.

According to Jack Fuller's new book ''News Values,'' some university media experts think the paper of the future will be a ''Daily Me,'' an electronically-delivered selection of articles pre-selected for every reader's personal taste. Mr. Fuller doubts that, and so do I. That sort of narcissistic virtual journalism wouldn't have a very durable appeal for most of the people I know.

I suspect that successful newspaper companies will continue to use intelligent writers and editors, some of them inexplicably unionized, to hammer together an imperfect daily report. And this product will continue to be purchased by intelligent and irritable readers -- with grumbling and scorn, to be sure, but also with considerable pleasure which most of them will take great pains to conceal.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 6/24/96

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