Driving Concerns For 2 Industries

April 30, 2009|By JEAN MARBELLA

Before I headed to my first real - i.e., paying - newspaper job years ago, my parents bought me a used car. I can still remember getting behind the wheel, giddy and exhilarated to be on the road and starting the life I always envisioned for myself as a big-city reporter.

It was a Pontiac, and I was driving to Detroit.

I thought about that car this week for the first time in years, when the news came that the once-mighty and now-faltering General Motors was killing its Pontiac line, unloading it along with thousands of employees and hundreds of dealerships in a desperate attempt to stave off bankruptcy.

I don't have particularly sentimental feelings for that old Pontiac Grand Am - mainly what I remember about it was that it was turquoise and had an engine that a previous owner had painted the kind of orange-y red of bad lipstick. But it did its job, getting me to and then around the city for the reporting internship that I had the summer between my junior and senior years of college at the Detroit Free Press.

So maybe cars and newspapers will always be intertwined for me. Interns generally don't get the glory assignments, but one of the few front-page stories I had that summer was a feature about a fan club devoted to one of Detroit's biggest mistakes ever, the Edsel. Members came from all over, driving their restored Edsels around one of the Ford buildings, ghosts of the automotive past back to haunt the present.

Four cars and three newspapers later, that summer seems further away than ever. Back then, I never would have imagined that one day, some 30 years later, both industries would be suffering through an economic recession, scrambling to change their old ways of doing things to keep up with a changing marketplace.

While all newspapers are cutting back - we're going through a round of layoffs at The Baltimore Sun - Detroit has a drastically scaled-back news media picture. Last month, the Freep, as well as the rival Detroit News, with which it now shares business functions, discontinued home delivery of papers in the early part of the week, focusing instead on online editions and condensed paper versions for street sales.

I don't think I know anyone at the Freep anymore, but the newsroom I worked in seemed entirely of its two-fisted city. Like most newsrooms, much of the staff wasn't from the city originally, but they had come to know and love it, or at least love sticking their noses everywhere and writing all about it.

We were producing newspapers, not cars. But sometimes I thought we should have had earplugs and other protective gear as well.

Before the computer era brought in a more hushed, murmuring atmosphere, working in a newsroom used to be quite the noisy, clamorous affair. Phones rang loudly, typewriters dinged at the end of every line, editors barked for copyboys to hand-deliver stories from one desk to another, and the old wire machines chattered and clanged, the number of bells indicating how big a news story was coming down the pike.

It was like a factory, but of words.

The other similarity, other than the din we both created in doing our jobs, was the sense of pride you get from seeing something you made roll off either the assembly line or the printing press.

Surely other workers feel the same thing. Chefs and computer programmers no doubt feel pride at seeing their cakes or codes in their final form.

But I can't help but think when your product is something so commonplace and serviceable that there's a certain thrill in seeing it out there, on a daily basis, on the road or in someone's hand.

I've met a few autoworkers over the years - as a national correspondent for The Sun, I went up to Flint, Mich., to cover a UAW strike against GM about 10 years ago - and even on the picket lines, workers talked proudly of the models they had a hand in. Learning I was from Baltimore, one autoworker told me his recently purchased Chevy Astro van came from the assembly plant on Broening Highway.

"We don't make lemons," he told me, "so we believe in buying our own."

That plant closed in 2005 after 70 years, and more factories are due to be shuttered as GM tries to right itself. I hope it does. At a time when much of the current crisis seems totally of another reality - all this money and credit and debt and changing hands and somehow pushing the entire economy to the brink - we need industries that employ people who make tangible products rather than vaporous deals.

The let-'em-fail cries grow ever louder as the government spends more and more money bailing out banks and car companies. (You get the same sort of good-riddance attitude from those who have a beef with the media and enjoy seeing its current struggles, even though no one is seeking a government bailout for the press.)

Other than the fact that there's something rather mean-spirited about cheering anyone's misfortune, maybe there's another reason not to be so nonchalant about once-great companies like GM going under.

It's that original mean girl, who goes by the name of Karma.

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