Tag Archives: journalism

Physical Plant

When blood-siphoning hedge-fund greed and the declining fortunes of what young techno-Turks sneeringly label “legacy” media forced us out of our old offices, among the things that new management said we could not under any circumstances transfer with us to our clean and green and ergonomically astute new offices were our potted plants. The news came in the form of an item in an emailed newsletter from the image-makers involved in the Big Move; here is the notice:

Puzzling, this. One would surely assume – and, thus, one would be so utterly and completely wrong – that plants could only be good for an enclosed work environment, that their beauty and pet-like quality might help soothe those toiling in a pressurized and deadline-driven occupation, that the oxygen produced by personalized in-your-face photosynthesis might bestow on sleep-deprived and lung-capacity-diminished journalists a puff of non-caffeinated alertness, that having to occasionally water a bit of philodendron or petunia might demand a certain level of responsibility and interest in something other than self rare in this ego-drenched and cynicism-thick atmosphere. The owners of the building in which we now lease space expressed concern, apparently, that plants might add something unbalanced to the filtered and formulated air, and that these undocumented aliens might harbor insects that – what? – might ruin this year’s 3rd-floor-office peach crop? We were assured that professionals would be determining and providing the proper flora, and that they would maintain them with perfect light and hydration as only professionals can.

OK. But, first, a bit of necessary background: The newsroom from which we were deposed by squeeze-the-corpse-dry owners – that storied, classic, fabled, memorable newsroom – was, let’s face it, a subterranean, black-lung-dispensing pit with carpeting that had not been vacuumed in anybody’s memory and twice that long for the cleaning of the air ducts (the most frequent sound in the place was not keyboards clacking but everyone sneezing), with oozings and droopings and ashy moundings and vending machines that dropped down items already chewed on by mice. Natural light came into this room only on the side of a beer can, and then it was spelled L-I-T-E. The idea that we bad-news bearers might have the urge to bring illicit contraband potted plants with us to the new clean-room office stumbles on the reality that the old office was so toxic it barely supported human life let alone pansies. The main reason we would not be bringing our plants to the new place is that we had no plants, in the way that sensitive couples decide not to bring children into this terrible world.

(But we would not tell management that turning the new digs into the equivalent of the California border’s agricultural Maginot Line had no meaning for us leafy green-less deportees – we might be able to use it as a grievance come contract negotiations.)

And, so, when on a Friday we bade farewell to our beloved Superfund site and on that following Monday arrived for work in an entirely new environment, one so scrubbed and kilowatted and boxy and soulless, that not a one of us – trying to find our cubicles among the rat warren of minimum-security cells – gave even half a thought to potted plants.

Until we saw them. In our area, 6 of them.In dark ceramic pots. About 6-inches tall, including the (now that we look closer at it) possibly ceramic pot. Looking for all the world like half a dozen packs of wheat grass waiting to be juiced. Aligned in two perfect rows atop facing walls across a work-station aisle from each other, they seemed – how you say? – disappointing? No – insignificant. Negligible. Puny. Absurd. Hilarious.

And, preternaturally odd. Something …

I tried to pick one up, to see how heavy the pot was. I could not pick it up – it seemed, all several square inches of it, to be as densely weighted and gravity-redolent as a black hole. It was then I discovered that the pot – indeed, all of them – was glued to the surface, as if it were the Hope Diamond in a museum setting, held in place to thwart that menacing band of roaming wheat-grass thieves.

The grassy stalks were so lushly green, so perfectly trimmed – I ran my hand across their crew-cutted top – so … artificial. Plastic. Plastic wheat grass. The perfect plant for this unliving George Tooker-ish office.

It is somehow depressing to consider that these tinted and decorative bits of petroleum byproduct will almost surely outlive the enterprise that they have been drafted to decorate. The newspapers will be the stuff of memory and mold when these perky simulacra will be, unchanged, ever unchanging, the belles of the landfill.

However, I have noticed something of hope. Recently, secretly, colleagues have begun to stick things into the artificial grass, and place things atop them, in ways that can only be deemed clever or, at least, anarchic. First it was candy balls – a sure sign of simple rebellion, but a serious one, because I know of no journalist who readily or easily lets food out of his mitts. Then there was the wag who, in a nice film reference, stuck a packet of artificial sweetener into the stalks: Splenda in the grass. Just the other night I became aware of tiny toy reptiles placed to lend a kind of jungle air to the thick growth – and, in a way, the plastic animals made the plastic grass seem more real.

This is all good news. What is happening to these green accessories is what happens to statues on campuses that become the targets of student pranks and hazing requirements – old Civil War generals or figures personifying virtuous values suddenly, in dawn’s light, seen to be wearing sweaters or painted blue or holding a leashed goat or sporting a tattoo. Our wheat grass has become the equivalent of this sort of ritualistic nose-thumbing; I can envision them becoming the repository of little Halloween costumes and Christmas ornaments, office supplies and all sorts of offensive stuff that will give vent to journalists’ sarcasm, darkness, insubordination, mistrust of authority and general screw-you pissed-offness. In other words, in some strange ironic way, these artificial plants will have brought something very natural into the newsroom, and given it a place to thrive.

Just don’t add water.

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A City in Your Hands

Last time, we wrote about how the place in which a newspaper is put together – the newsroom – can influence the look, feel, sound, artfulness and even success of that newspaper, and that the current changes in newsrooms, and moves to new digs, might help account for or contribute to the medium’s general decline, at least here in the U.S.

But, there’s another thing we’ve been thinking about that has to do with newspapers and their future, and that has to do with the way newspapers look.

Obviously, the way a newspaper looks is important. Many millions of dollars are paid each year to high-priced designers and consultants to make newspapers more appealing to the eye. These professionals tinker with typefaces and white space, column width and story length, all towards making the product a clean and easy read, with the hoped-for result that this rehabbing will improve circulation and/or attract advertisers – and, all the while, restricted by the limits imposed by newspapers having to look like newspapers, having to be able to fit on and be run off on a printing press that can’t easily be customized, and requiring a limited universe of paper type to be its medium.

Too often, though, these designers shoehorn all newspapers into a one-size-fits-all construct, overlaying the project with a look that they prefer or are identified with, imposing the same typeface, structure and attitude to every newspaper they are hired to “fix.” There are, at any given time, certain rules of modernity that these designers cling to and proselytize about, and, soon, newspapers everywhere look like newspapers everywhere else, becoming the Holiday Inns or McDonald’s of the print medium; that is, they are cookie-cutter versions of each other, without individuality outside the masthead,  with the idea that that sort of conformity engenders a kind of comfortable familiarity that also boosts ease of navigability. It’s all about the ego of the designer and his certainty about the superiority of the current (or, rather, his current) favorite user interface.

These artistic attempts, though, aren’t working, at least not in the most important way – saving the newspapers from extinction by attracting more readers and keeping them “under the tent” – and, so, quite often seem like just some bit of graphical snake oil. Of course, no design, however wonderful, can overcome boring content poorly written, and flawed editorial direction. And such small portions: No design can hide the fact that misguided layoffs by management “geniuses” who believe that the way to a better bottom line is by slicing employees and filling pages with wire-service offerings, which leaves little or nothing to read. Ergo, lots of white space to fool the reader into thinking that she is getting just as much news as she used to for the higher per-copy fee she has to shell out in order to come into possession of an anorexic, anemic impostor of the newspaper she used to love to hold.

But there is another underlying problem, we think – indeed, a placeness-influenced problem – that may be at the root of the design and circulation-spiral “fail.”

Here’s what the newspaper I work for, and which is struggling to keep readers, looks like now:

And here’s what it looked like a generation ago, when it was a popular newsstand item:

The first difference, and one that you can’t see easily from these photos, is the page size: the old version was much bigger – inches larger on each side. This partly – but only partly – explains the second difference that is far easier to note: the number of stories in each version. The old newspaper’s pages are loaded with stories – in fact, on these two inside facing pages, 20 of them, including stand-alone photos – while the current version has maybe two stories and a photo on each. This is both a function of changing design ideas, but also reflects the sad reality that there are more stories on those old pages than there are reporters in our newsroom today. Not all of the stories were staff written, but many were. Today, we don’t have the luxury – or the people-power – to produce that many stories. Of course, now as then, there was wire-service copy available, and pages were and are filled with that readily accessible fodder. The point was, back then, that a good chunk of the mission of a newspaper was to give people lots to read for their dime (yes, it cost ten cents), with oodles of variety, and with what Paul Dacre, the editor of London’s Daily Mail, calls  the “human twiddly bits that make for conversations in the pubs.” So much of that fascinating, readable, quotable, water-cooler-ish type of story that made newspapers newspapers is gone these days. Some of that is because of changing attitudes in the newspaper business about what news is (although, when you look at what the Internet portal sites consider news, you realize that nobody ever lost money underestimating Americans’ level of sophistication), some because of changing layout considerations – but some because of a backlash against anything that isn’t “hyper-local.”

And yet, despite this feverish trend that sees the offering of a preponderance of local news as the key to survival – ceding breaking news and national and international reports to the ‘Net, radio or video media – the physical newspapers themselves do not look local; that is, they do not look like where they’re from. And that is a key component of readers’ alienation with the product – a newspaper, we believe, ought to look like the town it’s reporting about. But, as similar, clean and white-spaced designs become the standard look-and-feel of the printed news medium everywhere, the “nowhere-ness” of them will, we think, doom the newspaper. It’s not even just a matter of “face recognition” – that the newspaper you read has a different layout or typeface than the competition; it’s that the product you hold in your hands does not accurately reflect the place it purportedly represents … and it should.

Take the New York Times, for example – it looks like Manhattan, or at least the Manhattan of its readers’ imagination, the Central Park West Manhattan, with its glorious old buildings interspersed with modern skyscrapers, and a peppering of people and tiny swaths of color and greenspace.  Then look at the New York Daily News – also New York, but not the same New York; this is the messy, teeming, crowded, slightly out-of-control New York, and the New York that includes all five boroughs. Each is New York, or, rather, the New York that its readers identify with. And each of these papers is successful because they not only speak to their publics but, in a way, also hold up a mirror to them, and make the readers feel that they are holding their city in their hands. Newsday, though a fine paper, and a tabloid (which would normally appeal to city dwellers and public-transportation riders), never quite gained a foothold when it introduced its New York Newsday because it still looked like Long Island.

More to the point at hand, look at the two versions of the paper I work for. The old format looks like the place it came out of: a congested, gray, gritty urban place, with lots happening in it.

The city itself is no less busy or crowded these days, yet the current paper looks far more homogenized and lacking a distinctive personality: a placeness. 

Big city newspapers are dying because they have been made to look like the wrong place – they look like the suburbs and not the metropolis. Just as one-size-fits-all does not work in the design of papers, there is no one-city-fits-all, either. Each city, each town has its own personality, and the newspaper of that town should have that same personality or, in the case of competing papers with different circulation publics, the personality that fits that population cohort.

What differentiates a newspaper from, say, a web-based news site is that there is, when it is working properly, a personal relationship between the newspaper and its reader that is, in a way, akin to the relationship that sports fans have with their home teams. Teams are composed of many different elements (the athletes) from many parts of the world, but they come together and wear a unique and identifiable uniform, with cherished logos and colors, that fans recognize as mirroring themselves, in some strange empathetic sort of way. Newspapers must never forget that they are the home team, and should dress the part.

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(News) Room with a (Rear) View

The room stretches half a football-field’s length ahead, it is dark and I am alone in it. Here and there, around me, are the telltale cigarette-tip-red dots and cool-blue glows of electronic equipment on desks, waiting to be switched alive. One can feel the thrumming of the HVAC system as it rolls fetid air through huge and dirty ducts that hover over the room from the low ceiling.  It is a Saturday; we don’t publish a Sunday paper, so this, the newsroom, is abandoned. But, lately, it’s seemed abandoned even at the height of the day and the heat of the chase. A place that can accommodate maybe 150 workers – and once did – now is home to only about a third of that, and, what with varying shifts, there are times, especially at night, when there are so few people in the cavernous space, and all spread about like blindly sown seeds, that we joke sometimes that we could all carpool to work. In a Smart Car. With the latest buyouts and layoffs freshly sliced into our hearts, it is hard to believe that the few remaining reporters, editors and graphic artists will be able to put out a metropolitan newspaper on time every day. And it is, occasionally, hard to believe that we will exist long enough to get used to the new normal. 

How long one has worked for this newspaper determines the ghosts one sees when one is here, in the quiet, in the dark. A newspaper, for its success, depends on the voice it projects, and the diversity of voices that appear on the pages. But the voices that readers don’t ever hear – the voices of the copy editors joking with each other and grumbling about the horrible stories they have to save, the voices of reporters on the phone trying to cajole facts from reluctant sources, the voices of clueless editors and administrators trying to sound sincere while mouthing corporate platitudes or uninformed and ill-used journalese – the voices that inform the decisions that end up as the words you read (if indeed you are reading them these days, which, of course, is the problem) are getting weaker and thinner, less assured, and are fading away. Some may not consider what we do in making newspapers as art, but there is an art to the smoothly functioning, at times inspired machine that drags raw materials from thin air, pounds them into shape and extrudes them out the door in a polished package. At some future time, in some museum, that defunct item we call a newspaper might be displayed in a case and looked upon as a work of art, the way Toulouse Lautrec’s posters, once commercial come-ons, are now seen. Maybe not. After all, they didn’t use his posters to wrap fish and line bird cages.

At times, in this room, I feel like Jonah, except that it is not a whale that I have been swallowed up by and am in the belly of, but rather a dinosaur. In fact, we in this business are dealing with conjoined dinosaurs: the print newspaper format itself, and the newsroom where it traditionally has been created. I won’t go into the decay of the daily, which is well documented elsewhere ad nauseam and is a perfect-storm confluence of misunderstanding, mismanagement, confusion and irrational exuberance about the digital realm. But what is also falling by the wayside are these grand newsrooms, once teeming with ideas and with colorful people full of those ideas. With so many folks rubbing up against each other, the friction often sparked exciting results: a critical mass of skepticism, cynicism, witticism and idealism. The newsroom went through evolutionary phases – from the smoky, feverish, wild and untamed “The Front Page” days to cool and distancing insurance-company-like corporate reinventions (some blame print journalism’s decline on the banning of indoor smoking, and the frowning upon by bloodless management of visible signs of alcohol misuse) – but it was always a place that could become a mess quite easily, piled high with handouts and food scraps, and swirling with contorted workspace and equally twisted personal relationships. But now, with reductions in the workforce, and the selling off of old newspaper office buildings, and the digital and mobile and work-at-home capabilities of the new enterprise, the vast newsroom, which often seemed like a cross between an asylum and Grand Central Station with desks, is a money-eating anachronism. 

And, so, this room that I am in now, so appropriately and symbolically silent and dark – this basement space that once held mighty printing presses before they were moved to the suburbs and the bosses (whichever bumbling or sinister iteration of them it was at the time) decided to move the editors and reporters from some lofty floor in the building to this now unvacuumed mite- and mouse-infested dungeon – is to be abandoned before summer, slated to feel the developer’s work crew and ultimate conversion to a residential and retail-space future. We few, we unhappy few, we band of dysfunctional brothers, will be moving to a much smaller space in a building that itself is a relic of a gasping industry: the department store. Where once this news operation and all its attendant sales and support services took up 13 floors of an iconic structure known throughout the region, now two newspapers – once bitter sibling rivals, now sharing the same bunk bed – will be shoehorned into one floor that at one time might have been where one went to purchase lingerie. Irony upon irony: It is the demise of department stores, and loss of the big advertisements that they used to fill newspapers with, that is at the root of the financial collapse of big-city newspapers … and, now, the one invalid is inhabiting the other.

I am sure, considering the millions of dollars that are being tossed at this new workspace, that it will have fine lighting, fresh carpeting and all the modern amenities, and it will, by comparison, show the current place for the NIH-alarming germ-pit that it is. But it will, almost certainly, be another stop on the road to homogenization. With each successive modernization of quarters, the newspaper product itself has become concomitantly colorless. Clothes make the man; newsrooms make the paper. Once I worked for what was then called an “alternative” newspaper, a weekly that was created with somewhat less than the extension of journalistic excellence in mind; indeed, the owner – who also owned the town’s slick and thick and superficial city magazine – came up with the idea of this new venture because he wanted an advertising venue for those businesses that couldn’t afford the rates in his flagship publication. In other words, this new newspaper came into being solely for the publisher to snag the dangling dollars of low-rent operations; we, the writers and editors, were to be, from the get-go, mere filler. It’s always that way – publications are, first, businesses – but it’s rarely so blatant; there is usually the pretext of providing readers with exciting reading. At any rate, the owner gathered a staff, and this staff – snookered into thinking that they would be able to do something good – wanted digs that reflected their idea of the enterprise: an alternative paper should be in alternative offices. We wanted a loft someplace, with (this was decades ago) old standard typewriters, bare floors, brick walls, crummy lighting and the feel of gritty, old-timey journalism squeezed through a Village Voice-y filter. The only thing we didn’t think of was a Jolly Roger flapping in the breeze outside the offices, but that’s the atmosphere we wanted to work in and the image we desired to project. Instead, the owner spent lots of money to lease fairly fashionable space and to decorate it with the most neutral, cool, patrician accoutrements one could imagine. The newspaper, unfortunately, came out the same, and died an ignominious death. Lesson: Newspapers take on their surroundings, like camouflaging animals. Not that art can’t be made anyplace, but sometimes a certain kind of art needs a certain kind of place. Our new place may turn out to be too nice for doing what we do; journalists can be seduced by anything, even a free meal, and, subliminally, the workspace can be a seducer and defuser of creativity. 

New owners of our paper have made all the usual noises about the future, and hope, and commitment, and hands-off integrity, and blah-blah. They have bought the product; they have inherited the plans for the move into the new, snazzier offices. We can’t stay here, in this big, long and barren room – it’s been sold out from under us by the previous owners – but, if the new owners had any sense, they’d keep us away from the new place, and find us some déclassé dump and let us thrive there. And we could pretend to be not the “information workers” we have been forced to become but honest to god newspaper people again, for as long as we have that privilege.

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