I’m going to depart from my usual tips today, and give a pep talk. Why? Because I need one.
This has been a particularly tough week in a series of difficult months years for journalists. This week was the first time that journalists I know personally lost their jobs. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer joined the list of newspapers up for sale. And The Atlantic questioned the health of the venerable New York Times.
So here’s my pep talk:
My fellow journalists, we are at what is indeed the largest crisis in our history. Newspapers have laid off thousands of workers. Advertising revenue is down and with the economy in ruins that’s unlikely to improve soon. Some newspapers have stopped publishing print editions several days a week or at all. Some journalists are doing new jobs at newspapers, just to keep a paycheck. And we fear — at least I do.
But we cannot freeze in fear like the proverbial deer in the headlights of an oncoming truck. For if we do, we are sure to die, just like that deer.
We must fight the instinct that tells us to give up, to hide under a blanket and cry or do only the bare minimum because we’re doomed anyway.
That, my friends, is the surest way to hasten our death.
We don’t have the luxury now to be mediocre journalists or even good ones. We must be amazing. We must harness all that we know and use it to innovate, to retool our industry to a new medium, to take advantage of how social media can help us reach readers. We need to be at the very top of our game, and we must fight for the life our industry.
It’s understandable that we’re anxious about whether our papers will survive, whether we’ll have a job tomorrow or next week or next month. But we need to set aside our broken hearts, and, as a wise editor at my paper wrote in a memo to the staff, “channel anxious energy into journalistic innovation and creative new content.”
We must embrace new media like never before. We must quickly find ways to use it and not get bogged down in the bureaucracy that can slow progress. We cannot leave it to upper-level managers to figure it all out. They need everyone thinking; everyone must be coming up with ways to reach readers, create news content, utilize the tools of the interactive Web.
We can do it
If you’ve ever ridden a horse, you know that the worst thing to do is to tense up when you get scared. If you get tense, your body hunches over, your legs clamp the horse’s flanks, which tell the horse to speed up. In that stance, you can easily lose your form and fall off the speeding horse. What you need to do is relax, sit up straight, trust your training and move with the horse even when you’re terrified.
Journalists, we need to move with the horse. We need to reach deep inside and find that reserve that journalists have that makes them do the crazy things they do. It’s a reserve that’s a mix of chutpah, grit and, perhaps, a little stupidity.
It’s a reserve that make us head out in a blizzard to cover it. Or that makes us rush to the office when there’s a deadly hurricane, a plane crash or an ice storm because we need to do what we do: tell stories.
This quality makes journalists forget their own worries and do their jobs even when flood waters rage around their homes or they are afraid for their own loved ones following a terrorist attack like 9/11.
We can do this. We have the training. We need to summon that adrenaline that we get on Election Night that enables us to put out the paper even when the computer system fails or the voting database does not work. We do it because we must. It’s our job.
We must summon this inner strength because our nation needs journalists. A democracy needs an independent voice that questions those in power, that asks the questions others won’t, that demands to see evidence to back up spin. And we can do that on newsprint or a computer screen.
Sure, citizen journalists and bloggers are part of the new media, but I believe there’s a valuable place for trained journalists as well.
We cannot fail because even if the public doesn’t always appreciate what we do, they need us. Journalism is a bit like the post office. No one thinks about its importance until the mail is late. We know our value, and we must be committed to succeeding.
We must fight until we cannot, and then we must keep fighting. We must because that is our job. We cannot let journalism fail. We must set aside our own real pain, and, as Tim Windsor says on Zero Percent Idle, be the “people facing forward … doing the job of journalism in the new digital reality.”
If we fight, will we save journalism? I can’t guarantee that. But I do know this. If we don’t try, we’ve already lost.