I hate what the newspaper industry is doing to itself. It's like a trapped animal chewing off its paw. There's been a lot of talk, but no one has the answer to what ails it -- less advertising, declining circulation and more competition for reader time. Before I left the industry a few months ago, all I heard day in and day out was how we'd have to do it better, faster, quicker in order to survive in the new media world. And while that's happening in newsrooms around the country, I'm still having regular conversations with friends in the traditional print industry who wonder whether they're going to have jobs tomorrow.
This weekend involved a flurry of such calls, ending today when I found out my "Journalism Dad," no longer has a job. I met Don Moore more than a decade ago at the Charlotte, Fla., Sun-Herald. He is loud and cranky and always had some opinion to share with the younger journalists revolving through the door on their way to bigger and better markets. In fact, he was a pain-in-the-ass for his deskmate, namely me, who had to learn, over time, to completely drown him out as he was pestering his latest source. At first, my biggest joy was when he'd leave the office for hours on end because Don believed a journalists' job was -- ohmygawd -- not done in the office on the phone. I used to plan my days around it, so we'd never be in the office at the same time. That's how I'd get a break. Until he returned, (usually while I was trying to write), grumbling about this source or that one and pitching his latest story to the editor with the kind of passion that you'd expect from a much younger man.
I don't remember exactly when I realized what an idiot I was. But sometime over the next several years, usually over Crown Royals and shrimp at one Southwest Florida hole-in-the-wall or another, I discovered that this grumpy old guy was a part of Florida's journalistic roots. The fact is, Don grew up around Florida and newspapers. And he fell in love with them both. He even owned a newspaper on Anna Maria Island, which he turned into a successful, award-winning publication. Eventually, he decided to retire early and sell it to a large newspaper company, and it was -- grr -- shut down in time. He was coerced out of retirement by the opportunity to help another community paper improve its journalism. And so, he joined what was then-called the Venice Gondolier and turned it into another award-winner.
Don eventually went back to his first love, reporting. That's where I met him. After some months of sitting beside him, I realized Don was a throw-back to a time in journalism that I had never seen -- and never would. What he lacked in writing style, he more than made up for in persistence, passion and sheer force of will. He was a reporters' reporter, a pit bull who never let go of a story until he'd turned over every rock that might hide a fact or two. He wielded Florida's public records law like a sword, slashing through government bureaucracy until he got the answers that "the public needed to know."
When other reporters were frightened off by his in-your-face style, I would tell them: "You may not like him, but he can find a story in a crack in the sidewalk." Don never returned to the newsroom without a story -- or more likely three or four. He even wrote about the experience of waiting (and slowly dying as each day passed) for a new heart. Thank God, he finally got one, allowing him to write more stories, many more -- this time about veterans, their issues, their needs and their lives, many of which would never have been chronicled had it not been for him.
I've been worried about Don since last week when I discovered that Sun Coast Media Group, a private company on Florida's Southwest coast, planned to lay off part of its workforce. It's not surprising, given the state's been in a funk for several years -- battered by a two-year bout of hurricanes, increasingly hard-to-get home insurance and a real estate decline that has spiraled out of control. While every newspaper in the country is beating back, and back again, the problems facing the industry, Florida's newspapers have been particularly hard hit. And so one after another, they've scaled down on home delivery, held open jobs and whittled, through attrition, until there's nothing left to do but look around the room.
This time, that hit that came hit home and struck "my journalism dad" -- the man who shared with me his love of newspapers and Florida and the public's right to know anything about anything, because that's what this country was founded on -- wasn't it? It's struck the man who taught me never to take the first answer, the convenient one, the one they want you to believe because, well, it's just easier than having to explain.
Unfortunately, Don Moore isn't likely to be asking those questions again. You see, he's way past 60, and there aren't many newspapers lining up to hire an old guy with someone else's heart. No, he won't be asking those questions again. But I will. And today I have one big question to ask the industry before it looks around again for another paw to chew off...
What is the future of newspapers -- and who will be left to report it?