Pomona College Magazine
Volume 45, No. 3
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Revolution Redux
The columnist: Mary Schmich '75. "What are we supposed to be doing now?"

Essay by Mary Schmich ’75 / Art by June Brigman

Editor's Note: This is one of a four-part series in which Pomona journalists discuss the future of the news. In this installment,  Mary Schmich '75, columnist for the Chicago Tribune and the long-time author of the Brenda Starr comic strip, shares what it's like to be on the inside of a confusing revolution.

I entered journalism at the beginning of the last revolution. It was late winter, 1980. My journalism experience until that point could only barely be called journalism or experience, consisting as it did of one semester co-editing The Student Life, a job done with Exacto knives and rubber cement.

But on a winter afternoon 29 years ago, I’d graduated to the real deal, an internship at the Los Angeles Times, and I stood in the doorway of the old newsroom, awestruck and gawking.

Men, men and more men sat in shrouds of cigarette smoke, next to jangling telephones, hammering at typewriters. The clatter of the keys ricocheted off the hard floor and high ceiling. The hands of a big wall clock said 5:30.

“They’re on deadline,” said the middle-aged reporter assigned to explain the newsroom’s mysteries to the interns. “Never interrupt the reporters when they’re on deadline.”

The L.A. Times was still preparing its first computer system, so I spent the next three months doing journalism the way I’d never do it again, the way it had been done for a century. On a typewriter.

I typed my stories on multi-colored sets of carbon paper called “books.” I walked my cherished prose up to the city desk and put it in a basket. I cowered as the scariest men I’d ever met squinted at what I’d written then defaced it with their pencils.

And I listened to a few of the older reporters who, for reasons that elude me now, warned that the coming computer age was doom.

A few months later, I took my first paid job, at a small newspaper in Palo Alto, Calif. It had computers. And in all the newspapering years that followed, I wouldn’t see such change as I did in a few months in 1980. Until now.

Oh, sure, laptops arrived, and email and cell phones and digital wall clocks, and you could sooner keep a gun on your newsroom desk than a cigarette. But until lately newspapers have remained basically the same business they were when I signed up.

Not, of course, that most journalists thought of it as a business. We viewed our work as a mix of art and public service, an exciting and useful way to live. We didn’t think much about money. We didn’t have to. As long as there was money—enough to pay decent salaries, finance good work, update our ergonomic chairs—we could act as if money didn’t matter.

But then the business changed. News, classified ads and readers shifted to the Internet. Bloggers began competing for the audience. Big advertising in the paper shrank and almost nobody could figure out how to make money on the Web.

Those sirens in the distance? We heard them. But most journalists, I think, thought they were for someone else. As it turned out, no one was safe. And money mattered.

Consider Tribune Co., which owns the Chicago Tribune, where I’ve worked since 1985. In December, under its new owner, the company filed for bankruptcy. Meanwhile, in less than a year—while covering a presidential election, a governor’s impeachment, an economic implosion and one of the most complex cities in the world—the newspaper has changed its top editors, lost scores of employees to buyouts and layoffs, redesigned its broadsheet, turned its newsstand edition into a tabloid and instructed the staff to think “Digital first.”

“If you don’t like change,” says a big quote newly installed in the lobby of the 1925 neo-Gothic Tribune Tower, “you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”

That quote occasioned one of my colleagues, in her 30s, to lament, “I’m not resisting change. I’m just confused. What are we supposed to be doing now?”

What are we supposed to be doing now? It’s the existential question of an entire industry.

Should newspapers continue to give away content for free? No way. Or absolutely.

Should newspapers become nonprofits? No way. Or absolutely.

Should newspapers go all-digital? No way. Or it’s inevitable.

Hey, look over there—it’s Facebook, Digg and Twitter! Social networks will save us.

Arguments abound. Answers elude. But I believe some things will hold constant:

People will still want news, analysis and a well-tol d story. They’ll still want organizations that have the resources to investigate, explore, explain, check the facts and help them weed through the information clutter. They’ll want some of those organizations to be big enough to exert clout for the welfare of the community. And where there’s a demand, there’s a market.

We’re at the threshold of something new and not fully imagined. It’s scary. It’s thrilling. And in that way it’s not different from how I felt during the last revolution, standing in a threshold listening to the typewriters.

©Copyright 2008
by Pomona College
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