Occupational Hazard, 2 of 4

by Joe Fitzgerald

A perceptive friend recently spoke to me about press releases his outfit would send to the Daily News-Record back in the day. He said they always wound up in the paper with small inaccuracies, and his perception was that the releases were handed to the least experienced reporters to teach them how to type and rewrite.

I know it looked like that from the outside, I explained, but what actually happened was that I gave them to the least experienced reporters to teach them how to type and rewrite. I was happy to be able to clear that up.

We ran Valley Briefs, Business Briefs, Real Estate Briefs, not to mention the ones in non-news sections of the paper. They piled up on my desk until a reporter needed make-work, or mild punishment, or until I got tired of looking at them. They came back and went into another pile, from whence I’d compare them to the reporter’s efforts to see if they — the release or the reporters — had improved. Nine out of 10 were improved, either in AP style or news sense or clarity, and I caught the errors in half of the remainder. That success rate may not have been as obvious to someone who saw “attorney” changed to “lawyer,” “firm” changed to “company,” parentheses changed to dashes, or John Smith changed to William Johnson.

The briefs were viewed dismissively by many in the newsroom, especially when the releases came from advertisers who felt, sometimes expressively and explicitly, that they’d paid for the space. But despite their low status in the newsroom, those briefs made a lot of people feel they and the newspaper were part of a community. Run three paragraphs on the second local page about a work promotion, and that employee and their mother would each buy 10 copies. But because the paper had to sell more than 20 copies a day to pay my salary and other minor expenses, we’d also cover fires, fatalities, and felonies; meetings of boards, councils, and commissions; traffic incidents and issues; sociological, business, and agricultural trends; charitable activities; and the occasional story close to but outside the normal coverage area if there existed a local hook.

Fast forward 30 years. The classified ads that paid one-third of my salary are now free on Craigslist. Sellers of cars, groceries, houses, and others who once bought full-page ads now have on-line options that cost less and give them more feedback about how well the ads are working. The cover price was a quarter in 1990 or so, and while inflation would put it at 53 cents today, it’s actually a buck and a half, a price that’s probably driven away as many customers as the mean-spirited editorial pages did in the Tom Byrd era.

Even the least ethical general managers and managing editors — and the Daily News-Record has competed in both categories — always understood that the newspaper’s product was credibility. The person in the obit had to have died, the person promoted had to have gotten the job, and the car really had to have wrecked. The credibility of the local stories and the classified ads was probably about neck and neck when it came to what pulled in more readers, and it was reliability as a product that influenced many newspaper executives as much as or more than ethical concerns.

Subscriptions and rack sales provided about a third of a newspaper’s revenue, as well as proving the reader base was serious enough to pay. The attention of that reader base was sold to advertisers for the other roughly two-thirds of the paper’s take.

Less money coming in means fewer reporters and fewer stories. That partially explains the rapid changes in the quality of the paper. Another factor is early deadlines eliminating timely coverage of timely meetings, and not having anybody make nightly cop calls (the fires, fatalities, and felonies question directed to dispatchers in half a dozen localities). Other methods of cutting costs and corners also contribute to the decline in quality. The most obvious result to one who used to edit those six-paragraph briefs into three is those releases showing up on page one expanded to 12 paragraphs.

That’s not the only number going in the wrong direction. Circulation was 33,000 or so when I left in 1995, and had dropped below 15,000 two years ago. That downward trend can only be reversed by an increase in quality, and the chances of that are vanishingly small. The Daily News-Record will one day die, and a lot of people will find out when it just doesn’t show up on the porch. There will be nobody left to write a press release about it.

Joe Fitzgerald is a former mayor of Harrisonburg. This column is republished with permission from his blog, Still Not Sleeping.