Monday, February 25, 2008

50 years-- a reflection on a different era

Hey folks,

Unfortunately, no news on the job front. There may be an announcement today, but then again, there's supposed to have been something imminent for three weeks now, so don't count on it. If we don't hear something soon, we'll request an official meeting for information, but in the meantime will keep working to figure out ways to go forward. I hate to keep everyone dangling like this, but I will say thank you for continuing to perform under great pressure.

As long as I'm writing, I wanted to take a moment to say farewell and reflect on the retirement of our legendary restaurant critic, Larry Lipson. For a far more eloquent take, check out his final column (, which he said, with characteristic modesty, appeared on the front page due to a slow news day. I think we can all agree that wasn't the case. He'd worked for the company for half a century before sipping his final glass of wine, noting his last appetizer ingredient and discreetly noting his final dessert.

Whenever I went into a place with a Larry review posted on the wall, I knew it would be worthwhile -- and the restaurant owners knew it, too. I remember grabbing lunch in a now-shuttered Mexican joint on Vanowen whose owner sighed with regret when he learned that we worked at the paper.

"Daily News..." he said, fretfully. "Larry came in here the one night I ran out of tamales. It looked like I didn't know what I was doing...."

When we gathered around to wish him well in his Costa Rican retirement last week, people joked about his longevity at the paper-- he'd outlasted three different newspaper names, at least three different owners, countless editors and publishers and seen the journalism world change immeasurably. He'd been filing copy before many of us were even born, but he still kept at it.

And, in light of all the problems for the industry right now, the scene really got me thinking. How many other people in that crowd will make it to 50 years at the Daily News? Not just because of the possible layoffs, but because of the industry climate? Not many, if any, I'd wager. The business just isn't structured to reward longevity anymore, unfortunately.

Where companies once saw long-term, knowledgeable employees as assets, they're now considered liabilities because of their higher wages and the cost of their health care. An employee used to be rewarded for many years of service with a pension and retirement package that would take care of them in return for their hard work. Now, you're lucky if you get some cupcakes and a card signed by your coworkers. Once you're out that door, you're on your own.

That's really a shame, not just for the worker, but for the company and the product it produces. Unlike a factory, where new technology can literally replace people, our kind of work gets better with age and experience. We've all got to grow and open ourselves up to new kinds of journalism, whether it's videos, blogs, online packages or anything else, but in general, the more time you spend at a paper, the better you are at your job. When guys with 50 years of experience retire, it's impossible to replace that institutional knowledge, no matter how well their replacement can perform.

One of the biggest keys to building that knowledge is a sense of security. All of us knew journalism wasn't a lucrative profession when we got started, but we did it for love of the craft. As long as you could expect to make a decent living and afford basic things-- a home, a car, an education for your kids-- you could spend your time focusing on honing that craft, rather than constantly jumping from job to job and starting all over again.

It's particularly sad to see the business go through cycles like it is these days, because it will drive a lot of good people away from the industry, many of them for good. As they go back to school, get government jobs, join non-profits, or become spokespeople, the profession will lose a lot of great talent and many great minds. The people themselves will be fine, but the papers for which they once worked, whether it's the Times or the Daily News, will lose invaluable experience and skills.

This isn't the apocalypse of journalism; it's not even going to be the end of the Daily News. The looming layoffs will likely be painful, but the paper will survive and the hardcores will still be there to keep the flame burning. But until the people who keep buying and running newspapers come around and make the business stable so people can hope to earn a living once again, that flame will keep dimming.

And until it goes out altogether, you guys are going to keep performing like champs. No matter how bleak things get, you keep punching away. I'm proud to call you my colleagues and honored to work among you. Let's hope that the bottom-line guys will feel the same way, too.



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