When the Blue Dog was reporting for the St. Petersburg Times in Florida, an editor ripping up one of his stories joked that “newspapers eat their young.”
Nearly 20 years later, that adage needs to be revised. Like flesh-eating bacteria, newspapers are no longer content eating their young, they are devouring many of their best and brightest veteran journalists. The brain drain among the capitol press corps — especially at the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle — over the past few years (and months) is as disturbing as it is disheartening. And the problem is just as bad at the bureaus’ mother ships around the state. This is hardly a news flash; we all know this. But the wince factor just seems to grow with each departure.
The most recent example is Stuart Leavenworth’s announcement he is taking a hiatus from the Sacramento Bee’s editorial board. For the next six months to a year, he’ll be delving into the culinary arts at a restaurant in the Bay Area. One hopes this is really what it is portrayed to be — merely a sabbatical — and that Leavenworth will indeed be returning. Otherwise, it’s a big loss. Leavenworth has always embodied what is good and necessary in journalism: decency, open-mindedness and the ability to simultaneously be reasoned, critical and fair.
Newspapers need to survive. But survival has many dimensions. There is the economic one, of course. And the question: will print last in a digital age? But the notion of qualitative survival too often gets short shrift in the discussion, as if it is an afterthought.
Not all journalists are created equal. Losing the best and brightest strikes the Blue Dog as a way to speed up the death spiral. When seasoned, respected and sometimes feared journalists get shown the door or decide to bail, newspapers lose much of the stature, credibility and value that makes them so essential to our society.
By eating its senior class, the Fourth Estate is devaluing itself and is in danger of becoming increasingly irrelevant. This is especially true in Sacramento, where along with Capitol staffers and lobbyists, the press corps is a vital keeper of institutional memory. Without it, the watchdog role of the press diminishes. How can we mourn the demise of something once it becomes inconsequential?
As they push numbers around and ponder the next round of buyout offers, the non-journalist bean counters at the Times, Chron, Bee, et al should realize that cannibalizing the core value of a newspaper is hardly a recipe for long term survival.