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.
One response to “Eating Its Best & Brightest”
Couldn’t agree more, Blue Dog. I’m one of those editors in a midsized California paper who has watched with intense frustration and enormous sadness many of the best and brightest of the next generation — many of whom I hired — leave my newsroom in the past year. Some went off to law school or grad school, some to write a book or chase another dream. Some we pushed out the door because in this era of downsizing, “last in, first out” becomes a convenient formula — even if those hired in the past few years embody many of the multimedia and storytelling skills we say we most value.
These are the men and women who should be replacing me and my peers in the next decade. Instead, we’ve got a major gap in the newsroom family tree; a “lost generation,” if you will. I don’t believe many ever will return.
That’s a loss not only for our organizations, but for the readers and online audiences that rely upon their talent and journalistic horsepower. The watchdog role can’t help but be diminished — in Sacramento as well as the county seat or at City Hall.
Don’t get me wrong. There are thousands of dedicated print journalists who remain very much on the job and every bit of committed as ever. They possess the institutional knowledge and experience that allows them to do valuable and important work in their communities. But when we look behind us, there are few people to pass the baton to.
When the recession wanes and the business dynamics allow us to expand our staffs once again, I fear the pool of available talent will be far less than it should be. We’re never going back to where we were 10, 15, 20 years ago — when owning a newspaper was like having a license to print money. But you’re right in that the economically-driven decisions made today will affect us far into the future.