Clearing brush

sOME people like to be seen clearing brush. At least the President does, probably because Ronald Reagan did, but Reagan’s reason was not clear.

If there was ever an argument to institute a gastarbeiter program, it is the the pernicious growth of mesquite in the pasture. It takes all the water from the grass, and it is really hard to remove. In the big Longfellow Ranch on US 385 going from Ft. Stockton to Marathon, you see mechanized brush-clearing with the aid of giant backhoes. This is rough work with a Caterpillar, and I don’t know why even George Bush thinks it looks cool to be seen doing it by hand unless he doesn’t want people to think he is just at the ranch to lie in the hammock and drink lemonade.

With Reagan, I think it was simply a metaphorical activity. In every walk of life you need to do a little brush clearing. Certainly this is the case in the newspaper business. In the last 50 years, as most newspapers became regional monopolies, the lack of competition has allowed the growth of weeds and grass-killing brush.

At The New York Times back in the 80s, I saw that the whole thing could have been done better by about 25 percent of the staff. The same might be said of the Harvard faculty. Both institutions are made up of smart people. But some of the tenured reporters at the Times only turn in a story a week, and that is only published if there was room. Space fills up quickly with when dozens of correspondents write 5,000 word pieces.

All institutions calcify, and the constituents come to believe that that their internal definitions are realistic, when most fell into place by happenstance. For example, the “beat system” might have made sense when reporters were cheap and news flowed from predictable places, like City Hall. But it’s crazy to devote an FTE and quantities of newsprint to city council meetings, when the real politics its happening elsewhere.

And the real news is not just politics, war, and crime, which will get to be a frequent refrain in this space. [See, “Soft vs. hard?”]

Most people in the newsroom agree things are changing, but they’re still stuck at their desk, going through the same motions on the same assembly line: Assign, report, budget, layout.

It’s a bucket brigade, and it’s no wonder newspapers seems boring to so many people. If you could reassemble the news departments into swat teams, covering “random interesting stuff” (or however you define news), working the web and the paper and interacting openly with readers, tipsters and sources.

Michael Hirschorn of VH1, who I knew as a brilliant senior editor on Terry McDonell’s Esquire, responsible for such confections as the "Trendicator," has sketched out a conceivably successful rescue strategy for newsrooms in the current issue of The Atlantic. He says:

Not only do you allow your reporters to blog; you make them the hubs of their own social networks, the maestros of their own wikis, the masters of their own many-to-many realms.

Hirschorn goes on to suggest that the printed paper itself can become a narrative-rich companion for these initial online efforts of news-gathering and commentary, a kind of Reader’s Digest.

If you are interested in the survival of newsrooms, read this piece. He talks about, the need to build communities around the news, the threat that Huffington and other cherrypickers pose to every newsroom’s business proposition.

Hirschorn does not, however, tell us how to get from here to there. Some smart editors, like John Temple at the Rocky Mountain News (disclosure: okay, he’s a client), have moved part of the way with such sites as But more drastic actions must taken, and taken soon.

The first problem is that the payroll is too big. The second is that the paper is boring. The third is that the response to the internet is sluggish. (Many newsfolks might consent to blog, but will resist to their retirement day the idea of collaborating on news stories with their readers.)

Well, bring it on. Clear some brush.

If The New York Times could function well (maybe better) with a quarter of the current staff and if they could pick the best people for the new world of news, how will they make the change? Their union contracts shield the tenured journalists. Even at papers like the Los Angeles Times, it is easier for the owners to burn the editor at the stake (Saint Dean), than it is cut down the water-sucking mesquite trees in the newsroom.

There is going to have to a Great Buy Out. A lot of this money that the papers are still making must be used to muster out a large group of staffers who aren’t going to be able take the change—or make it happen.

Remember Wapping? Gannett, Tribune, McClatchey, Hearst, Newhouse, Scripps, they’re all going to have take a page out the Murdoch’s book. When The Times of London and the Sun started putting out non-union newspapers from a new plant in the Docklands, strikers prepared to throw the newspapers off the trains, which had always carried newspapers across Britain. But, no newspapers were put on the train; Rupert hired an outside contractor (TNT) to ship the papers by truck.

If the unions can’t take the buy out, then the newsrooms will have to go to outside contractors. But the papers (and the web sites) must be faster, sharper, and more interesting.

A terrifying scenario. But how much better this brush-clearing than to see the newsrooms die before some online new business model can support them.

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