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May 20, 2009, 8:31 a.m.

After newsroom layoff: It’s a mystery

I recently ran across a compelling tale of a reporter in the midst of wrenching change at a once-great American newspaper:

Every eye in the newsroom followed me as I left Kramer’s office and walked back to my pod. The long looks made it a long walk. The pink slips always came out on Fridays and they all knew I had just gotten the word. Except they weren’t called pink slips anymore. Now it was an RIF form — as in Reduction in Force.

They all felt the slightest tingle of relief that it hadn’t been them and the sightest tingle of anxiety because they still knew that no one was safe. Any one of them could be called in next.

I met no one’s stare as I passed beneath the Metro sign and headed back into podland. I moved into my cubicle and slipped into my seat, dropping from sight like a soldier diving into a foxhole.

It goes on from there to tell what happened in the two weeks after he was given his walking papers.

The only thing is — it’s all a complete and utter fabrication.

connellyAnd that’s okay. It’s just the beginning of the latest novel from summer-stalwart Michael Connelly, this time channeling his once-a-newsman self through the character of Jack McEvoy, the L.A. Times scribe who, at the beginning of The Scarecrow, has just joined the ranks of independent contractors and consultants formerly known as reporters.

Like the paper and ink newspaper itself, my time was over. It was about the Internet now. It was about hourly uploads to online edition and blogs. It was about television tie-ins and Twitter updates. It was about filing stories on your phone instead of using it to call rewrite. The morning paper might as well be called the Daily Afterthought. Everything in it was posted on the web the night before.

The novel’s chief focus is the pursuit of a particularly clever and twisted serial killer, but along the way, Connelly nails the details of what it’s like to work inside a modern newspaper today — even down to the in-book mention of such recent earthshakers as the closure of the Rocky Mountain News and the Tribune bankruptcy. Not bad for a guy who hasn’t filed on news deadline — for print or online — for more than a decade.

To get a sense of how Connelly came to write The Scarecrow and of his take on the current state of newspapering, I asked him a number of questions via email. His answers follow.

David Simon, creator of The Wire and former Baltimore Sun Reporter, recently told a Senate committee: “The parasite is slowly killing the host.” Do you think that the Internet is what’s killing newspapers? Or, beyond that, do you even agree that newspapers are dying?

I think I will take these questions in reverse order. Two years ago I would have said the newspaper business is in a shakeout period, that it is in a downward spiral that will eventually plateau and that the best papers will survive. Now I am not so sure. It could very well be a death spiral and we find ourselves with front seats at the end of an era. Now, is it the Internet’s fault? In part, yes. People’s habits and preferences when it comes to news consumption are changing. More rely on the Internet and less on newspapers. And the advertisers are following. Does this make the Internet a villain? I hardly think so. It is just the way the world is changing. It is evolution and social choice and economics. How many tens of millions of people have AOL accounts? Every time you go onto AOL you have your choice of several pages of news and links to thousands more. And it changes and is updated all the time. People with those choices start skipping the newspaper and wondering why they are paying for it.

You bump into Tribune CEO Sam Zell at a party. You’re surprised—he’s an affable guy. And yet, there’s something you feel like you need to tell him. What is it?

I say, Sam, it doesn’t matter what you told the people, you didn’t really love newspapers or have any affinity for the business. It was just about money. Why didn’t you go pick on somebody else? And by the way, whether deserved or not, your face will ultimately be on the book that tells the story of the end of the newspaper business. Now, can you have your waiter get me a beer? I don’t like champagne.

You mentioned to the Wall Street Journal that some of your best work came when you were working fast. In The Scarecrow, there’s a major character that represents a similar, fast approach to news gathering and reporting, filing live to the web, posting video and photos on the fly, rewriting for the next day’s paper. Do you know reporters who work like this now? Is this expansion of a beat reporter’s job description a move forward, or a distraction?

I’ve been out of the news business for a long time so I was never of this technological era. In researching the book I consulted contemporary journalists and learned this is the way it is now. In terms of news gathering and delivery to the client, I think it’s a move forward because it means news comes to the client quicker and in a variety of formats. If you happen to have a secret motive for becoming a journalist—like say you want to learn to write as a journalist in preparation to be a novelist—this new way is probably a distraction. It appears to me that these new methods, while certainly valid, probably take away from focus on the craft of writing to at least a small extent.

Google is the enemy of newspapers. Agree or disagree?

Google doesn’t kill newspapers. People kill newspapers.

Assuming the business model works out either way, and you had to choose, would you rather live in a world with MoJos and no newspapers, or thriving newspapers but no web?

At this point I couldn’t live without the web.

If the L.A. Times started charging for their web site tomorrow, would you pay up or move on?

I would pay up in a heartbeat (and then write it off as a business expense.) I no longer live in L.A. but I write about it. So I need to know what is happening there. I read the L.A. Times everyday but haven’t paid for it in five years. The L.A. Times website is my homepage, the first thing I see when I go online. So I guess that makes me part of the problem. But it’s not my choice. The Times made the choice. I would gladly pay but I’ve never been asked.

What other novels about reporters and reporting do you like?

I can’t recall very many at the moment. The thing is, reporters observe the action but rarely force the action. Novels are about characters who force the action. I think this is why my two “newspaper novels” were half accurate procedure and half fantasy. Nevertheless, a few novels come to mind. Pete Dexter’s Paperboy is probably the high watermark. Carl Hiaasen has had several strings through his novels that deal with the newspaper. Tourist Season and Double Whammy come to mind. Former journalist Jonathon King wrote a novel about the biz called Eye of Vengeance that was a great take on it, too. John Katzenbach wrote a book called In the Heat of the Summer that kept me riveted when I read it. It’s funny; I think every book I just mentioned is set in Florida. That was not intentional.

The Scarecrow goes on sale May 26th, unless you’re reading this in the U.K., where it’s already available.

POSTED     May 20, 2009, 8:31 a.m.
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