Monday, April 29, 2013

A farewell to a piece of local journalism

Recent developments here at the Free Press have prompted me to think back to a specific day in the fall of 1995 ........

It was a fall evening and the sun had just gone down. I was the "night reporter," which meant it was my turn to work a shift later into the evening to make sure we were covered if a dead body showed up somewhere, or if someone's life memories went up in smoke in a house fire.

But on this night, things were quiet. The "squawk box" -- our nickname for the police scanner -- was silent. Whatever I had to do that night was done, and it was time for a cigarette. Yep, I used to smoke back then, and when I did, I usually stepped out back to the loading dock area. On this night, however, I decided to smoke on the sidewalk just outside the front door on 2nd Street.

The evening was warm. There was a little bit of daylight left. And as I took a drag, I looked up at the building and saw the letters on the side spelling out the words to my dream: The Free Press. At the time, I was still not officially full time. I was filling in for Sherry Crawford, who was our police reporter at the time. She was on a leave of absence, taking a few months to figure out if she really wanted to be a reporter anymore. I was here at the right time. They needed someone to take her place for a while, and I needed a chance.

Except, to me, this wasn't just any old chance. It was THE chance. The Free Press was the ONLY place I wanted to work. I'd spent a couple years working at my college newspaper, reading The Free Press and trying to figure out a way to get my foot in the door. This was the community I wanted to live in, and through my work at the college newspaper, I'd figured out without a doubt that I was going to be a journalist. I'd seen "All the President's Men," I was sold on the idea that this was something I could do that not only fit with the one thing I was OK at (writing), but also had the potential for being noble. I loved the idea of being one of the watchdogs, of holding government accountable, of unearthing wrongdoing and malfeasance, and telling the stories of the people of my community.

So as I stood on the sidewalk that day and looked up the nameplate on the building, I thought of something a college buddy told me. He'd recently landed a job in Duluth, and said that, a few months prior while he was in a similar situation at the News-Tribune, he soothed his anxious mind by meditating on a mantra, something to the effect of, "I will get this job, I will work at The Free Press." I did that. Smoking my Camel cigarette, staring up at the building, I uttered those words, and swore I'd leave nothing to chance, take every assignment, do whatever my editors told me to do, make sure they'd be loathe to let me go even if Sherry Crawford decided she wanted to come back (which would have been awkward because I'd pretty much moved into her desk.)

A few weeks later, I was hired, and I was the happiest I'd ever been. I was going to work for a newspaper I respected. The newsroom was full of people I looked up to. I wanted to be just like them. I wanted to work in this building.

I share this story because the Free Press newsroom is on the verge of a major transition that, in some ways, turns a corner unlike others we've turned (at least that's how I see it.) And it's about to become a much different place than the one I dreamed of working at.

One of the key components of newsrooms is what's known as the copy desk. Back in the day, the folks on the copy desk proof-read stories, wrote headlines, used funky tools such as photo wheels and pica poles to magically produce the words and images you'd see in your morning paper. In more recent years, those same folks became paginators. Those funky tools gave way to computers, which did all that work faster, and the paginators spent most of their time using computer software to do what used to be done by cutting and pasting.

A funny thing happened, though, over the last 10 years. The newspaper industry, to put it mildly, has been forced to evolve. As reader habits change, all news organizations have had to adapt, and we are adapting by shifting more focus to our online presence and trying to find new revenue streams. We've also been hit hard by declining advertising, and it's been decided that one of our company's strategies will be shift some of our operations elsewhere.

The thing about those paginators and the pagination process is that it can be done anywhere. As more of the work becomes digitized, it becomes less critical where you are when you're doing it. It didn't take the industry long to figure out that, when a company owns many newspapers, consolidating some of the functions can be cost effective.

Reporters sort of need to be in their community (for now, least ... who knows when the industry will decide someone in Alabama or India can cover Mankato.) But the people on the copy desk? It's been decided that people in Traverse City, Mich., will be doing the paginating for many newspapers. This means the copy desk as we know it will be no more in a matter of days.

This makes me a little sad. The copy desk figured prominently in my romantic vision of what a true newspaper was. When I completed an investigative piece or some kind of hard-hitting crime story, it felt good to send that story to my editor and on to the copy desk, where they'd give it that all-important final read. More recently, as I've written longer feature pieces, I'd look forward to seeing how the folks on the copy desk designed it all, fusing together words and images into something beautiful. They've done nice work for a number of years. Hell, a number of decades. We've had a copy desk for almost as long as we've had a newspaper.

Over the last few years the size of the copy desk, staffing wise, has shrunk. But we still had five people back there. The writing was on the wall, though. We've know for several months that this was coming, and the people who work on the copy desk have been worried about their jobs, nervous about how many of them would retain them. Two of them left before they got laid off. A third was laid off. The remaining two will see their jobs change dramatically. All are good people who I have enjoyed working with.

Technology changes everything. In fact, coinciding with this change is the long overdue arrival in our newsroom of new computers and new content management software. It's pretty slick. We've been trained in on it and, staring soon, we'll be using it. It's exciting, I'm not gonna lie. And the company had to do something. It is, after all, still a business that exists to -- above all else -- make money. When money isn't being made, change is absolutely necessary.

Forgive me if I'm torn. We've lost something at the Free Press. We're still a good newspaper and the people who work here are hard-working folks, whether it's the newsroom or any other department. We'll continue to do good work. But for the moment, it feels a little sad.


  1. A copy editor would have caught your misspelling of "pica pole." It's a pole, not a survey.

  2. What I will miss is the context that a copy editor could lend to a story. Historically, at least, I believe copy editors were some of the more senior people in the newsroom, and they could read a story and know, for example, that the guy at St. Peter's City Hall is "Lew" and not "Lou," or that the guy charged with a crime today was also charged with a similar crime 10 or 15 years ago. This sort of knowledge, even more than a handle on grammar, affects the credibility of a newspaper. Chances are 100 percent that the folks in Traverse City won't know that, so a mistake made today—even if it's corrected in tomorrow's paper—will be clipped and saved and become a part of history. An incorrect part of history at that. Having served my time on the copy desk, I'm sorry to see it matter the good reasons.

    P.S. Fourth sentence of the third to last paragraph should be "We've known for several months..."

  3. Wow.. another sad decline in the newspaper industry Rob! Seems like a stupid decision which only newspaper executives would make like they are making widgets or something...BTW I was at the Freep when you started and felt similar feelings when I started as it was the paper I grew up with. You are one of the better reporters I ever worked with and I would hold your head high that the quality of your writing speaks for itself despite all the newspaper bureaucracy.

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  5. this comment is directed towards the two anonymous folks who felt the need to come on your blog and be rude. i find it insensitive and rude for you two to come on here and put someone down and point out their errors. people are not perfect. i sense the reason why these two posters came to post on your blog were only to be rude and jerks. people make spelling errors, but life goes on... they lost the whole meaning of your blog post. sad, indeed.

    You wrote from the heart and this will change the local free press forever. it saddens me that people lost their jobs... it is sad. times are tough. they are.

    i am not sure what anonymous number two said, but i wish the people who complain all the time and act rude towards the free press in picking out errors and so forth, I wish they could see the hard work in which you guys as reporters and editors do day in and day out.

    people don't understand the hard work that goes into putting a newspaper out. it is going to be a major change.... i hope the newspaper survives. i really do.

    change is hard. i wish you guys the best. :)

    1. Unfortunately the Free Press doesn't always report the "truth." Famous known quote by Free Press reporters..."If you don't speak to us we will just print what we want." No wonder why your paper is losing subscriptions and advertisement. Hopefully you will all be out of a job soon.

    2. In reply to the anonymous person who relayed what was supposedly a well known quote by, apparently, more than one Free Press reporter: That's ridiculous and absurd. You're obviously quite gullible if you believed some jilted individual's lie. This alleged quote being uttered is so far beyond the realm of possibility that when I first read this, I wrote you off as a kook. Why am I responding now? I don't know, but I guess I felt this morning that this kind of anonymous, baseless accusation about the good, fair, hard-working, underpaid, reasonable people who work here should not go uncontested. So show yourself. Don't hide behind anonymity. Bring forth your evidence of any of us having said that. Bring forth your evidence of any of us not reporting what we felt were the fact, fair and accurately. My name is Robb Murray. I work at the Free Press, 418 S. 2nd Street, Mankato MN. You know where to find me when you dig up your "facts."

  6. Great article, Robb! As a former Freep employee, it is sad to see how this company and industry has changed. Hard to sit back day after day and watch your co-workers and friends pushed out the door. Hard to sit and back and wait for the news of more furlough days after you've already taken 50 some and wait for the news that once again there will be no raises. The Free Press used to be an important piece of the Mankato area and I, like you, thought it was pretty cool to work there...back in the day. I was fortunate to find another job before my name was called for the next round of cuts.

    I wish the Copy Editors and ALL the rest of the staff that has been let go the best in their new endeavors. Hopefully those of you that are still there can find a way to enjoy your jobs again and be rewarded for all the work you do day after day.

  7. I just so happen to be in need of a copy editor. Maybe not all jobs are lost....

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  9. You guys are doing it to yourself. It is almost a daily occurrence that I open up the paper and find that there are corrections made from the previous day's paper. Many people know that you can't trust most of what is printed in the Free Press and that is sad. This is why the paper will soon be out of business. Report the truth Free Press...not what YOU think is the truth.

  10. As a former Freeper from the '70s, I was there when the entire proofreading staff was let go due to the introduction of optical character readers. Nobody needed to look at galleys any more! All you needed to do was type a couple of codes on your IBM Selectric Typewriter and place the typescript into the OCR. Poof! Perfect columns of type would roll out.

    Results? A spot on the last page of the Columbia Journalism Review. I don't have the exact quote, but it was something along the lines of: "Hubert Humphrey, in an effort to clarify the situation, said, "Klwjdipow peiDd yoiq6nk."