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.