How Journalism Ruins Dinner Parties

I have returned to blogging in order to stop ruining perfectly good dinner parties.

The downward spiral starts this way, during the appetizers. Someone will ask how my husband and I met, and I’ll tell them we worked together at a newspaper. They’ll want to know more. A newspaper is something tangible and familiar, a path that leads to conversation in a way that “I sell insurance” does not.

“We’re recovering journalists,” I’ll say, borrowing a phrase from a blog I used to read.

Even while making a half-serious comparison to a 12-step program, I cannot stop myself from relapsing. My husband makes a valiant attempt to steer me back from the brink.

“Yep, I covered the cops beat. Murder and mayhem,” he says. “That was a long time ago. Thank God we left South Florida!”

Then someone will ask why we don’t work in journalism anymore. Or comment on how the Internet has rendered newspapers obsolete. Or worse, complain about how biased “the media” is, or ask who has time to read newspapers anyway.

So I will feel compelled to embark on a public-education campaign, because who doesn’t enjoy being lectured to over a nice meal? By someone they have only just met?

I snootily explain that by “media bias,” they must mean infotainment cable channels, not newspapers. And that by “newspapers” I mean text-heavy online and print news-gathering operations staffed by objective reporters who go out and find facts. Not aggregators or “curators” who republish other people’s work. Not talking heads who opine on the news these newspapers gather. Clearly, Person I Have Only Just Met, you are sadly misinformed about where information comes from.

My monologue starts in 2000 during newspapers’ heyday of 20 percent profits and lofty notions of public service, when I started working full time as a reporter in South Florida, “because with all the the crime and corruption, it was a great place to make a career.” Within weeks, I was tallying butterfly ballots in the media’s review of the Presidential election. I won an award for writing about city hall. I lost a pair of sneakers searching for gator eggs in the muck of Lake Okeechobee, and nearly lost my sanity in a series of hurricanes. We were watchdogs acting in the public interest, keeping politicians honest, afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.

We were doomed.

While spending millions on new printing presses and special weekly editions to chase readers in the housing boom’s exurbs, newspapers had also decided to give the product away for free online. Once one company decides to give its stuff away, the other companies join in, and the marketplace becomes a game of chicken. Some hid behind a paywall and waited for the train to pass, and today, they’re not much better off. Clearly, these strategies failed, but who’s to say, in hindsight, whether any other route would have worked better?

The entrees have arrived. I see our dining companions’ eyes glaze over. I know I need to wrap it up, turn back from this path.

“Bottom line,” I say, “Big newspapers used to charge tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars for a full-page ad. An online ad on the same newspaper’s website sells for, a best, what, a few hundred bucks? At this point, online ads can’t support a staff of people making telephone calls to actually check facts and ask questions, let alone serve as the fourth estate of a viable democracy. If ad revenues ever catch up, it’ll be too late for journalism.”

Watching my dining companions’ expressions at this point is like watching my own, back in my reporting days when one of the local conspiracy theorists would corner me at a city commission meeting to whisper rumor and conjecture in my ear.

I need to end this diatribe.

I answer, finally, the question that led us to this point: My then-boyfriend, now-husband and I left newspapers to find a solution to the industry’s problems in business school (and in the three months before MBA orientation, to backpack across South America). We left just as the foreign bureaus started closing, before the massive layoffs, before the presses fell silent. We left a mere month before we would have received buyouts worth several weeks’ pay, and have never regretted it as we did not have to live through the collective heartache that followed for hundreds of our friends and colleagues.

In business school, I found that there was no solution.

“I don’t feel bad for the media industry,” I wrap up. “I feel bad for the public. For democracy. The big dailies don’t have foreign bureaus anymore. They don’t even have national bureaus. There are towns and counties and states and countries where no reporter attends public meetings, reviews documents or covers elections. No one’s asking questions. No one’s even there. How do we know what’s going on when no one’s watching the store, no one’s picking up the phone, no one’s investigating? That’s what really scares me.”

My dinner companions stare into their cocktails, swirl their wine, pick at their tempeh and quinoa. I always forget that the public has not noticed the death of journalism or does not care, and yet I still feel compelled to make them see why they should.

My husband laughs nervously and says, “There she goes again.”

I laugh and say, “He’s supposed to stop me from doing that!”

And someone changes the subject. Maybe it occurs to us to recover our manners, to ask what our dining companions do for a living, how they met, what they do on weekends.

After two years in business school trying to save journalism, I know this: The media is going to be just fine. The media will find a way to turn a profit on aggregated content, cat videos and extremist rants. The future of journalism — the part of the media where watchdogs protect the public interest, ask questions and think objectively — is not going to be just fine. So far, it exists only as a nonprofit model and a hobby practiced largely by a leisure class, by dilettantes with trust funds and famous last names, and by a few dedicated masochists willing to take on the task at serious personal financial risk. The future is here.

And five years out of the business I know this: I’ve moved on from journalism, but I still need a creative outlet. I need to stop ruining perfectly good dinner parties.

If I’m going out to eat, these words need a home.