Don Rogers: Big news hits close to home
First, thank you for the quick notes, some so quick that the breaking news we’d been sold had barely made it online. I read a handful of well-wishes, what’s-going-on, you-OK emails and texts while still in the Zoom meeting informing us Tuesday morning. News travels fast, all right.
Sold, whoa. I had always been on the side doing the acquiring, knowing the players, the company, our approach. The guiding philosophies and daily rhythms of our efforts are well baked in after 21 years with Swift.
Over the years, I watched us absorb other operations — Aspen and Glenwood Springs shortly after I began in 1999 as editor of the Vail Daily in Colorado, and in recent years our ski town sisters in Steamboat Springs and Park City, among others.
New colleagues fit in or struggled with us and our ways, as they would. I saw this up close with other editors in the earlier days and then mainly with publishers later.
What’s it like on this side of the deal? Well, like the first day of a new job with new bosses you don’t know and who don’t know you. A sudden thick, cold fog bank that’s closed in seemingly from nowhere, though the ground underfoot feels familiar enough — stories to cover, sales to make, papers to deliver. Breaking news to post.
The thing is, the survival of journalism depends not so much on the journalism itself as the business underpinning it. We don’t want for readers as they move from reading us in print to reading us more and more online, where networks such as Meta (Facebook) and Alphabet (Google) take the lion’s share of revenue without investing back. This just is, and local news media enterprises will solve this puzzle or they won’t.
For now, though, news deserts blister the country. This is essentially a business problem. Big city and national journalism issues are something else, I believe, though often conflated with what community news media does.
The company buying us, Ogden Newspapers, has been owned and actively run by the Nutting family for five generations, since 1890. We’re not talking about one of the hedge funds prowling bloodied media waters for papers to buy and wring dry. It’s plain that Ogden’s investment in newspapers, and magazines (Mother Earth News, Utne Reader, Grit, many more), extends well beyond the pocketbook. I imagine a nurse opening a vein of one of our new owners to fill a vial, and drawing ink.
I counted 106 titles under the “Locations” tab of The Ogden Newspapers website, 54 of them dailies by The Associated Press’ tally before adding in our 20 publications. These are almost all dinky dailies and weeklies like our own, well within the community category, which is my love. We’re a little rougher, rawer, more reflective of the places and people in the communities we cover. I think that’s where truth lives at heart. I might romanticize this a bit, but it’s the lore that pulls me along, a north star.
But none of this happens if the engine fueling the journalism sputters. The sales people, the carriers and everyone outside the newsroom are at least as vital to journalism’s survival as the reporters and editors.
Our buyers are doing this successfully at scale across the country, eyes on the long term. They aren’t the only ones with the heart and the pluck for the job. Moonshine Ink, the independent monthly in north Lake Tahoe, is accomplishing this another way, and the online-only Berkleyside and Oaklandside in the Bay Area, along with Yubanet locally, yet another.
It won’t be the journalism that saves journalism, at least at our level, but smart business decisions. Until Tuesday morning, I thought we’d be continuing this quest under the Swift banner. But that’s business, too, I know. I respect their decision to sell, and I loved almost every minute working in that family enterprise.
WHAT ABOUT ME?
Of course, the survival of journalism and high-minded thoughts about business are fascinating enough, but the real first question is much more immediate for each employee.
I’m not giving anything away recognizing this elephant, which is difficult for all concerned. Troubled times just became more harrowing, if only temporarily so.
Still, strong workers are gold in today’s labor market, and I know everyone on our late-pandemic staff to be very hardworking, resourceful, reliable. And most have that particular set of skills required for what we do.
Seen another way, this is one more test of character and our sense of purpose in life, and not the hardest over the past two years.
As for myself, journalism, supporting journalism, and the essential art of storytelling make up what I treat as holy quest, a hero’s journey. I also realize my position is typically the most vulnerable.
So advice for our staff is the same as for me: You are very good at what you do. Do it. Go as hard and as faithfully as you possibly can, which is really no different from what we’ve asked of you all along.
Your qualities will serve you well, whatever may come in that for-now foggy future. Trust that; I know it’s a firm foundation, something in much demand today.
Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4299
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The end’s a good place to begin with the “The Supe’s Handbook: Leadership Lessons from America’s Hotshot Crews.”