Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Why Newspapers Matter, or, Where Do You Think the News on the Web Comes From?

Note: Since writing this entry, I was able to locate the original clip. My memory erred regarding several details, as follows: Adriene is spelled with one "n"; her parents were James and Teresa; Adriene was 5; and her sister was 1 1/2.

In the summer of 1988, between my junior and senior years at the University of Delaware, I was a reporting intern at the Wilmington News Journal. One day, an editor came over to my desk and said, "Have you ever done a 'dying baby' story?" I looked at her stupidly and she said, "If you're going to be a reporter, you have to learn how to do a dying baby story. Here."

She handed me a piece of paper with some names and phone numbers on it. It was a couple with a 3-year-old girl in the final stages of a rare, fatal disease. They wanted their daughter to be able to die in her bed at home, but because the father's employer had switched health insurance providers and the new one didn't want to pay for the equipment they would need in their home, they were stuck. They were reaching out to the newspaper -- and unbeknownst to them, to me -- for help.

Twenty-one years later, as I thought of that story while driving home from work at yet another newspaper, I could still remember her name: Adrienne Merganthaler. I want to say her parents were John and Marianne.

I visited the Merganthalers and Adrienne in the hospital. And I called the insurance companies. And I wrote a story about an everyday couple who could be in your family, in your neighborhood, in your church, who didn't want an insurance company to pay for extraordinary measures to keep their daughter alive. They were realistic. They were human. They were parents. They just wanted their little girl not to be scared in her last days. To be home with her family -- there was an older sister, I believe.

And guess what? The day the story was published, both of the insurance companies called the newspaper. They were fighting over which one would get to pay to bring Adrienne home. And so it was that Blue Cross paid for Adrienne to come home and die in her own bed.

I did that.

A college classmate of mine, Dino Ciliberti, said to me once that he chose to go into journalism to help people. At the time, I thought, "Then be a doctor." But I would go on to learn that he was right: newspapers (in my case The San Francisco Chronicle) can help people.

The reason I was thinking of this story was twofold: Yesterday, our editor stood before the newsroom and told us some grim news. The newspaper is losing too much money. Many of us will be laid off, and if we can't turn the situation around -- and quickly -- the paper will be put up for sale. And if no buyer can be found (keep in mind that when Hearst bought The Chronicle back in 2000, it had to pay the Fang family $66 million to take the Examiner off its hands), we would close.

I don't know if I was the only one who began to cry, but I cried longest. And I don't cry. The last time I cried like this was when my dad died in 2005.

Of course, we published a story about the news. It generated vicious comments online attacking the newspaper. And people were quoted on TV saying, "It doesn't matter because I get my news online."

Exactly who do you think gathers that news, vets it and delivers it to you online? Without The Chronicle, there is no SF Gate, one of the top 10 most visited news sites in the country.

Adrienne also came to mind because I was rushing home to edit a story by one of our most talented reporters, Carolyn Said, who covers real estate. (I was going to do it from home so I could let me dog out before her bladder burst.)

You've probably heard about that guy Obama, and his housing rescue plan? Well, it turns out that many Bay Area homeowners won't qualify for relief because our loans are so large. Carolyn, being the veteran, trusted journalist she is, outlined this in her analysis of Obama's plan. And U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier read it. And amended Obama's plan so that more homeowners in the Bay Area will be able to keep their homes.

The bill is set to be approved tomorrow. Because of a newspaper reporter.

You're welcome.


Carrie said...

OK, now you've got me crying. I'm thinking of you and all my friends there and hoping it won't be as grim as it sounds.
You're so right about the idiots who think they get their news "from the Web." Like, the Web reports? For that matter, TV news won't have much to say either if the papers stopped churning it out.

Peninsula said...

This really sucks. I check sfgate about one million times a day and when I read the story about the layoffs yesterday, it felt so grim.

JoryDJ said...

Stella, thanks for this post! We liked it so much that we've named you the BlogHer of the Week. Come see what we had to say about it:

Congratulations, and thank you for such a timely, thought-provoking post.

Co-Founder, BlogHer
For Lisa, Jory, and Elisa

Martia said...

Very beautifully written. People just don't "get" it.

Sarah Caron said...

I feel your pain. As a newspaper reporter myself (albeit now as a stringer), I have been watching in horror as newspaper after newspaper loses money, advertising, pages, and quality ... Years ago, I wondered and inquired why my newspaper wasn't embracing the web more. As a cub reporter, I didn't see what the big deal was about working with the medium instead of against it or putting up with it. Did anyone seriously think that it would just go away or that it was a fad?

I wish and hope and pray that somehow newspapers are saved from this. It would be a sad day and a sad place if community journalism by journalists disappeared altogether. Who would we trust?

the planet of janet said...

*stands up and applauds wildly*

and i'm not being flip. i just escaped from a 29-year career in newspapers before the bottom fell out. it has been one the saddest moments of my life to watch a place where i spent more than half my life -- a place where i grew up -- circle the drain.

i have kids to support, and i just couldn't go down with the ship, but i cry about it every. damned. day.

brilliant assessment. thank you.

pallbee said...

Very nicely put. I have been writing for newspapers since I was a teenager in the late '70's and didn't really see this coming until about a year ago. But the warning signs were there-- 14 years ago when I became a parent and started heavily freelancing from home, I thought it was odd, as I got to know more parents and as my kids grew, that no one around me read the newspaper-- no one at PTA, no one at parties...if they did read it, it was only on Sundays. I shrugged it off that my suburb was just weird. But it turns out they were just like almost everyone else...I mourn the loss of newspapers not only for the helping aspect you mention, but also for the democracy aspect. I remember a journalism professor of mine talking about how newspapers were essential for democracy to work, especially the necessity of "two newspaper" towns. (I guess the loss of that aspect was one of the first big warning signs, even before the Internet!)Newspapers force people to confront issues they might not see when they're clicking through a website. They offer, in my opinion, the most extensive, in-depth coverage of candidates running for office, and watchdog coverage once someone is elected to their office. As an avid newspaper reader, it was very hard for me to have an intelligent discussion with most people during last year's campaign season. We are truly heading toward an "Idiocracy" -- even though that movie seems a bit over the top, sometimes I don't think we're too far off!

JCK said...

Stella, congratulations on your BlogHer of the Week honor. Thank you for sharing those moving stories.

Is there anything like pouring yourself a good cup of tea or coffee, and opening up a newspaper? Spreading the sections out around you and deciding what to read first, or perhaps you have a set routine that you go through -section by section.

The demise of the newspaper is a demise in our civilization for all the reasons you mentioned, as well as your commenters.

Kenneth Turan, from the LA Times, comes to our church every year and was just there a couple of weeks ago. He told us: DO NOT GIVE UP YOUR SUBSCRIPTIONS! Even if you are disapointed in the newspaper or feel that the quality of news is not what it should be. Don't stop buying the newspaper, but actively protest - write, email, let the editor know. The LA Times is holding on by a string, too...

Thinking good thoughts for you. You are a great writer!

Douglas W. Burns said...

Well done. I'm a co-owner and writer with an Iowa newspaper. Community newspapers are faring somewhat better. I, too, can still recall the names of the people in my first dying baby story. Great case for the role of the newspaper. Your post should be circulated as much as possible.

Daisy said...

I'm not a journalist, just a fan. I still subscribe to my local, and I buy print copies of other papers whenever I travel. You're so right; it's the people, the reporters, who make it happen.

wendy said...

So well put. I'm forwarding it to my niece, who was just named editor in chief of her university newspaper. The paper has a staff of 200 students - all who presumably want to be reporters and columnists, even in the face of a declining industry. Your blogpost will inspire them to stay committed.

Douglas W. Burns said...

The following post published at Iowa Political Alert:

A veteran newswoman, now working for the San Fransisco Chronicle, has written a spirited and spot-on argument for the value of the traditional newspaper.

Stella Haven's post at her blog -- Just A Girl In San Francisco -- is must-read for anyone who cares about professionally vetted news and the newspaper's track record of quickly affecting social change.

Ms. Haven is just a few years older than me, but we both came of age in the profession around the same time, learning the business the shoe-leather way, where you had to interact with people face to face instead of relying on texts and emails as too many younger writers do today.

Here's hoping her paper -- the Chronicle -- survives. SF needs it.

SGriff said...

Hi Stella. Back on the East Coast, some of us are trying to remind people that newspapers are special.