But take heart! Corporate B.S. is alive and well…

In 1974, the paper's newsroom was still like a place where Ben Hecht would feel at home.

In 1974, the Memphis paper’s newsroom was still like a place where Ben Hecht would feel at home.

I tend to have little patience with populists who rant about corporations, from Bernie Sanders to Tucker Carlson.

But you know that thing Fitzgerald said about “he test of a first-rate intelligence (being) the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time?”

Well, personally, in my newspaper life, I never saw much good come out of the corporate offices. And I did my best to ignore them, because of a central truth about newspapers: They only had meaning as local players, as institutions vitally engaged with their communities. The purely financial relationship between papers and the corporations had nothing to do with the sacred relationship between papers and their readers. And I was determined to make sure the one in no way intruded into the other.

I was not alone in that, of course. And fortunately, the corporations that owned the papers I worked for respected that.

Those days are largely gone. Corporate looms much larger in the day-to-day existence of small-to-mid-sized newspapers, and the sense of place is much diminished, starting from the top, with senior editors and publishers who oversee several papers at a time, scattered across several cities.

But I digress.

Today, on a Facebook page created for journalists once employed by a newspaper at which I first started working 43 years ago, I noticed a shared news item from 2017 (the page doesn’t get a lot of activity) about the bigger paper down the road in Memphis, with the headline, “The Commercial Appeal seeks new home with digital forward attitude.”

Some of my former colleagues commented on remembering when the building the paper was abandoning was built, and seemed such a glittering modern creation. Me, I remember the ancient building before that one, where I had started my career as a copy clerk while still in school. The atmosphere was exactly like a set from “His Girl Friday,” or something else that would have been familiar to Ben Hecht. It was like stepping from the 1970s back into the ’30s, or ’20s — both architecturally and in terms of the working atmosphere. That was an atavistic bunch that worked there in 1974, bearing very little resemblance to the places I worked for the rest of my career.

But what I chose to comment on was the phrase, “digital forward attitude.”

A lot is gone from the old biz — the people, the money, the sense of mission — but we can clearly see that corporate B.S. is alive and well…

2 thoughts on “But take heart! Corporate B.S. is alive and well…

  1. Mr. Smith

    So just exactly when did The State cease to be a locally-owned paper and become a corporate entity?

    Weird Al Yankovic synergized a fine presentation on corporate-speak:

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      In either 1986 or 1987. I’m not sure when the deal closed. I arrived here in April 1987. I was the first editor to arrive from a Knight Ridder paper. So, as I was informed on my arrival, everyone here was convinced I was the “Knight Ridder spy.”

      This was ludicrous in that I had left my former KR paper under something of a cloud — I did not have a great experience there, and I was willing to take a 33 percent cut in pay to come here and get away from it. (Of course, that would be great cover for a spy, wouldn’t it? Sort of an “Editor Who Came in from the Cold” scenario.)

      On the other hand… I came as an advocate of corporate ownership. And in fact, when I arrived here I was surrounded by evidence of how insular and stagnant a locally-owned paper could be. It was very weird. Factoid: I had to pay most of my expenses of moving my family here from Kansas. Why? Because The State had no budget for moving managers from out of state. Why? Because they did not hire people from out of state. (My new boss did his best to help. He put my starting date down as a week before I actually started so I could get that extra week’s pay. And I appreciated it. But that paid only about 40 percent of my moving expenses.)

      As I say, I believed in corporate ownership then, because it made newspapers more independent of the local power structure. Ownership wasn’t buddies with the local leaders. I tended to believe that was helpful. Also, I thought it was good to have a mix of local people and folks from elsewhere, to provide fresh perspectives — like the executive editor from Miami who’s able to see what the local Boston guys can’t in “Spotlight.” It’s not that the local guys are bad journalists, or trying to cover up things — it’s that the outsider can actually sometimes SEE things they cannot.

      I’m not sure when my mind changed on this, but it was largely changed by the time I joined the editorial board in 1994. I had come to the conclusion that it was a terrible idea for newspapers to be owned by publicly-traded companies — for reasons I’ve gone into many times in the past. Not that corporate folks were evil — it was just a lousy dynamic, that hurt the paper and its readers….

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