Spring is arriving in fits and starts this year—sun, blue skies, cherry blossoms, rain, cold winds, sun, blue skies, cherry blossoms. The cherry blossoms have burst all around Washington and just as precipitously will fall from the trees, leaving a pink and white carpet over the city for a day or two until the winds blow the petals away. This coming weekend as the blossoms peak, the city will fill with blossom watchers, the Jefferson Memorial in particular where the cherry trees ring the Potomac River. Whether the weather is warm, cold, rainy, snowy, or sunny, the cherry blossoms herald the official start of spring for Washington, D.C.
A year ago as the cherry blossoms arrived, we were in the throes of the presidential primaries. The debate then was whether words and ideals were enough from candidates, whether they would lead to effective action. Today we watch actions every day from the new administration. We wait to see how effective the actions will be for the economy, for education, for international trade, for peace. Unfortunately the capacity to report and investigate and evaluate government’s actions is increasingly hampered as newspapers around the country struggle to survive.
Last month Denver’s 150-year old Rocky Mountain News shut down as have 120 other US newspapers this year. The Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, and Minneapolis Star-Tribune have all filed for bankruptcy. Approximately 16,000 American reporters have lost their jobs in the last year and even more losses are expected in 2009. Papers are closing bureaus, in particular their Washington bureaus. Even the great gray lady The New York Times is reported to be struggling and furloughing staff, cutting pay and laying off people. The Washington Post is buying out contracts of hundreds of its reporters and trimming its staff.
In the U.S. Congress this past week legislation was introduced to allow newspapers to operate as nonprofit organizations. Whether this proposal is a solution or has a chance of passing is unclear, but politicians, who are not the natural allies of the press, recognize that the essence of a strong democracy is a vibrant fourth estate.
This past Friday, March 27 the newspaper where I began my career printed its last daily paper. That same day a close friend, who used to work for that paper and for the past decades has been a correspondent for another news organization, worked her last day as her Washington bureau closed down. Another friend has taken the buyout at The Washington Post, and another is hanging on at one of the papers that has now filed for bankruptcy. All these women are top professionals of thirty plus years experience. I worry that while we have more news and information than ever on the web and on cable TV, we will have fewer professional journalists who know how to dig for and evaluate information. Many of the other outlets in fact rely on newspapers for the information they disseminate.
The paper where we all started–The Christian Science Monitor, the 100-year old international daily newspaper, was one of the first major papers to announce the end of its daily print edition last fall. The Monitor will now publish every day on line and is launching a weekly print newsmagazine. At the forefront of what many news organizations are facing as the demographics of news delivery shifts to the internet, the Monitor is embracing the change in the hope its model will work. I’ve seen the new weekly magazine, and it is dynamic.
I should probably now link back to the cherry blossoms. Hummm…well, I am a blogger in this space, no editor to ensure that I make that artful frame, so let me use the moment to plead instead for the necessity of the professional journalist and editor and leave it to readers to comment, perhaps offer their own frame for the cherry blossoms.